J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Les Paul—American Master

Monday nights are usually off nights in the New York jazz clubs, but it is usually one of the strongest for the Iridium, thanks to Les Paul’s longtime regular Monday engagement there. Next week, PBS viewers can get a good taste of Paul’s Iridium shows in Les Paul: Chasing Sound, the newest installment of American Masters, airing July 11th on WNET 13 here in the New York area.


Chasing starts by documenting some recent events of Paul’s life, like his induction into the Inventors Hall of Fame, his birthday celebration at the Iridium, and the donation of some of his groundbreaking audio equipment to the Smithsonian. Viewers eventually get an overview of Paul’s life through his reminiscences and the reflections of on-screen commentators, without a traditional narrator reading biographical data.

Paul is unique for having made an impact in many different musical genres. He jammed with Art Tatum, while working as a country musician on Chicago radio. As for Paul’s jazz influences, Gary Giddins identifies that of Django Reinhardt:

“More than any other guitarist, it’s Django that you often hear in Les Paul’s mature style. The main thing is the clarity of the style, the simplicity of the melodic line.”

Through Paul’s recollections, we get a picture of a resourceful young musician. Despite being told by bandleader Fred Waring, “I’ve got sixty-two Pennsylvanians to feed and I’m not looking for any more,” an impromptu hallway audition landed him a position with Waring’s outfit. After Waring, Paul became associated with Bing Crosby, and eventually found his greatest popular success with his vocalist-wife Mary Ford.

Wisely, Paul is the dominant voice of Chasing, in interview segments and performance clips. We also hear from figures like Giddins, Bucky Pizzarelli, Kay Starr, Tony Bennett, B.B. King, and Johnny Frigo. Periodically, rock legends also appear in Chasing to pay tribute to the master for his groundbreaking multi-track recording and overdubbing techniques, as well as perfecting the solid body electric guitar. The solid body Gibson Les Paul is called: “by far, the most successful endorsement relationship ever in the history of musical instruments,” and it would become a favorite of a generation of rockers.

Throughout the film, Paul comes off as a likeable, witty individual. Ultimately, Chasing is as much a tribute to Paul’s continuing longevity, still playing at a highly accomplished level every Monday night at age 92, as it is to his audio innovations. It is well worth catching on PBS next Wed. (7/11), at 9:00 (ET).

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