Tal Farlow "Mosaic Boxed Set Review"
When I was about 15 years old, a friend of mine by the name of Jimmy Bell invited me over to listen to a record he just purchased. Since he and I were guitar buddies, I knew I was probably going to hear a guitarist. All I can say then and now is, wow! What is this sound? Of course, it was Tal. I think the actual recording was The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow from 1956. It’s of little difference which one it was as they are each unique and touching. Well, after that I tried to find everything that Tal ever recorded. This was about 1962 and many of the records were not available. On occasion, I’d find one and play it to death. My old Tal records are completely groove-less! (not the music). I would listen anyway. I’d listen to the few that had a good sound over and over again. I would, on occasion, find a good copy of a record I didn’t know very well and eventually ruin it. (I’ve since learned to take care of my records.) There were few re-issues at that time. I learned to listen despite the scratches and pops. In 1977 I went to Japan for the first time in my life and you can’t imagine what I saw. In the record stores I found all brand new re-issue records of Tal! They had the exact same covers as the originals and brand-new! It was like being in a time vault. I bought every Tal record that I could find. Every record was the same price: $10. That was a lot in 1977. I had a suitcase with some shirts and 12 Tal Farlow records! I think I broke even on the tour. I still have all these records and keep them happy and safe. These records, Johnny Smith’s, Barney’s, etc, the list is pretty long and the records are treated very well. It was not like it was when I was a kid and you just went out and bought another. Guess what? You can now. All those years of searching are now over as you can get perfect fidelity, no scratches, and all kinds of unheard of stuff as well. What kind of world is this? It’s a great one when you can listen to the records of Tal and not worry about it distorting or bending, or forgetting to put it back in the sleeve or it’ll get scratched. My dear friend Dave Smith told me once that in 1978 he had $40 and no place to sleep in N.Y. (he’s from Australia) and he bought a Tal record for $35. That’s dedication! All this is about one thing; this is great music that many people have spent time, and heaven knows what to listen to this amazing man. When I became friendly with Dave Smith, he showed me his transcribed solos of Tal. He had the original records. He must have been as meticulous as he could have been because in those days you had to lift the needle on the turntable and put it back on the spot you had to hear again. His records are pristine. I did a lot of that myself but not as carefully as my older records can testify. We had lots of fun trying to play those solos. What I realized then was that Tal is a one of a kind man. Like Django, Smith, and Christian, he is a rare item. How many people can you say that about? The raw power that was Tal’s was never grating or unattractive. I did get to know him and thankfully played with him. Can you imagine what that felt like to play with your hero? I can attest that it was funny from start to finish. Not funny HA-HA but it made me giggle with pure enjoyment. All the wonderful things said about Tal are true. Not just about his music but about him as a person as well.
This Mosaic set is a collection of his best stuff produced by the incredible Norman Granz. He was by all reports a gracious and caring individual. (Sound familiar?) Tal found the right man to produce his astounding work. The set starts off with maybe Tal’s most influential person (besides Christian and Lester Young): Red Norvo. Red loved up-tempos and Tal once told me that he had to practice to play that fast. Really? I never did! These three tracks of Red I love. It’s great that Mosaic put them on because the Red Norvo stuff is very important. These Norvo things are available and you don’t have to worry about scratches. Tal’s sound is much thinner here. I guess that’s normal as it was 1951. The tech stuff wasn’t as developed yet. Either that or it was the way Tal heard it. It doesn’t really matter, as his incredible playing was unheard of then. If you want to hear ridiculous lines and creative chord work, be sure to listen to Red Norvo with Tal and Charles Mingus on bass. Red Mitchell is on the three tunes here.
The Tal Farlow Album (1954) (CD#1) starts off tracks 4 thru 13. After a swinging “If There’s Someone Lovelier Than You” comes “With the Wind and the Rain in Her Hair”. Right away here it is! First of all a gentle tune with an arrangement that suits Tal’s explosive lines. Barry Galbraith on 2nd guitar is a fantastic player in his own right. I had the good fortune to get to know him and he told me that no one could play like Tal. Same to you Barry! It’s a riot when you listen closely to this track because Barry plays SUCH a wrong chord that you have to think it was one of Tal’s jokes. He does it twice so I’m sure. This isn’t the track that was on the original 10-inch LP. The original is included here (#12). “My Old Flame” is next! Wow! To die for! Pick and fingers (ala Chuck Wayne and Van Eps). Tal told me once he thought Chuck was a tremendous player. What a sound here. I know this track made me aware of the possibilities of how expansive the guitar can go. After the melody, Tal starts a single line solo that on the earlier records and even the re-issued CD has a bad hum that I think is caused by Barry’s input. It’s hardly noticeable here. In fact the whole record had that hum. It was especially noticeable on this track. Sounds better now! Thanks Mosaic!
