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Charlie Christian     John Scofield

•  various artists (75 bands are featured)

In the caste system of jazz, the guitar began as a second-class instrument. While trumpets, saxophones and clarinets were out front blowing solos, the guitar was relegated to the unglamorous role of chunk-a-chunking along in the background with the drums and bass.

As this 4-disc anthology shows, it was a long and winding trip up the fretboard from the banjo-like rag of Vess Ossman (1906) to the full-on avant-rock attack of Mike Stern (1998). With stops along the way from seventy-five major cats, this collection paints a compelling picture of how we got from there to here.

Disc One is all about emergence. After some tentative Dixieland beginnings come archtop wonders like Eddie Lang’s "Add A Little Wriggle" and Otto "Coco" Heimel’s "China Boy." By the late ‘30s, in the hands of Django Reinhardt ("Honeysuckle Rose") and Charlie Christian ("Solo Flight"), the guitar is running neck and neck (no pun intended) with the instruments it once took the backseat to.

Disc Two delivers the most satisfying mix. With sounds mellow ("What Is This Thing Called Love" by George Van Eps), country-tinged ("Mountain Melody" by Chet Atkins), bossa-fied ("Waters of March" by Joao Gilberto) and melancholy ("Midnight Blue" by Kenny Burrell), it has a perfect blend of taste and virtuosity. And speaking of virtuosity, I’m convinced that Joe Pass ("Night And Day") had a third hand up his sleeve.

Disc Three starts with a dazzling one-two-three of Pat Martino, Lenny Breau (oh, man, those beautiful harmonics) and George Benson (a reminder that, despite recent schlocky R & B records, he’s a total badass on guitar). But by the middle, we venture into the fusion of Sonny Sharrock and John McLaughlin. Nothing against their playing, but this style seems more mathematics than music to me. And who was ever moved by mastery of the supermixolydian mode? Pat Metheny and Earl Klugh restore some soulful melody by the end.

Rock and blues infuse Disc Four, almost to the point where the jazz element is lost. Carlos Santana ("Europa") and Al DiMeola ("Race With Devil On Spanish Highway") stretch the genre’s boundaries with their fiery fretwork, before yielding the floor to Jeff Beck (the gorgeous "Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers") and the heady improvisations of John Scofield and Marc Ribot.

In all, a highly listenable and educational introduction to the instrument that went from supporting player to leading man. • Bill DeMain

[the release date is September 27, 2005]

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