The Les Paul Trio - December 24, 2007
In 1984, 69-year-old guitar legend Les Paul (1915-2009) came out of retirement to begin a series of Monday-night engagements at Fat Tuesday's jazz club. Remarkably (and almost certainly, unexpectedly) he was still going strong when I finally got around to seeing him 23 years later on Christmas Eve 2007 at Iridium in New York City.
My interest in seeing Paul was primarily as an opportunity to pay homage to a man whose technical innovations had transformed music recording 60 years earlier: sound-on-sound recording (which started the now ubiquitous technique of multi-track recording) and the development of the solid-body electric guitar. But, musically, it was a unique and satisfying evening with the quartet setting (Les + rhythm guitar, piano, bass, no percussion) managing an uncanny recreation of the unique sound of Paul's layers of overdubbed guitars on his 1940's and 1950's recordings.
The big, unspoken question in everyone's mind was what a 92-year-old man with severe arthritis would still be able to play. The answer was quite a bit. While Paul was restricted from playing extended, fast passages, his tasteful use of his remaining technique was still impressive. On the furious uptempo numbers, the pianist and rhythm guitarist would often fill in the holes with flurries of notes that were reminiscent of the unnaturally rapid figures Paul would record at half-speed on his classic recordings. Paul's technical limitations also highlighted some of the unique stylistic elements that often pass unnoticed by casual listeners to his earlier recordings: slides, falls, muted arpeggios, polyphonic hammering. And, like Count Basie in his final years, Paul would often play only a handful of sporadic notes that by virtue of their tasteful sparcity seemed almost charming.
Paul's banter between songs revealed both a grandfatherly (and remarkably lucid) nonagenarian and an old-school guy prone to moments of boorishness. Paul's reminiscences of playing with Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson were a reminder that we were watching one of the final living connections to the golden age of American Jazz. Managing to flirt with (and rise above) the nasty political environment of the Republican era, Paul talked about being given a medal by President Bush and chatting with the President about late night trips to the kitchen for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (Paul later said he confirmed Bush's story with the White House staff). When asked by the audience what the medal was for, he replied that he hadn't a clue since he never really looked at the thing - symptomatic of a man who has recieved more lifetime achievement awards than he could possibly remember. Paul introduced Tennessee Waltz in an unusually tender voice with, "Here's a song Mary and I used to do," recalling his late wife and musical partner, Mary Ford.
The only real cringe-worthy moments came in some of his banter about (and with) his young, blonde, female bassist: "When she joined the group we started calling ourselves the 'less balls trio'", "She's been a real ass...et to the group." But since she has undoubtedly had to use her looks to get work in the patriarchal world of jazz, and since she seemed content (or, at least, resigned) to play the sex kitten role in her vocal features on a blues with lyrics about Les Paul (including Viagra jokes) and Santa Baby (perhaps the ultimate melange of crass Christmas materialism and female sexual exploitation), it's hard to throw alot of P.C. stones.
In the middle of the set, Paul invited a couple of young people to sit in with him for a few numbers. The kids were passable and more notable for their chutzpa than their musicianship. Regardless, if you're a young musician planning a trip to New York and would like to be able to tell your friends and family that you once played with Les Paul, you might want to bring your ax, get there early and talk to the sound guy on your way into the club.
My original reservations were for the early (8PM) show, but when I arrived at 7:55, I was told that the club was at capacity and that, because I had checked a box when making online reservations that said my seats could be given away if I didn't show up at least 15 minutes before the show, that I couldn't get a refund. However, I was invited back for the 10PM show with a promise of "priority seating". It actually worked out OK since I got an excellent seat.
Paul's 90-minute set consisted almost entirely of standards (which he never pre-announced) in a variety of tempos:
- Sunny Side of the Street
- Lady is a Tramp Medley
- I Can't Get Started / Lazy River
- Sweet Sue
- (chat with crowd)
- Begin the Beguine
- Georgia on my Mind (feature for guest saxophonist)
- Blues (feature for guest saxophonist)
- Blues (feature for guest vocalist)
- Blue Skies
- Embracable You
- Les Paul Blues (vocal feature for bassist)
- Santa Baby (vocal feature for bassist)
- Bass Feature
- Over the Rainbow
- Tennessee Waltz
- Sweet Georgia Brown