“Gibson Boy” (written by Tal). Go for it Tal. And he does. Controlled creativity! What a concept! Sometimes I think he should be called the “weaver” instead of the “octopus”. He weaves through the changes and the time with such ease it makes you think anyone can do it. There’s some riotous not meshing two lines that really don’t seem to matter. “Love Nest”, George and Gracie’s theme song. Here we go again with some of Tal’s lines from heaven. “Blues in the Closet” has the only solo of Barry’s. Oscar Pettiford’s classic also has a short solo by Oscar. A real giant of jazz. “Everything I’ve Got” is another one where Tal explodes off the fingerboard with his twists and turns. After that, a few alternate takes.
Next is The Artistry Of Tal Farlow (1954). The sound of Tal’s guitar is much deeper and he sounds a little more like the Tal we all know. “I Like to Recognize the Tune” and “Strike up the Band”. How is it possible someone can play so fast and maintain such musicality? I know how, it’s Tal! He did it his whole life. It’s not about the speed but the emotion. “Autumn In New York” is probably the defining chord solo of Tal’s. A low “A” string by an octave makes for some of the most unusual sounds ever heard, especially for 1954. I guess you have to believe that even Johnny Smith was in awe of this seemingly impossible chordal approach. Tal’s original “And She Remembers Me” is based on “I’ll Remember April”. The melody is stated in 4ths, another Tal trademark. This is a melody I would hum and not even know I was doing it. The open solo spots with Tal make your ears perk right up. What is he going to play next? Even knowing what’s on the record, you find yourself thinking about it. “Little Girl Blue” is a beautiful rendering of a beautiful song. Tal’s chord solo is pure brilliance. No other way to say it. Touching with a guitar sound to treasure. His solo section is a little reminiscent of Johnny Smith. Funny how Johnny and Tal have some similarities and yet are so different. You can feel the respect they have for each other. Johnny was at Tal’s tribute concert and I saw it for myself. Two great people enjoying each other. Tal is using his octave “A” here with perfection. This track can be listened to a thousand times and it always sounds new. At the very ending Tal plays some arpeggios with his pick and fingers. It’s another Farlow trademark. After a romping good time on “ Have You Meet Miss Jones” where Tal does some other trademark stuff such as sustaining a note and moving notes under it, “Tal’s Blues” is next. When I studied with the great jazz educator John Mehegan, one of my assignments was to transcribe this solo. I wasn’t sure what was so special about this over the others but I did it and found out why. It is deceptively simple with some fantastic double time and pure “bop”. This remarkable set ends with the explosive “Cherokee”. I visited Tal once in his apartment in 1997 shortly before he passed away. My friend Jeff Sherman was there and he and I got such a kick out of watching Tal that day. He was practicing “Cherokee” with a Jamey Aebersold record in all 12 keys. His set up was on a synth and connected to a taping device. You’ve got to love that. The group with Tal consisted of Gerald Wiggins, Ray Brown, and Chico Hamilton. They are as good as it gets. Especially impressive is Chico on the up-tempo “Cherokee” with his terrific brushwork. This record was re-issued as Autumn In New York.
