Pioneers of the Jazz Guitar was released on the great Yazoo label in 1977. This compilation features recordings spanning the late ’20s to the early ’30s, that capture the unique style of guitarists who started on banjo—because it was loud and cut through the ensemble and crowd noise—but switched to guitar for its mellow versatility when microphones and amplification were available. These virtuoso solo-guitar and guitar-duet performances capture the melting pot of hot banjo playing, ragtime piano, and pre-bop swing.
The album features the great guitarists of the era, such as Nick Lucas, Eddie Lang, Lonnie Johnson, Carl Kress, Dick McDonough, John Cali, and Tony Gattuso. Most of the tunes transcend blues forms, and have A, B, and C sections not unlike the French Musette style, making the compositions fully realized musical journeys with unexpected time changes, and key changes that create melodic peaks and valleys.
One of my favorite tracks is McDonough’s solo performance on “Chasing a Buck.” It’s delightfully indefinable, and it captures a flashy mysticism unlike anything I’ve heard. The other standout track is Lucas’ “Picking the Guitar,” which beautifully melds banjo, guitar, and ragtime piano.
I learned a lot from this record—that compositions can be ambitious without AABA limitations, that jazz guitar owes as much to banjo and ragtime piano as it does to Bill Evans and Charlie Parker, and that instrumental solo guitar and guitar duets can be sophisticated musical journeys while also pleasing an audience. You see, all of these tracks have a vaudevillian charm that is deeply entertaining and easy to relate to. I’d like to think the performances on Pioneers of the Jazz Guitar would please the most snobby and discriminating music critic, as much as they would charm six drunken sailors on shore leave.
Check out Jim Campilongo’s recent live album, Live at Rockwood Music Hall NYC.