R.I.P. Julian Bream (1933-2020), a giant in the world of classical guitar

Great Guitarists

Not many classical guitar players are household names, either worldwide or here in the UK. Andres Segovia might be one, as a pioneer for performance of the instrument in it’s modern form. However, I’d suggest more people have heard of two of his more famous successors on the international performance stage. One is the very well-known Australian guitarist John Williams; the other, Julian Alexander Bream, who we learn has passed away at his Wiltshire home in the early hours of this morning, at the age of 87.

Julian Bream at home, 2014 (Credit: Eamonn McCabe for classicalguitarmagazine.com)

Born in London in 1933, Bream initially learned jazz , influenced by his father’s playing and Django Reinhardt. He was also offered a place at the Royal College of Music, aged just 12 years old, based on his piano playing. He later switched to the lute, and became a great champion for the instrument throughout his life, even as his focus shifted more and more towards classical guitar.

As well as his numerous transcriptions of lute pieces (such as those by Bach or Dowland) for guitar, Bream also performed many of the transcriptions left behind by Segovia, as well as the seminal guitar pieces composed by Francisco Tarrega. Known for his eye for detail, Bream’s virtuosity included an element of flexibility; a key example of this was that he did not maintain a consistent rigid right hand when playing (i.e., held at right angles to the stings), but made use of a more relaxed position, in order to achieve a greater variety in tone. This is something I do as well, because I, like Bream, am multi-genre guitarist. However, having been regularly admonished by my guitar tutor in my youth for holding an ‘improper’ right hand position, it was a relief to learn the one of the instrument’s masters did the same!

As Bream’s reputation increased, he was gifted pieces by composers as varied as “Britten, Walton, Tippett and Hans Werner Henze” (classical-music.com) and performed around the world. He also recorded TV specials, such as a series of four master classes on BBC television in the nineteen seventies, as well as segments for Channel 4 in the nineteen eighties. This no doubt helped him to become a household name for many, but he certainly never rested on his laurels. Even as an ‘elder stateman’ of the guitar, he apparently strove to improve himself. According to an interview given to The Guardian newspaper, Bream believed he was a better guitarist at the age of 70 than ever before!

Essential listening: A great place to start would be his two albums with John Williams, Together (1971) and Together Again (1974). Also, seek out his version of Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez (with it’s famously emotive second movement).

Bream with lute (Credit: Avie Records)

Guitar students would do well to look at his crossovers into other styles, as well as his early lute work too, to get a more rounded picture of a hugely talented player, whose passing leaves a large hole in the classical guitar community.

Rest in peace, Julian.

Great Guitarists #8: Freddie Green

Great Guitarists

Unlike most of the guitar players I have profiled previously in this series, the jazz man featured in this installment was not a soloist, or a innovator in the genre, or his instrument. But what he did do, he did brilliantly. So brilliantly, he kept the same gig for well over four decades…

Freddie Green

Green moved to New York City in his teens, and after being spotted playing a club by the legendary talent scout John H Hammond, got a gig in Count Basie’s ensemble. He remained in Basie’s band for almost fifty years, the longest serving member in his band – possibly the most enduring swing-era guitarist – by far. Green did’t believe the guitar should be heard by itself, choosing to lock in with the drums instead. Playing strictly rhythm – no solos – Green played four beats to the bar, using a chord technique known as comping (which I will revisit in an upcoming article).

Comping

Comping (derived from the work ‘accompanying’) consists of playing the chord changes to a song, but only by using two or three notes of an extended chord voicing. That way, the important harmonic characteristics of the chord are conveyed without cluttering the sonic space. In a big band with several horn players and complex arrangements, keeping it clear is often the best option. It’s a difficult technique to master, but it was Green’s forte. Although he was only playing four strums per bar, he could change chord or voicing every two beats. On some occasions, he changed chord on every beat.

The closest Green ever came to a solo was during a famous concert at Carnegie Hall, featuring members of Count Basie’s and Benny Goodman’s ensembles (including Green on rhythm guitar), as well as various guest players. During Honeysuckle Rose, Goodman pointed to green to take one of the solos (possibly by accident). Although he was not expecting it, Green hammered out an astonishing comped chord break, the closest thing he ever came to a guitar solo in his long career as ‘Count Basie’s right arm’.

