TAL FARLOW ALWAYS seems to be returning, but the truth is he never really left. This master jazz guitarist has long kept a schedule that includes what seems to be frequent “retirement,” but he never stops playing and teaching. And this weekend he makes a rare appearance at the Van Dyck in Schenectady, a three-day stint beginning tonight (Thursday).
“I’ve put the sign business aside now, and I’m playing full time,” he says. “But the first training I had as a youngster was as a lettering artist. I grew up in a cotton mill village in North Carolina, and my father, who worked in the mill, developed a bronchial problem from that terrible dust.” Farlow speaks with the slightest of drawls. It’s a relaxed-sounding voice, even when he contemplates the unpleasant. “He didn’t think there was a good chance of survival for me in that kind of life, and I’d always been interested in drawing in school, so I was apprenticed to a sign designer.”
Farlow had been fooling around with his father’s out-of-condition guitar, teaching himself to navigate the neck of it, when he began hearing radio broadcasts of Benny Goodman’s orchestra at a time when guitarist Charlie Christian was featured. “Hearing Charlie was an eye-opener,” says Tal. “That was what I wanted to sound like.”
What developed was the most unique guitar sound in jazz. Farlow burst onto the scene with an ear for unusual, complicated harmonies and a facility at fast melodic lines, placing him in step with the then-avant garde be-bop movement.
He made a name for himself first accompanying nightclub singer Dardanelle, then in stints with small ensembles led by Red Norvo and Artie Shaw. He has won acclaim in every major jazz poll and was the feature of a recent video documentary.
He has even been featured in Sign Craft magazine. “They did a story on me earlier this year,” he says. “In that documentary I’m pictured lettering the stern of a boat, so a writer out in Anchorage called me and did an interview.”
When the demands of club playing have grown too oppressive over the years, Farlow retreats to his home on the New Jersey coast where he paints signs and teaches guitar. Right now, however, he’s on the road and busier than ever. “I’m teaching quite a bit, and travelling to Europe frequently to perform. I’ll be sitting in Herb Ellis’s chair in the Great Guitars group with Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd while Herb travels with Monty Alexander’s band.”
Onstage, he projects the same casual attitude his interview manner suggests. Bent slightly over his amplified Gibson, he caresses a few chords from the instruments before taking off in a blinding array of notes, phrasing the passages with movements of his jaw, as if he’s singing quietly to himself. When the song is finished he looks up and acknowledges the applause with a look of surprise, almost as if he were caught at something. Then he calls the next tune, a contrasting number, and the magic starts again. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss.
Performances are at the Van Dyck Restaurant, 237 Union Street, Schenectady, tonight from 8 PM to midnight, Friday and Saturday from 9 PM to 1 AM.
– Metroland Magazine, 18 May 1989
THANKS TO A LARGE PARTY that needed downstairs accommodation, the Van Dyck moved the music to an upstairs room last Thursday. So guitarist Tal Farlow played the first of his three-night engagement in a small, quiet area that brought the area’s jazz cognoscenti out for a set or two with this reclusive legend.
Working with bassist Mike Flanagan and drummer Ralph Purificato, Farlow demonstrated why he’s been a legend in the jazz world since the early 1950s. His material is the standards, including some bop-era anthems like “Billie’s Bounce,” and his construction of songs and sets is traditional: expect ensemble melody, guitar solos, bass solos and probably some traded-eights with the drummer in the course of a tune. But what he does during those solos is breathtaking.
There are the fast, melodic licks that have earned Farlow comparison to Art Tatum, and the constantly shifting harmonic palette that allows him to re-color a mood with chords that would surprise you on paper, and even in someone else’s hands, but that sound absolutely right as he issues them.
He’ll take a ballad like “What’s New” and give it a gentle, dance-floor rhythm, then weave an astonishing set of variations from the simple melody. At times those variations sound classically Baroque as he alternates a melodic phrase with an open string; other times he’ll turn the phrase into a string of parallel fourths for a more Impressionistic effect.
And he’s always listening, always ready to build on what another musician is playing, taking the idea farther and farther out into the imaginative realm that exemplifies jazz.
This was put-your-drink-down-and-pay-attention playing, subtle enough to sound perfectly fine when audited with half an ear, astonishingly complicated when studied closely.
Tal Farlow at the Van Dyck, Schenectady, May 18
– Metroland Magazine, 25 May 1989