The guitar's emergence from that secondary, albeit important, position in jazz ensembles was largely the work of Dallas-born Charlie Christian, who is the focus of a wonderful new four-disc collection, The Genius of the Electric Guitar (Columbia Legacy). Not to be confused with an earlier, smaller anthology of the same name, Genius is housed somewhat clumsily in a lovely imitation of a vintage amplifier, a nod to the fact that Christian is generally credited with “inventing” the electric guitar as a jazz instrument. No, he was not the first to play electric, but he created the instrument's language, generally avoiding chorded solos in favor of long, flowing melodic lines. Christian had a nimble way with notes that foreshadowed (and inspired) the bebop musicians who followed him, many of whom credited him as a source.
In addition to showcasing his instrumental innovations, this set puts Christian in a bit of musical context, focusing on his role as a part of Benny Goodman's various groups. In the past, some bootleggy records have been issued that give the impression that Christian had played with bands fronted by saxophonist Lester Young or vibes genius Lionel Hampton; in truth, those groups were all led by Goodman, who comes off in this set as a brilliant gatherer of talent.
Still, it would be a while before guitarists were allowed to lead their own ensembles. In the '60s, there was a guitar explosion, with leaders such as Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, and Grant Green becoming stars. More than his peers, Green was a descendant of Christian, with a full, round tone carrying strongly linear melodies. One of the stars of “soul jazz,” Green was as closely identified with Hammond organs as Lang and Reinhardt were with violins. As a result of that stardom, he cut a staggering number of records in a brief period; where Columbia can get the bulk of Christian on four discs, Blue Note's new Grant Green Retrospective: 1961-1966 is just an introduction.
But as introductions go, it's a sweet one — the aural equivalent of lying out in the California sun, watching picnic-bound convertibles roll by. It's not mere easy listening, though. Take the old chestnut “Lazy Afternoon,” which certainly lends itself to elevator-music interpretations: The vibe-organ-guitar arrangement is Muzak-friendly, as is the gentleness of Green's tone, but the notes Green chooses as his solos progress don't put you to sleep. It would still be a while before jazz guitarists had enough job security to make harsh, challenging sounds (Pat Metheny's Zero Tolerance for Silence, anyone?), but at least they had made a definitive move out of the rhythm section.