“The Great Guitars!" That's their name, and that's not over-stating the case a bit. Barney Kessel, HerbEllis, Charlie Byrd are a historic jazz trio—one that combines 90 years of professional experience, and one that also boasts stints with Charlie Barnet, Woody Herman, Oscar Peterson, Artie Shaw, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Les McCann, Ella Fitzgerald, and hundreds of other giants in the pop and jazz fields.
The Australian promoter and jazz buff, Kim Bony than, was the first person to suggest that the three men form a trio, and a subsequent nine-concert tour of that country and New Zealand last year brought overwhelming public and critical response. A sellout Carnegie Hall show in March was the group's first U.S. concert, and their performance at last July's Concord Summer Festival drew the largest audience in the festival's six-year history (the Concord Jazz label recorded a live album from that show). And the future looks bright indeed, with U.S. and European tours already in the works. While Herb and Charlie did an album together more than a dozen years ago (Guitar/Guitar), the three men, for all practical purposes, haven't really played together before, though they admit to a longtime mutual respect and love for each other's music. And it's this feel for each other's playing, plus "big ears," that enable the trio to perform so effectively together after less than three hours of total rehearsal time during the first nine months.
What was the format of your Australian tour?
Barney: The promoter wanted Herb and me to play the first part of the concert, Charlie and his group the second, and all of us together for the finale. That's the concept that we call "The Great Guitars."
How did you choose your repertoire far these concerts?
Herb: Through our mutual consent and an understanding for music.
Charlie: Barney does most of the arranging. We can play any type of music, but I think we'll stay away from the really avant garde things. We're not interested in making it too complicated. If we keep things simple, we can focus our attention on spontaneity and improvisation, giving the audience the feeling that they're at a "birth."
Herb: As far as the duet thing with Barney, it was thirty years ago at the Taft Hotel in New York City that we met. He had some trouble with his guitar, so came to borrow mine. He was working with Artie Shaw then, and I was off from the Jimmy Dorsey band that night. From that first meeting we jammed, and have been jamming ever since. That's what's great about these concerts--it's the first time that we're playing duets for the public, and we're getting paid for it. We wished we could have done this years ago, but better late than never.
Barney: The programming, though, comes from natural taste. We know, before we go on, what we'll play, and how long our set will be. We have certain parts that are planned and organized, but we also have much room for improvisation.
Charlie: It's all in the listening. And the watching. Our eyes will say who solos next and who wants a second chorus.
Barney: Just as important as soloing, however, is the ability to make a contribution to the music while you're playing a subordinate role behind someone else.
Do different keys of a song ever hang you up? You, Herb, might know a tune in one key while Barney knows it in another.
Herb: If we know a song, we know it in all keys.
Barney: Standards and jazz tunes have gone through great changes. Over the last thirty years, there are many tunes that musicians have played in keys different from the original ones. Twenty-five years ago "Lady Be Good" was played in F on the West Coast, and G on the East Coast.
The original was in G.
Barney: "Rose Room" was originally written in F, but most musicians play it in Ab. This is because if a song were a vocal arrangement, it was written in the most comfortable key for the singer. If it were a band arrangement, the key would have been decided by the first trumpet's tessitura [the range that the song falls within]. Because Herb, Charlie, and I aren't backing singers or playing in bands, we can go in any key we want.
What do you feel is your common band in music?
Barney: We're just three guys interested in good music, and in playing together.
Herb: We also all have a mutual respect and great feeling for swing. Like Duke Ellington said, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Without even talking about it among ourselves, swing is the basis for our wanting to play guitar. Barney: And with all ouryears of experience, we can, literally, play anything we want to. Let's talk same mare about your arrangements.
Barney: When we sit down and work out a song, it almost suggests who should play the various parts. Our playing falls into such an easy and compatible groove.
Herb: What's particularly good about a trio, is that a soloist can concentrate completely on his chorus, instead of worrying about having to end in a certain way to fit with the second part of the harmony. This way, the other two guys will come in to take over the ensemble part while the soloist is thinking only about his solo. Another advantage is that Charlie can play two parts since he's playing finger-style, while Barney and I play other ones for four-part harmony.
For your tunes to sound tight, do you decide how many bars each of you will improvise?
Herb: We play certain, worked-out intros, interludes, and endings. But it's not planned as far as how much one wants to play. It all depends on the moment. I might only want to play one chorus, or maybe three. But none of us ever plays too long. After about the fourth chorus, that's all I want to hear. Then I want to hear a different tune with a different mood.
