Had Grant Green lived well beyond his premature death in 1979, this would have been his eightieth year on the planet and it is an opportune moment to reflect upon his contribution to the development of the jazz guitar. More evolutionary than revolutionary, Green’s extended tenure at Blue Note where he became the de facto session guitarist for the label, is the primary subject of this 2CD retrospective, which, rather than attempt a comprehensive overview of his entire career at that label, instead focuses upon the fixed period of his early years between 1959 and 1962. This handily includes recordings on other smaller labels that Green cut as a sideman. The fact that he was so prolific that even two CDs only barely covers three years of his Blue Note career is testimony to his hard work. A first CD concentrates on the leader sides for Blue Note and this covers gospel, Latin and straight ahead modern jazz modes (i.e. with a bop undercurrent) and this is typified on ‘Miss Ann’s Tempo’ from his debut for the label, ‘Grant’s First Stand’, which is a pared down trio affair with just organ, drums and guitar. Already the distinctive We Montgomery-inspired guitar licks are becoming more individual in tone and, as always, deeply melodic and accessible at that. The early gospel singing of Sam Cooke seems to have weaved a spell on Green on the ‘Sunday Mornin’ LP from 1962 that features a very young Herbie Hancock on piano and from this a lovely relaxed feel emanates from a cover version of ‘God bless the child’ that Billie Holiday immortalised. Contrast this with an all out attack on Miles Davis’ ‘So what’ that is resolutely modern in approach and makes for an interesting comparison with the 1990s version from the sadly departed Ronnie Jordan, and the former is taken at a slightly faster tempo. Latin hues were the sole focus of a marvellous recording, ‘The Latin Bit’, that has long been sought after by collectors and from this ‘Mambo Inn’ is no less than a classic slice of Afro-Cuban jazz. It is a pity there are no more examples here.
The second CD reveals the collaborative musician in Green and, when in partnership with a tenor saxophonist of the calibre of Hank Mobley, this was always likely to create some creative sparks. That proves to be the case on a swinging ‘Uh Huh’ from one of a trio of early 1960s Hank Mobley albums and the duo create an instant groove with Mobley at his absolute peak and a then member of Miles Davis’ reformed band after the dizzy heights of ‘Kind of Blue’. The Davis connection looms large throughout the Mobley album in that the rhythm section comprised former Davis alumni in pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones.
Among the most interesting discoveries for this writer was a hitherto unknown vocal item by Joe Carroll for whom Green contributes some memorable tasty licks on ‘Get your kicks on route 66′, and this includes on piano Ray Bryant who would record with a then debutante Aretha Franklin for her jazz-influenced Columbia album plus trio. Grant was equally adept on funky soulful numbers as on a 1962 Blue Note recording for Lou Donaldson, Funky Man’, with another long-time collaborator ‘Big’ John Patton, and on more sedate pieces such as with tenorist Ike Quebec, a master of the ballad repertoire. Undercutting all influences was a profound knowledge of the blues and this is no better illustrated that on the extended ‘Blue’s in Maude’s flat’ that Green cut on the 196s album, ‘Grantstand’, that notably features multi-reedist Yusuf Lateef and organist Jack McDuff. A real favourite among Green’s sideman albums is one that he recorded under altoist Sunny Red and ‘The Mode’ remains a classic early 1960s modal flavoured jazz number where Red was at his most restrained and with a quasi soprano saxophone approach in direct contrast with his normally fiery tone (one that recalls Jackie McLean and his main influence Charlie Parker).
Ideally, in order to fully appreciate Grant Green’s contribution to the Blue Note label, one would want to include the recording he made with a virtual replica of the John Coltrane classic quintet rhythm section minus bassist Jimmy Garrison, the albums recorded with John Patton and Larry Young (and a stunning one under Reuben Wilson from 1969), and at a later second period, the funkier sides on Blue Note where Green was clearly influenced by the new drum beat of James Brown. A second and third volume might just about cover all that terrain. This early period anthology, however, goes a long way to introducing a wider public to the art of Grant Green.