Source: Just Jazz Guitar Online
Lara Pellegrinelli (LP): Can you explain the connection of what you do to guitarist Freddie Green from the Basie band?
Paul Meyers (PM): Well, a lot of the (Hendricks/Ross) charts are Basie charts and that's one of the few big bands where the guitar was really an indispensable part of the rhythm section. There were banjos in the early big bands in the 1920s because they're loud. They really project. Guitars are softer and have a more rounded tone. So, bandleaders switched to guitars as the driving rhythm behind jazz became more legato, smoother, longer. Duke Ellington had Fred Guy, who made the switch from banjo to guitar in the early '30s. But when he died in the 1940's, Duke never replaced him. By that time, his music had evolved to a point where he didn't need the guitar anymore. Basie found a way to keep guitar in there through Freddie Green, because Basie's music, in particular, was so pulse oriented. They're playing pretty straight swing rhythm all the time. And Freddie just fit into that rhythm section so well. Even though it's barely audible a lot of the time, it feels completely different if you take it away. It's like there's this pulse, part of the whole thing. Since Jon Hendricks and Annie Ross do so much Basie repertoire, I play that other role when I'm not blending with them. I think it really helps them and the rhythm section.
LP: It's interesting that Basie's piano was so exposed in that rhythm section. His playing is incredibly well-placed, but very sparse.
PM: He was ingenious about playing the right thing at the right time.
LP: Right. But if he had been comping more, maybe the guitar would have been extraneous; it fills in between all those places. Freddie Green's presence probably allowed him to do that.
PM: Exactly. The chemistry between them was perfect, as you say, and there are reasons why the guitar didn't work as well with the piano part in Duke's band. The way he comped, there's a lot more going on. It's more coloristic, more harmonic, with distinct and unusual choices of notes, and maybe more syncopations, too. The piano had a totally different kind of voice. So, yeah, you might say that having Freddie Green did help Basie be economical in his own way, which is obviously something he liked to do.
LP: How would you characterize that Freddie Green sound, if you had to describe it to someone who had never heard him?
PM: Well, again, like a pulse, the same as the pulse of a person: you don't really hear it, but if you put your fingers on the wrist of the band you can feel it. You hear the guitar in the soft passages just a little bit, and then, when it's loud, you don't even really hear it; you just feel it. He played acoustic guitar – there's no amplification at all – but he projected well. He had a really warm sound. He also played very sparse chords. He's often playing two or three-note chords, in the mid-range of the guitar, bringing out the D-string. Sometimes, I think he played only one note at a time on the D string, where he would create a simple, guide-tone counterline.
LP: So, that's right in the middle of the band?
PM: Exactly. It's below the melody, above the bass, in the middle of the harmonic voicing of the band.
LP: It's the middle of the Oreo.
PM: That's good. You describe it better than I can!
LP: But, technically, what is he doing?
PM: Just playing quarter notes, which lock in with the hi-hat and/or the bass drum or ride cymbal, and, of course, with the bass. And playing with good voice-leading. As far as the chord inversions he used, they were spare voicings that didn't get in the way.
LP: But there's a quality to that quarter note that feels different with Basie than it does elsewhere. How do you explain that?
PM: Well, the Kansas City style had its own swing that was very strong, but never ponderous, and Basie's men were the best of the Kansas City players. Each one of them swung beautifully by himself. Jo Jones was the drummer for many years with that band and he played, for the most part, four on the floor on the bass drum, but not heavy. Again, it's pulse-like. So, a light approach on the bass drum--some people say "feathered"-- combined with the bass, which is playing four. The bass is strongest in terms of the rhythm section instruments; and, of course, the hi-hat, or the cymbal, and the guitar.
LP: Besides that, there's a real sense of lift to it, like it has a bit more space in it, and it's a little less deliberate.
PM: That's Kansas City, especially Basie. That's why people talked about it--called it the "All-American Rhythm Section." It's got a lightness to it, but when you play it, you realize you can't be nonchalant about it. It's very solid, but, again, it's like Basie's piano playing – everything right, but sparse. If you play a lot of notes on the guitar when you comp, if you play full chords, like five-, six-note chords, or even four-note chords, it's not going to work. You play solidly, but with just enough material to not clutter the sound, the texture. There's a great balance. Also the use of dynamics in that band was incredible.
LP: When you strum, you use a type of cross-pattern. What do they call that?
PM: I don't know what the word for that would be, but I only do that because I saw Freddie Green do that. You'll see it if you look at films – there are plenty of films of Basie's band playing – and I actually saw Freddie Green play with Basie once when I was young. I remember standing in front of him pretty much all night. And his pulse was just amazing. Like, when I listen to those Lambert, Hendricks & Ross records. He's on some of those Basie records they did. It's actually astounding how hard it is to duplicate the feeling he gets, even though it's just four quarter-notes. It's such a beautiful swing pocket that he locks into.
LP: So, it's a light texture that allows for lightness in the rhythmic sense, too?
PM: That's right, lightness combined with a very strong inner pulse. And it's real danceable music, you know. They were playing for dancers. It's gotta bounce.
LP: But what is Freddie doing physically?
PM: I don't even remember this from seeing him live. I guess I was looking at his left hand, the chords. But when I watched the films later, you'd see his right hand: on one and three, he's playing up near the neck, and on two and four he's back nearer to the bridge. And since the sound is softer up by the fingerboard, you get a natural accent just by doing that. I notice that it actually helps the beat, because there's an accent on two and four in swing, right?
LP: I would think you also get a little more space, a little more sense of that Basie lift, given that your hand, your arm, has distance to travel back and forth in that cross pattern?
PM: Space between the beats? Well, yeah, it's true. I think the actual motion creates a certain rhythm just by itself. Every two beats has a cycle because of what he does. There's no cycle if you just stay in one place. Not only is there a different volume, but there's a different color to the sound. A little softer and a little darker up here and the closer you get to the bridge, a bit brighter and louder.
He may have had certain tunes where he did it more – I don't know. But when I started trying that for myself, it seemed like I should do it all the time when I play in that style. It just makes it feel better. Keeps it from plodding. Otherwise, it's hard to keep that same lift going. A lot of times I'm just playing one note, or sometimes two notes, just in the middle range of the guitar. The D-string is the primary string, with the G-string sometimes added.
When I was a student at the Manhattan School of Music getting my masters, they had Buck Clayton come for a day, to work and hang out with the big band. I asked him about Freddie Green. He mentioned that when Basie first got Freddie Green, Jo Jones and, I guess it was Walter Page, the bass player, Basie played with him for a week or two; kind of taught him what to play. Maybe not specifically "taught", but played with him and said, "Okay, now, that doesn't work", or told him how to fit in. You know, what would work with the rhythm section. I heard "Sweets" Edison say in a radio interview that Freddie Green was also a really great soloist, but that the guys in the band just wanted him to play rhythm. He had an amplifier for his solos, so they would mess with his amplifier, reach in the back and unscrew a tube or pull out a wire or something. So, finally he just gave up fighting it, and didn't solo anymore.
Author Lara Pellegrinelli has written for Jazz Times, Jazziz, Down Beat and the Village Voice. She is currently working on a book about jazz vocalists.