When we listen to the last known recordings of a music great who has passed away, is it natural to elevate the quality of the music in those recordings because nothing else from that musician will ever follow it? That’s something that’s long intrigued me, and several years ago I even made up a short list of what I thought were significantly good sign-offs by jazz legends.
Since then, the overall list of “famous” last recordings has grown, some good, others not that significant. Now with the April 29 release of Joe Beck’s Get Me Joe Beck (Whaling City Sound), we can add this underappreciated jazz guitarist to the list, or even the shorter “significantly good” list.
Get Me Joe Beck documents a live date at Berkeley, California’s Anna’s Jazz Island club on September 14, 2006, less than two years before Beck succumbed to complications from lung cancer. Although his rhythm section of Peter Barshay (bass) and David Rokeach (drums) was chosen for him by the club owner, the very idea of recording the gig — also by the club owner — apparently didn’t occur to anyone until it was apparent from the first night’s engagement that something special was going on here. But Beck himself must have sensed that he could be giving one his final public performances on the late summer night in the San Francisco Bay Area, because this isn’t a set that makes concessions to anything but the sheer artistry of Joe Beck.
Playing an electric guitar devoid of effects, backed by lean accompaniment and relying on sturdy old standards, the only way Beck was going to wring magic out of this evening was to play his ass off. He rose up to the challenge.
As someone who had been making records since the early ’60’s, Joe Beck had long stopped pondering how to tackle standards. These are melodies and harmonies he knew so well, he was by this time beyond recreating them intuitively: he was reinventing them intuitively. Sprinkling in gorgeous chimes, he coddles “Georgia On My Mind,” and very subtly, he picks up the pace of “You and the Night and the Music,” transforming it from a tender ballad to a mid-tempo swing.
Front and center is his technique, however. He played a lot of the same devices as his better-known peers, even occasionally quoting other songs like Dexter Gordon, but he always played them a little differently.
Perhaps his greatest prowess came in his ability to deftly combine single line notes and chordal phrasings as heard so marvelously on “Stella By Starlight” and “Tenderly.” His single-line pursuit of notes was crisp, proven on “Alone Together” and, again, “Tenderly.” On “Manha de Carnaval,” his rhythm work plays perfectly in lock step with Rokeach’s rhythmic pattern, it’s hard to believe that they hadn’t played together before. And while Beck during one of his brief in-between song remarks claimed he liked to “sort of hint at what the next chord might be,” he never gave it away completely, always leaving a little suspense. Among his best such moments were a rapid, ascending-chord figure that came out of nowhere during “Georgia,” and the percussive way he hit his strings while making chimes on “Corcovado.”
Every song began with Beck alone (save for a sensitive bass solo and accompaniment for the intro of “Corcovado”), and these solo starts were strong enough to stand on their own. Once Barshay and Rokeach got going, any feeling that they might be intruding on a good vibe quickly dissipated because they were right on top of things and gave Beck the autonomy to maneuver as he pleased.
Liner notes don’t usually merit mention in a record review, but props to Beck’s friend and fellow plectrist John Abercrombie who effectively portrayed that specialness of Beck’s playing style in plainspoken terms. His discussion never devolved into some overlong, egghead/gearhead thesis, but as a respectful colleague giving his fallen comrade his due. Not long before this performance, Abercrombie had made a record he co-led with Beck, entitled Coincidence, making his perspective all the more relevant.
By far the best case made for why anyone who likes jazz and/or guitar should miss Beck is made by Joe Beck himself. No where did he make that case stronger than on Get Me Joe Beck.
feature photo: Andrew Lepley