All strung out: top three current jazz guitarists ?

A reductive list like ‘Top Five Jazz Albums of All Time’ or ‘Your 100 Greatest Classical Melodies’ is, depending on your point of view, either a great way of distilling your tastes and crystallising them into yielding a clear outcome, or a fruitless exercise that’s unnecessarily limiting and pretty pointless. I tend to move between the two: sometimes I think it’s an instructive way of working out what or whom I admire and why, whereas at other times I think “Well, I can have all those albums on my mp3 player anyway, so why bother choosing ?’

Today, I’m in the former mood, if only because it allows me to leap to the defence of a jazz guitarist who, I think, often gets eclipsed in such days of list-making mania.

If challenged, I would say that the top three jazz guitarists currently playing are (in no particular order), John Scofield, Bill Frisell and Pat Metheny. Of course, ‘great’ as an adjective also embraces popular and commerical success, as well as ‘list-maker thinks they are fantastic.’

But I’d like to make a plea for replacing Pat Metheny with John Abercrombie. For me, Abercrombie is a marvellously under-rated player, with eloquent melodic lines, wonderful dexterity and a lithe improvisatory feel. This is not to say that Metheny isn’t also blessed with these skills, as he clearly is. But for me, there’s just something a little too saccharine about a large chunk of Metheny’s output, a little too much Californian sunshine. I like Bright Size Life and the second, slightly more esoteric, of his Works albums on the ECM label; but there’s an awful lot that is too sickly-sweet for me.

Facing West

Every Summer Night

If I were to replace Metheny in the top three with John Abercrombie, I would then have to work out why I hadn’t included such luminaries as John McLaughlin and Ralph Towner, and then start weighing up the relative commercial appeal of each against the other, before throwing up my hands in frustration and gravitating to the ‘utterly pointless and fruitless / all on my mp3 player’ argument.

Here’s Abercrombie playing with Ralph Towner (having my cake and eating it ?) on the excellent Sargasso Sea.

It’s a tricky one. Who would you pick, if challenged to undertake such a useful / pointless (delete as appropriate) task ?

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