The Interpretations of Tal Farlow (Disc #2) 1-10 from 1955 is my personal favorite. I don’t think Tal plays any better here than on “Autumn in New York”, but it’s the record that seemed to get to me emotionally. My musical education came from this record and a handful of others. Instead of singing intervals and Bach Chorales (which I also did), I would sing Tal’s solos note for note. From the first five solo notes of “These Foolish Things” you sense that something special is going to happen. Playing the melody in the low register of the guitar is not done that often. This is pure beauty! Very vulnerable and moving. At the end of the 1st chorus Tal jumps up to the higher register to play one of his classic bop lines. After Red Mitchell’s perfect solo, Tal states the melody in contrary motion and in 3rd’s. Spectacular! Then comes a swinging “I Remember You” and “How Deep Is The Ocean”. It’s interesting when you think about Tal because he has this reputation for blazing speed (not undeserved). I love his ballad playing as much or more than anything he ever did. “How Deep Is The Ocean” is no exception. Tal’s version of “Fascinating Rhythm” is the one track identified with him. The melody is stated in 4th’s with an ending in major 2nd’s that many think is part of the tune. It’s not, it’s Tal’s version. Tal goes outside with an improvisation that you might think he wrote out because it’s so organized. After a double time foray on “Manhattan” Tal plays his wild version of “Autumn Leaves”. Talk about artistic license! Low “A” again. Makes you laugh with admiration. After a swinging “It’s You Or No One”, Tal plays another one of his extraordinary ballads on “Tenderly”. What a sound! The low register is amazing. Segue to another ballad: “There Will Never be Another You”. So it seems. Suddenly, double time. So swinging. You can hear Red Mitchell singing throughout. Tal seemed to really enjoy this group and they enjoyed him. Claude Williamson on piano, Red Mitchell on bass, and Stan Levy on drums. This fantastic set ends with the ridiculous, “Just One Of Those Things”. This record was re-issued as Fascinating Rhythm. Tracks 11-17 are from A Recital by Tal Farlow (1955). Tal sounds pretty comfortable here. Not as much solo spots as the previous records but he’s in good form. An augmented group of trombone, baritone, and tenor make for some slick sounds. Tal uses his thumb very effectively. Tal’s version of “Moonlight Becomes You” brings tears to your eyes.
Disc# 3 was recorded in 1955/56 but not released till the mid 80’s as part of a double L.P. called Poppin’ and Burnin’. The first four cuts are part of the re-issue record The Tal Farlow Album with Claude Williamson and Red Mitchell. This could be the forerunner of the next two trio classics. Tal is the only soloist on these four tracks. Some wonderful playing especially “Tea for Two” and the nod to Art Tatum. Tal’s double picking is another of his trademarks. The rest of the tracks (5-11) have their moments but the best is yet to come.
The Trio (Disc #4). The next two records are the shining achievement in Tal’s recording career. Some may not agree but the music, the fun, the swinging and the interplay are breathtaking. Tal found his group with Eddie Costa and Vinnie Burke. This is a real unit. No pretensions. They work so well together. Like some groups before (Nat Cole, etc) this is a defining guitar trio. What makes it so good? Who knows, but it’s apparent right from the start. With Costa, Tal found someone who was as expansive as he was. The same sort of darting attack and unexpected turns. Also the accompaniment was always in the right place. Tal’s comping had a certain genius to it. He could make the guitar sound like a snare drum. Costa’s accompaniment was just as interesting. But there was more to it than that. The spirit here among the three captured the essence of jazz. The first four chords of “Taking a Chance On Love” and we’re off! The melody is gently stated with some interloping lines that get things going. Tal sounds very relaxed and completely at ease. You sense he can play anything he wants and Vinnie and Eddie will catch him. That’s a glorious way to feel. Same with Eddie and Vinnie. Tal’s chops are ridiculous here. I can tell you that from trying to play these solos, the fact that it sounds so easy belittles the reality. Particularly when you think that Tal was improvising. There are times when Tal does seem to miss the note he was trying to play (I think). This is one of the endearing qualities that Tal possessed. On “You Stepped Out Of a Dream”, played in the key of “D”, Tal goes for it all. Listen to Costa here. His “two- fisted” (as they used to call it) solo is off the charts. Jimmy Raney told me that he and Tal used to room together and play this tune all the time. Jimmy’s tune “Motion” was based on this. Jimmy and Tal also had some similarities but were very different as well. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when these two used to get together and play. After “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” Tal plays one of my favorite solos ever on “Like Someone In Love”. The opening chord solo has the usual unusual stretches and Tal’s humorous 4-bar break. I know I used to find that a riot. Where did he get that? When Tal passed away and there was a memorial for him at St. Peter’s Church in N.Y., many of his fans got on stage and played something in his honor. I decided to play his solo that night on “Like Someone in Love”. I think that was one of the first times I realized how great this solo is. Tal’s “Meteor”, based on “Confirmation”, is swinging from start to finish. The set ends with “I Love You”, another up-tempo groove. The rest are some alternate takes and an un-issued “Gone With The Wind”. This is a good one. It could have been on the original record. The record is called The Swinging Guitar Of Tal Farlow (1956). That’s a perfect title! Strangely enough, there are no ballads on this set.