Recommended listening

The incident described above is featured on The Famous Carnegie Hall Concert by Benny Goodman (1950, Columbia Records). For other examples of his playing, check out the Count Basie discography (anything from 1938 to the mid-1980s). Green also released two solo records (leading a small ensemble, but still not taking any solos), the best of which is Mr Rhythm in 1950 (RCA Victor).

As always, if you have any suggestions for Great Guitarists you would like me to profile on this blog, please do get in touch, via the Contact Page or my social media pages (links below).

Great Guitarists #7: Wes Montgomery

Great Guitarists

As we arrive at part seven in this occasional series, there is one Great Guitarist left to feature, one who is up there with Charlie Christian  and Django Reinhardt as one of the most influential jazz guitar players of all time. Since I’ve focused this short run of articles on jazz guitar players, it is essential to include the man who has left an indelible influence on how jazz guitar is played…

Wes Montgomery

He played impossible things on the guitar because it was never pointed out to him that they were impossible

– Ronnie Scott

Like the origins of jazz itself, nothing about Montgomery’s career was orthodox. Born John Leslie Montgomery in Indianapolis, 1923, ‘Wes’ only dabbled in music until hearing a Benny Goodman record, aged nineteen. The record in question featured the guitar playing of Charlie Christian, and inspired Montgomery to buy a guitar the very next day. He spent almost a year learning Christian’s solos, particularly those from the record Solo Flight.

Working as a welder during the day, Montgomery’s guitar practice sessions took place at night, leading to complaints from his neighbours and his wife. His solution was to ditch the pick and pick the guitar’s strings with the dude if his thumb, as this was much quieter. His use of octave playing also comes from this period, as it enabled Montgomery to better hear what he was playing as he practiced. This technique, which Montgomery has said gave him real “headaches” when learning, was relatively rare in guitar playing; following the influence Montgomery left behind, it is now one of the most definitively recognisable characteristics of jazz guitar.

Success didn’t come easy or quick for Montgomery. Although he had started to build his reputation as a guitarist while playing in ensembles with his two brothers, Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano & vibraphone). These early recordings did not garner much commercial success. In his mid-thirties, Montgomery had returned to working factory shifts during the day, to support his wife and six children, then gigging in jazz clubs until the wee small hours.

This lifestyle ultimately took a toll on his health, but the sheer amount of graft Montgomery was devoting to his playing was paying off. Without being able to read a note of music, Montgomery used his ears and his heart to make his playing swing. His prolific use of octaves, as well as his chord-based soloing (usually on the highest four strings), all without fully understanding the theory of what he played, revolutionised the way in which jazz guitar could be approached and performed.

A chance discovery by saxophonist Cannonball Alderley led to Montgomery being signed to Riverside Records in 1959. Montgomery was soon a rising star, although his more pop-friendly crossover records in the mid-sixties (covers of pop songs, often featuring additional orchestration) led to him being considered a ‘sell out’ by so e jazz musicians. He died of a heart attack while on tour in June 1968,aged just forty-five.

Montgomery’s legacy survives through the countless guitar players he influenced. These include his friend (and another guitarist to experience crossover success) George Benson, Pat Matheny and Earl Klugh, to name only a handful.

Essential Listening

Despite Montgomery’s short recording career, he recorded sixteen LPs as band leader in his lifetime, as well earlier recordings with his brothers as The Mastersounds and a handful of posthumous releases. Smokin’ At The Half Note (1965) is a fantastic live album that I wholeheartedly recommended you give some time to.

For studio cuts, you won’t go wrong with his first few albums with Riverside. A personal favourite is The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), which includes some of his more well-known pieces such as ‘Four On Six’ and ‘West Coast Blues’.

For the guitar players amongst us keen to emulate Montgomery’s playing style, there exists a wealth of articles and tutorials on how to get started. However, as is often the case, the best thing would be to listen, play, listen, play, listen, then play some more!

Good luck and see you with the next installment soon!