JAZZ : Many New Things Come to Joe Pass

Joe Pass, the most honored jazz guitarist of the past decade (he has won dozens of awards as No. 1 in his field since his first Down Beat poll victory in 1975), has entered a new stage of his illustrious career.

No, he hasn't moved into the nether world of fuzz tones, flanges and frequency analyzers. His guitar still sounds like a guitar. No, he hasn't mastered the art of playing while lying supine on the stage. He does, however, have new management, a new record affiliation and a new game plan for his activities in general.

Well known since the mid-1960s, when he toured for two years with George Shearing, he was a key figure in the Los Angeles studio and jazz clubs, but the key figure in his rise to world-class stature was Norman Granz, the impresario who first heard him at Donte's in 1970.

A couple of years later, Pass was all over the Granz map: recording for his Pablo label, concertizing with Oscar Peterson and Ella Fitzgerald, both of whom Granz managed. Often presented as a solo recitalist, he was built by Granz into a virtual counterpart of Segovia.

Granz--to whom, Pass says, "I owe an immeasurable amount--we had 15 great years together"--has now phased out of the picture. "Norman has had a lot of health problems; so has Ella, who's doing very little right now, so Norman set me up with another agent.

"The other important change is that Norman sold Pablo Records to the Fantasy group. He worked out a deal for me to record for Fantasy, still on the Pablo label; but during the year or so that it took him to set that up, I did something else on the side."

The "something else" was a partnership with Tommy Gumina. Once best known as an accordionist, Gumina became successful in the electronics business, manufacturing instruments. Last year he and Pass started a company, Polytone Records. They recorded an album with Gumina playing the Polycorus, a sort of super-accordion, and with drummer Jimmie Smith. Another album, displaying the same trio plus clarinetist Buddy De Franco, will be released shortly.

The Gumina-Pass association goes back to the early 1960s, when, Pass recalls, "I persuaded him to manufacture a small, so-called 'Mini-Brute' guitar amplifier, because I'd become very tired of lugging those big amps around. I wanted something light and easy to carry, with a genuine jazz sound. Tommy managed to make one for me, and it became an important thing on the market; everybody started making small amps.

"Tommy and I would like to hold on to this recording company, to find and develop lesser-known artists nobody wants to bother with. It won't interfere with my albums on Pablo; in fact, my first new release is almost ready now--it's a collection of songs associated with Fred Astaire."

Another new development for Pass is his broadening of the instrument's tonal scope in his own performances. "I believe," he says, "that the era of that pure, dry Charlie Christian sound is past." (Christian was the guitarist in the Benny Goodman Sextet who became the first to bring the electric guitar to world-wide popularity around 1940.)

"The guitar sound can be enhanced by electronics," Pass added, "bringing it more vividly to life, but without changing the basic sound of the instrument--in other words, we're getting to the point where you can't recognize that it's a guitar, which I'm afraid seems to happen 90% of the time nowadays."

A little of this electronic experimentation, surprising in the light of Pass' longstanding adherence to traditional tonal purity, can be observed in the first Polytone album, "Sound Project." But essentially the straight-ahead nature of the Pass persona, both in terms of sound quality and improvisational mastery, remains unchanged.

In 1976, during a "blindfold test" interview, Pass listened to a recording by Jimi Hendrix. After a minute or so he said, "Take it off; that's enough of that. It has a fuzz tone and a wah-wah. I wouldn't know who that was; I'm not interested. I'd rate it no stars as far as jazz is concerned, and as far as music is concerned, I would again say no stars."

A few years later, in a similar interview, he listened to a record by James (Blood) Ulmer and commented: "I have a 13-year-old son who can play better than that." Nothing much has changed except that Joe Pass Jr. is now 20 and is still playing the guitar. (Pass also has a daughter, Nina, 16, who plays drums and keyboards.)

Since the end of his official association with Granz (they remain good friends), Pass has taken, he says, "a lot of jobs that Norman wouldn't have approved of; for example, I'm doing more nightclub work. Right now I'm in the middle of three weeks at the Summer House Inn in La Jolla with a trio.

"I spend a lot of time in Europe now. I'll be doing the North Sea Jazz Festival in The Hague, as well as the Canadian festivals in Montreal and Toronto. I recorded with the Vienna String Quartet in Vienna, and I'm planning to do something with the Vienna Philharmonic. I also played at a small club in Zagreb, Yugoslavia, because a friend of mine opened a new jazz room there.

"It's fun getting into new situations. I played six cities in Italy with Niels Pedersen (the Danish bassist) and (alto saxophonist) Lee Konitz. But that doesn't mean I've ended any of the previous associations. I'll be at the Hollywood Bowl with Ella on July 20, and although I haven't worked with Oscar Peterson since November, I'm sure we'll still be doing occasional dates together."

Along with the innovative tonal experimentation and the solo and trio assignments, Pass will be reunited now and then with some of the mainstream jazz artists who were a vital part of his early associations. Most notably, in mid-August he will be teamed with Benny Carter, Herb Ellis and Ray Brown, all fellow alumni of the various Granz "Jazz at the Philharmonic" units, for a concert along with pianist Gene Harris, drummer Jimmie Smith and others at the Concord Jazz Festival.

Summing up his current situation, Pass said, "I'm not going to be involved in as many of those strictly set things as I used to be. I expect to be doing more of what I want to do, which is--well, just play."

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