Tony Oreshko jazz and gypsy jazz guitar


by Tony Oreshko

Here are some short articles about jazz guitarists who have made an impression on me in one way or another. I hope to add more of these over the coming months. Click on a name below or scroll down the page to read a little about these special players.

Emily Remler

Life as a jazz guitarist may have many virtues, but unfortunately longevity isn't always one of them. Some of the greatest names in the history of jazz guitar had tragically short lives: Eddie Lang died at the age of 28 as a result of a botched tonsilectomy; Django Reinhardt died at Samois-sur-Seine near Paris whilst still in his early forties. A famous gypsy guitar festival is now held there annually to celebrate his short life.

Perhaps most shocking of all is Charlie Christian, who died of tuberculosis at the age of only 25. Despite his all-too-brief life, Christian's playing has influenced practically every other jazz guitarist since.

Emily Remler was a guitarist whose musical contribution was perhaps more modest than the giants mentioned above, but who also died at a tragically young age. Personally the impact of her death was greater than that of Lang, Reinhardt and Christian. It seems I'd always known these greats had died young, and moreover, long before I was even born.

Emily Remler   Emily Remler   With Remler it was slightly different: I'd just started to take a serious interest in jazz guitar and had only recently discovered and been enthused by her recordings when I heard of her death. This was someone from my own generation (slightly older), so the impact of her loss was more immediate.

Emily Remler began to play the guitar at the age of ten, and went on to study at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA. Many prominent guitarists, such as Al Di Meola, John Scofield, Mike Stern and Bill Frisell are counted amongst its alumni. I was particularly moved by the description of her early experiences at Berklee, where she spoke of her music being such a deeply personal and intimate thing that she found it difficult play in front of other people.

Whilst performing in jazz and blues clubs in New Orleans Remler's talents were recognised by veteran guitarist Herb Ellis, who offered encouragement and helped promote her career. Remler went on to record a number of albums in a fairly straight ahead bop style influenced by Wes Montgomery (who in turn was influenced by Charlie Christian), yet there was undoubtedly a distinct and original musical voice to be heard in her soloing.

I first heard her playing on a rather haunting track called "Six Beats, Six Strings" from a duo album called "Together" that she made with guitarist Larry Coryell. In fact it was from this album that I learnt the tune "Joy Spring", and it was only much later that I discovered the music of gifted trumpeter Clifford Brown, who composed the tune - another jazz musican whose life was tragically cut short.

Remler's debut recording as bandleader was "The Firefly", and other albums include "Catwalk" and "Take Two". Her final album "This is Me" has a more modern fusion sound. Whilst on tour in Australia in 1990, Remler died at the age of 32 from heart failure, doubtless related to her heroin use.

Tony Oreshko

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Oscar Aleman

"A guitarist who swings more than Django Reinhardt? That's impossible!"

And yet I found myself agreeing with jazz critic Leonard Feather, who'd visited Paris in 1939 and declared "Aleman has more swing than any other guitarist on the continent." I was also surprised to discover that this guitarist wasn't someone from Europe living in a gypsy encampment, or a jazz musician from the USA - but an Argentinian.

Admittedly Aleman didn't have the outrageous guitar technique of Django, but whenever I hear a recording of his playing I can't help but feel like grinning from ear to ear because of its irrepressible and infectious swing.

Oscar Aleman was born in Argentina in 1909, and by the age of ten he was an orphan, singing, dancing and playing music on the streets. As well as developing into a brilliant acoustic guitarist Aleman remained an all-round entertainer and showman throughout his career. His playing combined native South American music with American jazz, which he discovered initially through Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang.

In the 1930s he moved to Paris, and was hired as bandleader by Josephine Baker, famed for her erotic dancing and skirt made of bananas. Baker sometimes used a pet leopard with a diamond-studded collar in her shows. The animal would often escape into the orchestra pit and terrorise the musicians, all adding to the excitement of the performance.

Oscar Aleman
Oscar Aleman the entertainer
Aleman was therefore playing in Paris at the same time as Reinhardt and the Hot Club Quintet, and while the two guitarists never recorded together they did become close friends. Sadly, in the history of jazz guitar Reinhardt has almost totally eclipsed Aleman, and although their styles had remarkable similarities it is difficult to know who influenced whom.

One interesting point is that Aleman played using a thumbpick and fingers on the right hand rather than with the customary plectrum used by most jazz guitarists (including Reinhardt).

Aleman returned to Argentina in the 1940s and lived in Buenos Aires for the remainder of his life. He remained an active performer until his death in 1980, but was little known outside his native country.

I have a compilation album of Aleman's recordings between 1938 and 1957, produced by Dave Grisman under the title of "Swing Guitar Masterpieces". These recordings never fail to lift my spirits, and I'd urge anyone who has not heard Aleman's playing to listen to them and hear the work of a genuine master of swing guitar.

Tony Oreshko

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If you've got any comments on the above, or would like to start a discussion about any other jazz guitarist, please feel free to contact me.