Hello, Herbie

Nov 05, 2020

We had a few cold days in Austin last week. Cold enough for me to realize that yes, as I feared, 20 years in Texas has thinned my blood. The cold, and the early darkness, it made me cranky. But today it's hovering around 75 degrees Fahrenheit, I've got the studio door open, and I'm listening to Oscar Peterson's Hello Herbie. And if you stopped by this afternoon, that's what I'd want to bend your ear about.

Herb Ellis is one of the first jazz guitarists I learned about, when I bought his quartet record with Joe Pass, Jazz/Concord, my freshman year of college. Soon after, I got my hands on Oscar Peterson's At The Concertgebouw, with its sublimely grooving versions of Milt Jackson's "Bluesology" and Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low." And yet, if pressed to list my favorite jazz guitarists, I probably wouldn't get to Ellis before mentioning people like Charlie Christian, Emily Remler, Ed Bickert, Wes Montgomery, Sixties Benson (the jazz equivalent of Early Elvis) and Scofield-With-Martin-Medeski-And-Wood. Ellis is just sort of there, lurking in the grooves of lots of great of records I like, and when I hear him, I think, "Oh. Yeah. Herb Ellis. Nice."

He's also on some records I really love, including Ben Webster's Soulville and the Ben Webster/Johnny Hodges sessions now reissued as part of Hodges' The Complete Verve Small Sessions 1956-1961. And now (news to me at least), there's Peterson's 1969 reunion with Ellis, the aforementioned Hello Herbie. My pal Bret hipped me to this one, and I'm grateful to have three of the tracks in particular on my radar.

"Exactly Like You" is not only taken at an usually relaxed tempo for this 1930s warhorse; the entire first chorus features just Peterson and Ellis, with Ellis laying down textbook Freddie Green comping behind the pianist's slinky recitation of the melody. I haven't gone in to grab it all note for note yet, but if I did, I imagine I could sort out a big handful of classic moves, without having to dig through a dozen-plus horns wailing into 1930s technology to do so.

"Hamp's Blues" goes on my short list of twelve-bar tunes with a near-perfect mix of restrained pungency and evocative, autumnal lilt. Among other things, I suspect it's the minor IV chord in bar five, the same device found in Ray Bryant's "Changes," the Miles Davis and Milt Jackson version of which evokes a similar emotional landscape as "Hamp's Blues."

Finally, there's "A Lovely Way To Spend An Evening," where Peterson does that thing I love so much in his playing, namely, lacing a patiently swinging standard with more blues licks than a B.B. King outtake. You can find all these tunes, plus a selection from the other albums I've mentioned, on the Playlists page of my web site:

Hello Herbie

These three Ellis/Peterson tracks are enough, at the moment, to rearrange my cranial pathways and slow my respiration to a noticeably more relaxed pace, especially if I turn my speakers up. Music almost always sounds better with the front door open –  I just hope the neighbors feel the same way.