The art of the cool guitar
The electric guitar is probably the most common instrument in popular music in our time. But until the invention eighty or so years ago of the amplified version of the instrument guitarists worked mainly in the rhythm sections of orchestras, often felt more than heard. The trombonist and guitarist Eddy Durham is usually credited with inspiring other musicians to take up the amplified version of the instrument; it let jazz players, most prominently Charlie Christian, match the solo volume of trumpets and saxophones and blues players such as T-Bone Walker wail in loud bars. The fame of the Nat King Cole trio, which featured the guitar of Oscar Moore but no drums, was important in popularizing the instrument.
Blues and rock players exploited the various tonal and volume possibilities that amplifiers provide, but traditional jazz players such as Grant Green, for the most part, preferred clean and undistorted sounds, focusing on playing single-line solos that correspond to what a horn player might do; others, such as Barney Kessel or Joe Pass, blended melodic and chordal approaches.
In the sixties jazz players turned to rock for inspiration, and some guitarists adapted the more distorted rock sound to jazz playing, but others stuck to the cleaner, more conservative approach. Joshua Breakstone is one such traditionalist.
By his own admission, Breakstone was initially inspired more by the harmonically and rhythmically sophisticated trumpet improvisations of Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown than by fellow guitarists. He studied with the magnificent, unjustly forgotten Sal Salvador, a highly original guitarist, author, and teacher, then studied music in college. Listening to Breakstone today, you can hear just how much he learned from Salvador: the clean attack, the slight singsong vibrato, and the harmonic clarity of the improvisations all owe something to the older master.
By the time Breakstone made his first record as a band leader in 1983, he had established himself as a versatile musician who had mastered his craft. Over the last three decades he has
continued to tour and record, primarily as the leader of quartets or trios, throughout the U.S. but also in Europe and Japan.
Breakstone is definitely a modern jazz traditionalist. He has played and recorded with older masters, including the classic Detroit pianists Barry Harris (one of his early teachers) and Tommy Flanagan, and has recorded tributes to great pianists and guitarists of the past. In his early years Breakstone was an extroverted player, as witnessed by his hard-edged attack on his 1986 record Echoes, which featured the mighty baritone sax of the great Detroiter Pepper Adams. Over time his approach mellowed, and he has sought a more nuanced slant on music. He has always been a thoughtful player and composer and in recent years has showed a preference for playing in a sparse environment, with only bass and drums. While he can play cleanly at any tempo, he very much likes slower, introspective songs to play. Just recently he has recorded a new album, adding cellist Mike Richmond to his regular trio. They will play at the Kerrytown Concert House February 16.
[Originally published in February, 2014.]