Great Guitars | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Great Guitars 

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Guitarists Charlie Byrd, Herb Ellis, and Bucky Pizzarelli don't really need to bill themselves as "great"--their accomplishments alone make the point. They all came into their own in the 50s, soon after the electric guitar was established as a bona fide jazz voice--Byrd with Woody Herman's band, Ellis in Oscar Peterson's famous drummerless trio, and Pizzarelli as a member of Benny Goodman's small bands--and they've all grown still better with experience. Byrd and Ellis formed the Great Guitars in 1973 with Barney Kessel, who suffered a stroke in 1992; on a 1996 reunion recording his spot went to Mundell Lowe, who's since been replaced by Pizzarelli. This firing line of relentlessly mainstream guitarists sounds monolithic at first, but the wrinkles of their individual styles emerge to give the music real life: Byrd's rangy flings, tinged with country, blues, and the bossa nova melodies he introduced to Stan Getz in the 60s; Ellis's spherical tone and leaping bop lines, still inspired by the clean ingenuity of his idol Charlie Christian and Les Paul's startling 1940s jazz work; and Pizzarelli's hard-driven solos, attuned both to the rhythms of swing and the harmonic complexity Art Tatum helped bring to bop. This complexity in Pizzarelli's playing works like Kessel's wild, uncontained solos did in the original lineup, creating a slight unease that makes Ellis and Byrd seem even more unflappable. The ace Chicago rhythm team of bassist Kelly Sill and drummer Joel Spencer completes the quintet, which opens for vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Friday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan; 312-294-3000 or 800-223-7114. NEIL TESSER


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