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January 15, 2011
Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos CD Review
Solo jazz guitar is a harsh and unforgiving lover. The piano provides a more complete performance experience as a solo instrument for technical reasons, though this same completeness can be achieved on guitar by a precious few, talented enough to achieve such artistic parity. Add to this the stipulation that a plectrum (guitar pick) be used in preference to finger-picking, and the number of masters diminishes even further. The touchstone of this brand of playing is, of course, Joe Pass, who was to the plectrum-played jazz guitar as Art Tatum was to jazz piano.
And therein lies the problem. Heresy it may be, but both Pass and Tatum often lacked a stylistic governor on their performance practice, frequently allowing them to veer far into simple technical playing lacking any thoughtful emotional depth. In terms of modern popular guitar, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Eric Johnson, and Yngwie Malsteen all suffer from this propensity toward simply playing to show off.
It is for this reason that Chicago jazz guitarist Frank Portolese's self-produced Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos enters as an important traditional jazz guitar document. His repertoire is familiar, to be sure, but his performance philosophy is tastefully restrained. Portolese has the chops to be as verbose as Pass—veering very close, on occasion. But he always stops short, giving his performances greater gravity and lasting value.
Harold Arlen's "Over The Rainbow" properly opens the disc. Portolese treats the song gently, after some Django-esque arpeggios; largely chording the melody with single-note filigrees. "Topsy" rocks with Hot Club fervor, while "As Time Goes By" reveals its internal charms in Portolese's exact chording. "Limehouse Blues" and "St. Louis Blues" exist side-by-side, offering a grand comparison between the jazz age of the 1920s and the slinky W.C. Handy standard from the decade before. The latter blues exists as hyperbolic focus of the disc, bookended with an over-the-top "Black and Tan Fantasy."
The disc closes with an all-American trilogy. "Stardust," rendered electrically, is beautifully wrought by Portolese, his finger-picking intermingling with his plectrum, showing the style of a master. "There Will Never Be Another You" is chorded lushly, interspersed with single-note runs that never fly off the handle—only seeming to. "America The Beautiful" is played straight and with reverence.
Recitals like this are few and far between, making Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos a not-to-be-missed album.-C. Michael Bailey
"Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos" CD review
Chicago veteran Frank Portolese reveals a decided Joe Pass/Django Reinhardt influence on these stellar flat-picked interpretations of familiar fare. While his lush chordal voicings and moving basslines on "Over the Rainbow" speak of Pass, the dazzling filigrees he throws in on that tune are positively Django-esque. With his obscure 1965 Barker guitar, he takes an old-school acoustic-toned approach as he flies through swing-era nuggets like "Topsy" and "Limehouse Blues." Other highlights include solo arrangements of "As Time Goes By," "Stardust" and "It's the Talk Of the Town," and a stirring interpretation of Ellinton's challenging "Black and Tan Fantasy." -Bill Milkowski
"Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos" CD/Performance review
What is it about fast guitar playing? And by fast, I mean really fast-blurred fingers, notes-per-nanosecond, zero-to-60, don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it fast, Road Runner fast.
More than with most instruments, the guitar engenders a plalanx of admirers who focus their attention on the sheer speed of the player. (This phenomenon even has its own vernacular, which has eveolved over the years, from "picking" to "shredding.")
It might have something to do with the fact that you can follow the guitarist's fingers, since he's facing you from the stage: everything's on display. It could involve the percussive nature of the instrument itself; unlike wind instruments, the guitar requires each note to be individually struck, and the tiny break between successive notes emphasizes each of them, which heightens the effect.
Whatever the explanation, expect plenty of fretboard fireworks Sunday night at S.P.A.C.E, the excellent little auditorium in Evanston (1245 Chicago Ave.), where the jaw-droppingly quick Chicago guitarist Frank Portolese takes the stage at 8. Portolese will play an unaccompanied set to open the show for another whiligig, Frank Vignola, and his quartet.
