Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Herb Ellis RIP | Jazz Guitar Icon Passes

Jazz guitar great Herb Ellis passed away on March 28th 2010 at his home in Los Angeles, aged 88.  Together with Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow, Howard Roberts and Joe Pass, Herb was one of the 'Big 5' jazz guitarists of his era.  

Born in 1921 in McKinney, Texas, Herb Ellis started playing at age 10.  Citing Charlie Christian as a major influence, Ellis graduated from Texas State College, where he also helped develop a jazz program, and joined the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra in 1945.

But it was joining the Oscar Peterson Trio in 1953 that proved to be the pivotal point in his career, establishing his name in the Jazz Polls from Downbeat to Playboy

And in the face of Peterson's sheer virtuosity on the piano, Herb proved that he could hold his own even at breakneck tempos.  Using a down-picking technique interspersed with left-hand legato, Herb developed a very fluid sound. 

In a 1978 interview he explained how he had to quickly evolve his technique when he started playing with Oscar Peterson:
"Those really fast tempos were hard, and I realized that if I were to remain with Oscar I'd better get my act together.  So I practiced a lot of scales and things to build up my speed.  I don't pick all my notes, especially at a fast tempo.  I may pick about half or a third of all the notes I play.. I prefer to slur because I think it sounds more musical.  If a horn player were to tongue every note it would sound choppy, and the same goes for the guitar."

Herb's playing was a lesson to guitarists everywhere on how to play with one of the most accomplished and musically intimidating jazz pianists on the face of the Earth while keeping one's cool and keeping it swingin'.

And with all respect for the man and his memory, Herb always swung his ass off.

RIP Herb Ellis.  You will be missed. The complete home study jazz guitar course

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