Barney: We feel secure enough, within ourselves, that we don't have to playa long time. Duration of a solo isn't a sign of quality.
Herb: Essentially, we just work out the heads and endings.
Herb and Barney play old Gibsons, while you, Charlie, usually play a Ramirez. What do you use with the trio?
Charlie: An acoustic-electric Ovation. It fits in better with the trio context. There's some sustain, though I don't rely on sustain a lot, and it has greater volume than the Ramirez. I use Augustine Red strings on it.
Herb: I'm using Darco flat-wound strings. I like their full, live sound. So many flat-wounds are dead the minute you play them, but these aren't.
Barney: I use Darcos, too, the ones that bear my name. They're round-wound, polished.
Charlie doesn't use a pick, but you other two do. What kinds?
Herb: We both use heavy gauge picks. Mine are pointed at the end, and Barney's, which are heavier than mine, are rounded.
Barney: We both have solid attacks to our playing, and need heavy picks for the sureness of the note or chord. A light gauge pick slaps the strings; we attack the strings,which gives a fuller, rounder sound.
What's the most gratifying thing about playing together?
Herb: It makes me smile! I thoroughly enjoy it. The freedom we have is like a breath of fresh air. There are no boundaries we have to conform to, because we play the way we feel.
Barney: I'm not trying to sound selfish, but the first person I play for is myself. I play so that I have a ball and enjoy myself. If anyone else likes hearing me play, that's a fringe benefit. I play for myself, then I play for them. There's a lot of talking to the audience in your show, especially during the set with Herb and Barney.
Herb: We're at ease with them, and are always aware of their presence. We talk to them because we're happy to have them there. What's the hardest thing about playing together.
Charlie: The fact that we're spread all over the globe. I'm in Maryland, Herb is in Los Angeles, and Barney is usually in Sweden or somewhere. Barney: We all have different commitments. I'm traveling all over the world, Charlie is doing concerts and club dates, and Herb is with the Merv Griffin Show.
Barney, why do you spend so much of your time playing in Europe?
Barney: I enjoy it more, it's more meaningful. And the respect a musician gets there is more gratifying than the lack of it which he gets in the States.
Herb: I've been to Europe about eight or nine times, and I love it because of that respect. It makes playing guitar more worthwhile for me.
Can you make more money there?
Barney: That's strictly up to the individual. It has nothing to do with union scale, but how much you can negotiate for and how much their budget allows. Of course, it does pay me well enough, otherwise I wouldn't be doing it.
After spending so many years on the road, then many years in the studios, what made you want to travel again?
Herb: Barney's children are grown, and mine almost are, so we don't have to be home all the time. I love travelling and playing--it's refreshing and revitalizing.
Barney: And broading and stimulating. I like it equally on the social level as on the music level. If our only goal in music were money, we could stay in the studios, but the best thing for each of us is that he be himself with his own commitments inlife. So we can each do what we want, then come together from time to time. I don't think it's good if we all go down the lane hand-in-hand. I think it's better if we're like brothers, occasionally joining in our music. The closeness is always there; but there are more rewards in life than music played by the same three musicians.
With all of you playing so much, how do you keep your musical repertoire fresh?
Barney: I play songs, first, if they sound like good music. I don't play them because they might up my status, or because they were written by John Lennon or Bob Dylan. Who wrote a song, or how new or old it might be means nothing to me. I just play songs and dig songs on their own musical merit.
Herb: Working of the Griffin show I'm always backing singers doing rotten songs, semi-rotten songs, good songs, and great songs. The great ones are certainly at a minimum, but if I hear one that I don't know, I'll find out the title and composer, and go to the music store and get it.
Since you all move around so much, how do you travel with your amps?
Herb: Very carefully! We had hard cases made for them with wheels and handles.
Barney: Herb uses a Polytone and I'm playing a Univox. They're small and compact, but with good sound. Mine only weighs 35 pounds.
Do you loosen your strings before you take the guitars on a plane?
Herb: You should never loosen them, because continued loosening and tightening will make the neck warp. Keeping the same tension on the neck will keep it straighter for a longer time.
Barney: And when you change strings, do it one at a time to keep the tension on the neck at all times.
Will the trio continue for quite a while?
Charlie: I think so. First of all, we have a great time, and we enjoy each other's company. And, musically, I love the sound we get. The audience response is always great; we just love to go out there and swing for them. We couldn't swing the way we do if these concerts didn't make us happy.
Barney: It's great fun!
Originally appeared in the October 1974 issue of Guitar Player.