For Portolese, it's a return to the scene. His recent album, Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos, was recorded over the summer at S.P.A.C.E, and just released in February. Tonight serves as the album's CD release party (rescheduled from its original date during the Blizzard of '11).
Whenever a modern jazz guitarist performs unaccompanied, on a hollow-body (acoustic) guitar, he has to contend with the ghost of Joe Pass. Pass filled several albums with his sorcerous solo work in the 70's and 80's, which many listeners consider the sine qua non of the idiom. I too found them amazing for their technique, which ingeniously interpolated chords and bass lines to provide the mirage of more than one instrument at work. (Portolese himself told me, some years back, that when he heard Pass’s first solo disc, “I was just as strongly affected emotionally as when I first heard Jimi Hendrix – which I suppose is still the defining moment of my life.”)
But unlike most listeners, I also found Pass’s solo performances frequently pedestrian in their musicality, prone to overcomplicated lines that too often lost their thread and even failed to swing entirely. (Like the talking dog in an old vaudeville joke, it was amazing that he could do this at all, which perhaps excused the fact that he didn’t always do it well.) And for that reason – heresy alert! – I actually prefer Portolese’s take on the solo idiom.
Throughout Plectrum, on a series of tried-and-true standards, Portolese constructs arrangements that would stand up in any format, marked by harmonic insight and a commitment to melody. The solo idiom provides its undeniable challenges but only the rare hiccup for Portolese; each improvisation has a clear narrative arc. And without any supporting instruments, these narratives gain a clarified purity of sound – a naked strength – that turns Kodachrome concepts into lovely chiaroscuros.
Some songs, more than others, lend themselves to the tender mercies of a capella rhapsodization; on such tunes (“Stardust,” “Over The Rainbow,” “As Time Goes By”), Portolese locates the beauty in each melody, but without succumbing to mere sentimentality. And by reducing Duke Ellington’s “Black And Tan Fantasy” – a composition that the Maestro had already envisioned as a miniature drama in three acts – to a single voice, Portolese imbues it with added precocity.
But even on faster items, such as the age-worn classics “Topsy” and “Limehouse Blues,” Portolese unleashes such a sure sense of melody that other instrumentation would only have gotten in the way. These pieces too benefit from the distinctive timbre of his acoustic guitar, which remains focused even at derring-do speeds...(the review turns its focus to Vignola)-Neil Tesser
"Plectrum Jazz Guitar Solos" CD Review
Guitarist Portolese, all by himself and sweetly acoustic...is beautifully in command of his instrument and clearly deep in the music. I first heard his "Topsy" on the radio and stopped what I was doing to listen: it reminded me of the delightful shock of hearing a Joe Pass solo for Pablo years ago. Portolese has the same rich sound, his notes resonating quietly throughout-he lets the strings ring-and he swings no matter what the tempo. His style mixes single-string lines and chordal support in an orchestral way, as if harking back to what George Van Eps referred to as "lap piano." Because there's no string bass or piano here, he has taken on the responsibility for harmonic depth and rhythmic support as well as providing melodic statements punctuated with rapid fire explorations of the supporting chords. The selections, each a fully developed exploration, should be heard one at a time for full effect: rewarding music, even when some listeners might assume no need to hear "Stardust" one more time.-Michael Steinman
"Transparent" CD Review
One of the big joys of a life on the economic fringe, writing jazz criticism,is the discovery of a major talent who's so far been confined to only regional renown. Chicago is a huge city, chock full of stellar guitar players. The best-known are blues vets such as Buddy Guy and Otis Rush. But the Windy City's got plenty of topnotch jazz and rock players,too-Sonny Rollins/Dr. John sideman, Bobby Broom; and Enuff Z'Nuff firebrand Derek Frigo spring quickly to mind.
But Frank Portolese? In all my visits to Chi-Town, our paths have yet to cross. That situation's likely to change, now that the fortysomething Portolese has belatedly released his debut CD. "Transparent" made me reach into the big box of adjectives for words like "stunning," "seasoned," and "masterful." Mr. Portolese has everything you'd want in an improvising guitarist-time, tone, speed, wit, and warmth. Toss in a healthy dose of daring, and the only thing transparent about "Transparent" is its obvious excellence.
