The last years of the 1930s were milestones in the development of the jazz guitar. In 1939 an unknown young man named Charlie Christian joined the Benny Goodman Sextet on the new electric version of the six-string instrument playing exquisite, harmonically complex solo lines as if on a saxophone or clarinet. A year earlier, a slightly older man by the name of George van Eps, who was already well known as a studio musician, began to use a seven-string guitar, with an extra bass string that allowed him to cultivate a unique chordal approach. Meanwhile, in Europe, the Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt had developed his own approach to solo jazz, playing on the traditional nylon-stringed acoustic guitar.
And yet, in those days guitarists worked mainly in the background as accompanists and members of the rhythm section. Who could have predicted that in a few decades the electric guitar would become the most popular instrument in music and that its rise would threaten the livelihood of many jazz musicians?
This month guitarists Michele Ramo and Bucky Pizzarelli come together in Ann Arbor to reverse history. Their journeys are different, but they are united by their unique approaches to music. Pizzarelli was born almost ninety years ago in New Jersey, played in big bands, and made a name for himself as a versatile studio musician, working on the Tonight Show and collaborating with everyone from Benny Goodman to Miles Davis. Ramo, 48, was born in Sicily and began his musical life as a virtuoso young violinist playing in the Palermo Symphony, fell in love with jazz and the guitar, and moved to Detroit and eventually to New York. Pizzarelli is a master of the rare seven-string electric guitar, working in the tradition developed by van Eps; Ramo does him one string better, playing an eight-string acoustic instrument of his own design, with two additional bass strings. Both approach the guitar as if it were a piano, combining chords and melodic lines.
By any standards Pizzarelli and Ramo are virtuosos who can dazzle with their technical abilities, but they share an old-fashioned sense of style and taste that transcends technique. Both are romantics, albeit of a very different kind. Pizzarelli is somewhat more restrained; relying on a vast repertoire acquired over a long career, he loves to set moods and to patiently develop harmonically complex musical lines. Ramo often plays as if he really wanted to sing bel canto in Italian, and he is equally at home on the violin and mandolin.
Listening to Ramo’s finger-style guitar playing brings to mind much of the history of its role in jazz, from Lonnie Johnson to Charlie Christian to Django to Kenny Burrell, as well as his early love, the great Brazilian master Baden Powell. Pizzarelli and Ramo bring their unique guitars, Ramo’s violin and mandolin, and a few musical friends to the Kerrytown Concert House on April 21.