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JAZZ / DIRK SUTRO : Master Guitarist Tal Farlow Is Still at Peak of His Form

Those who were aspiring guitarists in the ‘60s will remember those amazing catalogues for Gibson guitars. Printed on fine, heavy stock, with great color photos of the instruments, they were true Fantasyland for young pickers.

Back then, one of the most expensive models was the “Tal Farlow,” a big hollow-body electric designed strictly for jazz purists. But even with a guitar bearing his name, and as an unquestioned master of jazz guitar, Farlow never seemed to get the attention lavished on peers such as Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis and Joe Pass.

More than 20 years later, Farlow, 68, is still at the peak of his form. He opened a two-week gig at Elario’s on Wednesday, his first date in San Diego since he stopped here in the ‘50s with vibraphonist Red Norvo’s trio. Farlow still plays the prototype for Gibson’s “Tal Farlow.” Not many jazz players get guitars named after them, but Farlow never let it go to his head.

“They made these between 1962 and 1967,” he said by phone from his home in Sea Bright, N.J. The humble guitarist’s last album was “The Legendary Tal Farlow,” a 1985 collection of wonderful jazz standards. The idea of a new recording just doesn’t seem that important.

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“I really don’t have definite plans as to just when I’m going to record,” Farlow said. “I just don’t care for that kind of thing.” He’d rather play live, which he does often, especially in New York City, an easy drive from his home.

Farlow may not seem like a revolutionary, but he was in the early days of jazz. When electric guitars first became widely available in the ‘40s, their potential to be heard elevated them from background rhythm-keeping to a solo instrument that could swing side by side with a horn section.

“I was thinking about Lester Young and Charlie Parker,” Farlow remembers of his early days. “I’m pretty confident Charlie Christian was doing that too, thinking in terms of a horn, putting together single string solos, like a horn player. He and Lester Young were playing similar licks. When Charlie died, I started stealing licks from Lester, which were surprisingly at home on the guitar.”

In San Diego, Farlow will be backed by Elario’s house rhythm section of Bob Magnusson on bass and Jim Plank on drums. Without a piano, you can expect Farlow to function not only as the featured soloist, but as a chord-playing time keeper. This subtle mix, in Farlow’s able hands, should produce some extremely bright musical moments.

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With the local club scene at an all-time low for jazz vocalists, San Diegans have to treasure their performances.

Cath Eckert, one of the city’s best jazz singers, plays one show only, this Sunday, July 9, 3 p.m., at Words & Music Book Gallery in Hillcrest, in a duo with her husband, local jazz bassist Chris Conner.

Most often, Eckert applies her smooth, throaty voice to standards, often drawn as much from popular music as from jazz.

“One funny thing with my singing,” Eckert said. “People always say I sound like the big-band singers, Anita O’Day, June Christie, but I never listened to them. I think maybe I sang with a big band in a past life.

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“Lyrics are important to me,” she added. And she doesn’t mind a little humor, like the songs of composer Dave Frishberg, once a member of the Baja Marimba Band. A sample:

“You gripe and you groan/You grouse and you moan/You call Honolulu on my telephone.”

“If ever I’m in a new club,” Eckert explained, “and the people are new to my music, I sing one of those and I have them right with me.”

With clubs booking so little vocal music, many of her performances are “casual” dates, like private parties and weddings. She supplements her jazz gigs by working weekends as a clown for hire for children’s parties.

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She’s performed with big names such as Freddie Hubbard and Joe Pass, and recently sang in a large Brazilian night club.

“That sure was weird, a Canadian girl singing Brazilian tunes in Brazil. But they liked the way I sang.” Eckert also plays Diego’s Loft in Pacific Beach July 14 and 15.

This is a week of activism for San Diego jazz musicians, who are putting their music behind their ideologies. Friday at 7:30 at the First Unitarian Church, 4190 Front St., guitarist Peter Sprague plays a benefit for victims of the Alaskan oil spill. Saturday night at 8, same location, local pianist Randy Porter joins folk singer Peggy Watson and others at a benefit for the Central American Information Center, which wants to raise public consciousness about the violent war and destruction going on in El Salvador and other parts of Central America. The concert comes at the end of a 24-hour fast for peace in Central America. The organization hopes to raise $15,000 from sponsors of the fasters.

RIFFS: “Let’s Get Lost,” film maker Bruce Weber’s powerful black-and-white documentary on trumpeter Chet Baker, continues through Saturday at the Ken Cinema. . . . The city of Carlsbad’s summer jazz concert series continues Friday with Joy of Sax at 5:30 at Stagecoach Park off Mision Estancia, and July 14 with flutist Holly Hofmann’s quartet, same time, but at Magee Park on Carlsbad Boulevard, 3 blocks north of Elm. . . . A San Diego contingent including Mel Goot, Benny Holman, Ronnie Stewart, Oliver Luck and Ruby Bashore backed up blues greats King Solomon Burke and Sam Mayfield at the Monterey Blues Festival on June 24. San Diego trumpeter Ken Meredith is Burke’s musical coordinator and plans to send the San Diegans to Europe with Burke later this summer. . . . On July 17 at 10 p.m. and July 21 at 11 p.m., KPBS-TV will air a program featuring a studio performance and interviews with five local jazz musicians who attended Crawford High School together in the ‘60s: Hollis Gentry, Carl Evans Jr., Nathan East, Marchelle Minafee and Doug Robinson.

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