November 1, 2002

Test Spin: Charlie Christian

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“Seven Come Eleven,” the classic romp that kicks off this collection, epitomizes all the exciting qualities of the bebop movement. The cast includes many of the stars of the era: Benny Goodman’s unmistakably sprightly clarinet, Lionel Hampton’s assertive vibes, and Nick Fatool’s swinging kit. But for once, the guitar jumps out in front, with Christian alternating between an understated supporting role and the lead spot — bending notes, sliding up the strings, and ultimately giving a fresh voice to his instrument. You can almost hear the Swing Era morphing into the fresh territory previously ruled by horn players like Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. But Christian did with six strings something never really attempted before. As Bill Frisell noted, “His musical ideas transcend the instrument.” He was the first electric guitarist to refuse to settle for the backseat; he got up in the driver’s seat and maneuvered the band through some of the most virtuosic playing of the jazz legacy. Miles Davis called him “the original instigator” of bebop. His rhythmic and harmonic sensibilities were ahead of his time, and have gone on to influence musicians in every genre.

Archived article by Ben Kupstas