"Chester & Lester" marries jazz and country.
When guitarist Chet Atkins died on June 30, it
was widely remarked in his various obituaries that he'd helped spark a change in taste
that brought many fans into the rustic musical fold, fans who might otherwise have stayed
away from a genre that has a much more hardcore constituency than even the most arcane
minimalists or the most violent rappers.
The fans of country music before Atkins wielded his benign influence as a performer and
record company executive -- and, therefore, as a Nashville biggie -- were from the
militant branch of the same family that spawned the roadhouse owner in the first Blues
Brothers movie. When asked what kind of music he showcased in his bar, he happily replied,
"Both kinds: country AND western."
For me, Atkins was part guilty pleasure and part touchstone.
I enjoyed his playing as an apprentice carpenter enjoys the work of a journeyman -- I
aspired to his easygoing facility and his variation on the famous Travis finger-picking
style, something I've never mastered, yet it is a style that can be useful to the jazz
guitarist for a dash of something new.
His catalytic propensities probably are more important to me, however, because way back in
1975 I picked up an album he did with the great and still thriving Les Paul that opened my
eyes to the bridge between jazz and country music.
The album was "Chester & Lester" on RCA, and was a stunning lesson in the
common roots of jazz and country. It has provided me many an hour of sheer pleasure and
instruction, and that's not bad for a recording that doesn't take itself too seriously.
Perhaps that lack of pomposity is the point, for the session is joyous from beginning to
Back then, Atkins was not many years older than I am now and already had a sterling career
behind him. Paul, as well, was only in his 60s and only emerging from a 10-year period of
retirement that has continued to keep him before jazz fans, most recently in his weekly
New York City gigs, ever since.
It would be a mistake to think of "Chester & Lester" as a country music
album, for it is shot through with standards most closely identified with jazz, and both
men acquit themselves as the masters they already had become 26 years ago.
Consider this song list: "It's Been a Long, Long Time," "Medley:
Moonglow/Picnic," "Caravan," "It Had to Be You," "Out of
Nowhere," "Avalon," "Birth of the Blues," "Someday,
Sweetheart," "'Deed I Do," and "Lover, Come Back to Me." If,
after reading that, you are still thinking country, then you aren't thinking.
Of special note here is "Avalon," which the six-string titans take at a tempo
which, at first listen, seems to be at the high end of the musical speedometer. But, after
the final chorus, Les needles Chet for playing the piece too slow with some of the studio
banter that is part of this album's delight. So Chet takes off in his distinctive style,
but at least three times faster, and it a race to a dead-heat finish. Whew! A great ride,
The album deserves wider currency than it has, largely because it illustrates the very
close ties between genres of music that the unserious regard as discrete, if not musically
exclusive. Jazz fans have known for a long time that some of the most creative
improvisation comes from the players of bluegrass music and, while it may not suit the
taste of all jazzers, it is at least worthy of a listen. Creating a solo on the fly and by
the seat of the pants is a daunting task, whether the axe in your hand is a mandolin or a
In the space of a few weeks, jazz has lost a good many of its greats and I don't think
it's sacrilege to tip my hat to Chet Atkins on the basis of "Chester &
Lester" alone. He chose a path that isn't mine. But he also overcame my aversion to
country music by demonstrating his jazz bones. And by doing it in company with so great a
musician as Les Paul, I'm willing to make a corner for him in my jazz lover's esteem.
He showed he had every bit of what it takes -- creativity, style, swing, respect for the
music and a thorough understanding of his instrument.
I nominate him for an honorary membership in the Brotherhood Of Jazz.