Monday, April 4, 2011

The strange case of Freddie Green

Freddie Green (© Burt Goldblatt/CTS Images)
Freddie Green would have been 100 years old on March 31st. As familiar as his name is for Swing fans, his was a strange career, his contribution being easier to spot by its absence rather than its presence. From 1937 onwards he was what kept Basie's rhythm sections together, his metronomic touch and extremely light harmonic contribution probably being the factor that allowed them to relax and swing harder. At a time when the electric guitar was introduced and became the main way to do jazz on a guitar, he kept playing an archtop acoustic. He and electric pioneer Charlie Christian were friends—they recorded together in small groups, live and in the studio—but when Christian gave Green an amplifier as a present, fellow Basie-ites sabotaged any prospective solo work by Green enough times for him to give up the idea.

There's a fantastic site devoted to the guitarist,, where you can find anything you'd want to know about him and his music (the links on the tunes lead to the transcriptions of the solos on said site). From there, and from my own listening, I've put a playlist together (Spotify, YouTube) where Green can actually be heard, even as a soloist.

The tunes are as follows: a take of Billie Holiday's "On the Sentimental Side", where Green plays the intro and a very audible obligato. "Honeysuckle Rose" from Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall concert (Green is prompted to solo at around 11:50). "Dinah", from Pee Wee Russell's Commodore recordings, also has a chordal, not single-note, solo by Green. On Dickie Wells' "I'm Fer It, Too", with Lester Young on tenor , Green gets the intro.

From there, we jump to Count Basie and Joe Williams's Roulette LP Memories Ad-lib, a nice combo recording where Green can be heard doing some solos, with some conventional single-note bits (the tunes I've included are "All of Me", "Ain't Misbehavin'", "Sweet Sue", "Honeysuckle Rose", and, watch out for "The One I Love Belong to Somebody Else"). To end this small-group segment, we have "Blues for a Playmate", from the Savoy album Jazz for Playboys, where Green can be heard doing his thing for two choruses, right after Kenny Burrell's solo (from 9:07 onwards).

From a critical point of view, and as much as I love Green as a player, I think it's fair to say that the spotlight doesn't favour him so much. I guess that because he wasn't used to playing solos and was a kind of perpetual strummer, his solos lack linearity and don't deviate much from the shapes of the relevant chords. In any case, the fact is that he found what he excelled at, and he kept at it. He was the best at what he did (although Barry Galbraith could a very decent impression of him).

The final part of the playlist shows exactly that: first, we have "Don't Cry, Baby" by Basie & Eckstine, followed by the instrumental "All of Me" from the classic Sinatra at the Sands album, "Time Out" from the 1960 review of old Basie classics, and possibly the best known of Green's recordings, Neal Hefti's "Lil' Darlin'", by the Count Basie Orchestra.

Enjoy Mr. Rhythm!


Chema García Martínez said...

... lo que me recuerda la entrevista que le hice hace un millón de años, más o menos, y salió publicada en Quartica Jazz. Un hombre parco en palabras, debo decir, aunque afable.

Larry Kart said...

On the night of the first performance of the Basie band under Thad Jones' (brief) leadership, I did a roundtable interview with several members of the band uring intermission. The concert took place in the Henry St. Settlement House in NYC in a medium -sized wood-paneled auditorium with fine acoustics -- if I recall correctly no microphones were used because they were not needed, and Green's chording was quite evident and lovely to hear. During the roundtable interview I mentioned his contribution, and trumpeter Byron Stripling said, "Oh, Freddie doesn't really want to be heard." At this the previously silent Green firmly said, "Oh, yes I do."
This reminded me of something I once read about Green's role, particularly behind Lester Young. In addition to his rhythmic support, Green at times would subtly anticipate the changes in a piece, which then fed perfectly into Young's tendency to do the same thing -- this anticipation of the changes on Green's part then having both an harmonic and rhythmic meaning, the latter because it served to add to forward momentum.