Disc # 5 has the other trio record with Eddie Costa and Vinnie Burke: Tal (1956). “Isn’t It Romantic” starts it off with Tal doing another Tal trademark. He states the melody in artificial harmonics. I don’t know if he was the first to do this sort of thing but he certainly was the most known for it. Lenny Breau, Ted Greene, and others have all expanded upon it. Somehow, it’s amazingly moving! Tal plays a whole chorus using this technique and then goes into some spectacular double time. He’s also using his thumb again and very effectively. After a short but sweet “No Greater Love”, Tal stretches out on “How About You”. This is spot on the record I yearn to hear a ballad from the master of ballad playing. As great as “Anything Goes” is, I always felt that it was time to slow it down. Of course Eddie Costa is back with his two-fisted thing again. This track sounds a little nervous. “Yesterdays” is next and never mind slowing down. I remember that this was the beginning of side two of the record and after listening to side one; we all sort of took a break to get ready for side two. I guess that’s not what CD’s are about. One track after the next. It was a different listening experience then. In any case, Tal plays something reminiscent of “A Night In Tunisia”. Talk about two-fisted? Eddie Costa is mind blowing here! I wonder what Lennie Tristano would have thought? Listen to Tal’s comping. This is a lesson in itself. Here’s the ballad and it sure is a great one. Tal is so right on this. On the chord after Vinnie Burke’s solo, Tal and Eddie play an “E” chord over an “F” root with a “G” melody. Why not? It works. Here’s the joyous “Chuckles”, Clark Terry’s tune. More stuff that swings like crazy. This is one of the solos that Dave Smith and I used to try and play. This was a working trio with much success and attention. All the guitarists that heard Tal wanted to play like this. The set ends with “Broadway”, another happy swinging classic. This record is surely on every guitarists “Top” lists. It would have been something to see this trio live.
Eddie Costa recorded once more with Tal, This is Tal Farlow (1958) Disc #6. With Jimmy Campbell on drums and Bill Takas and/or Knobby Totah on bass, this session has a very different feel than the trio sets. The sound of his guitar is a little thinner than on the trio sets but Tal is at the very top of his game. Dazzling playing throughout, especially on “Stella By Starlight”. This is a real gem! Tal plays this tune in “G”. Tracks 1 thru 8 were on the original record and the rest added with some silly breakdowns at the end that I know most listeners could live without. The two added tracks, “Well Be Together Again” and “Deed I Do”, are nice additions.
After the release of this record, Tal left the music scene for a while. Spending time in Sea Bright and back to sign painting as well as his many interests in electronics. This is the time where he invented the famous stool that had an octave divider and a volume pedal. He used that stool for the rest of his life. He never stopped playing and practiced all the time. There would also be an occasional club performance. He went back in the studio to record the next two records for Granz, The Guitar Artistry of Tal Farlow and Tal Farlow Plays the Music of Harold Arlen (1959) Disc #7. . Tracks 1 thru 7 are from The Guitar Artistry of Tal Farlow. An all star group of Milt Hinton, Frank Wess, Bobby Jasper, Dick Hyman, Benny Powell, among others. Tal did most of the arranging and plays acoustic guitar on several tracks. This was somewhat just a blowing session and Tal’s solo spots are a bit short but still as inventive as ever. Tracks 8 thru 15 are from Tal Farlow Plays the Music of Harold Arlen. This is the same recording session as The Guitar Artistry of Tal Farlow. Tal really hits his groove on “Dreamland” with his weaving thing. The lovely melodies of Arlen and Tal’s incomparable playing make for a terrific ending to this boxed set.
This is a must for all guitarists and musicians in general. Some of these records have been re-issued on CD as Japanese imports. I have all the CD’s that were available and they were very expensive. Autumn In New York, The Interpretations of Tal Farlow, The Tal Farlow Album, The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow, and Tal have been out for a while. These have been relatively hard to find. Tal Farlow is an influence in many people’s lives. His creativity, spirit, and his wonderful humor were easily apparent in his music. Tal, Johnny Smith, Jimmy Raney, Barney Kessel, among others were the most important post Christian and Reinhardt guitarists. Aside from a few other records by Tal, Fuerst Set, Second Set, The Tal Farlow Quartet, this boxed set is the best of that period. As with the Johnny Smith set, this has been presented with care and integrity. (I still wish that Mosaic could have included some thumbnails of the record jackets). I must draw your attention to the liner notes written by Howard Alden. Historically accurate as well as entertaining and insightful. To quote Howard, “The music Tal Farlow recorded for Norman Granz in the five year period between 1954 and 1959 is a remarkable legacy to be treasured, studied and enjoyed on many levels for many years to come.” Amen!
Jack Wilkins (2004)
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Review- "Mosaic Tal Farlow Box Set"