The CD neatly mixes the familiar with the exotic, as Portolese plays with a veteran's confidence, a bebopper's dedication, and an iconoclast's song list. He starts at the racetrack, running headlong through the chord changes of Kurt Weill's "Bilbao Song." "Hail Fredonia!" is another finger-busting romp, a thinly disguised restatement of "I'll Remember April." Yet Portolese is just as effective playing a ballad introduction out-of-tempo, or swinging ever so lightly-check out the sublime "When Your Lover Has Gone," or the guitarist's unexpectedly moving revival of "Lollypops and Roses." Rescuing a Burt Bachrach theme from lounge oblivion, Portolese offers a solo "Alfie" worthy of the late, great Joe Pass-he's that commanding!
It's a measure of Portolese's scope and breadth that his two accomplices on this trio date, excellent players both, hail from opposite ends of the jazz spectrum. Bassist Brian Sandstrom is best known for his membership in the late Hal Russell's fearless NRG Ensemble, one of the finest "outside" groups Chicago's ever produced, a group capable of as staggering work as Ornette Coleman's Prime Time, or the Art Ensemble of Chicago, though far less well known. Cheerful and consummately reliable drummer Rusty Jones is best known for his mainstream swing work, backing pre-bop pianists and sultry singers. You may have heard him with hip senior citizen Marian McPartland one month, and up 'n coming vocal star Patricia Barber the next.
Standstrom's a cutting edge voice. Jones is decidedly traditional. And the unstoppable Frank Portolese is smack dab in the middle, a moderist marvel who's steeped in fundamentals, but proud of his idiosyncracies. If you care a whit about jazz guitar, add this CD to your collection immediately. -Tom Surowicz
"Last Call" CD Review
The sound is like an electric piano: forceful and bold, with a good tangy bite. Frank Portolese has a low-key aggression, heard on "The More You Talk": Burrell would glide on this tune, but Frank steps hard. The piano is calm and stays in back; the guitar swaggers sweet, then a burst of Grant Green. He's light on "These Foolish Things", and very deep, like a six-string bass. And on the bridge he chimes with high octaves; this is different.
Storm winds brew on "E.S.P." The keys rumble, Dave Marr pounds a low bass, and Frank sneaks around. Very nice so far: the tender piano (Larry Luchowski, so right on "Virgo") is a balance to Frank's strength. And when Luchowski leaves, he only gets stronger.
The trios have more of an edge: nervous strums, and deep surging rhythm. "Inner Urge" bubbles with force; Brian Sandstrom has more twang than Marr, and that's a plus. Sandstrom bows sad for "The Dance", a tune with classical grace. Frank has that Spanish tinge, and cymbals steam up the joint. This tune swirls, while "Burn Unit" erupts: strings shout back and forth, Rusty Jones breaks free, and slowly the blues emerge. Beauty is here, if you're patient enough to look. On "Last Call" the man is alone: notes amble gently, with a delicate spirit. While before there were traces of Wes, here is Joe Pass-with a difference. In all these styles, Frank Portolese never forgets his own, and a sound that's uniquely his. It's worth seeking out, and certainly worth your time.-John Barrett
"Transparent" CD Review
Frank Portolese plays some wonderful guitar on this CD. He does it all-skillfully embellishing melodies ("When You Lover Has Gone," "Alfie," and Victor Herbert's "Indian Summer"), playing with a Spanish flavor ("Salome," which he wrote, and "Andalucia") and going boppy ("Andalucia" and "Bebop." Bassist Brian Sandstrom walks, plays broken chords, takes the melody and provides counterpoint to the guitar's solos. Rusty Jones' melodic drumming is marvellous, as he trades fours with the guitar on "Hail Fredonia!," and has some fine solo breaks on "Cold." This is an excellent CD, and all fans of the jazz guitar should hear it.-George Borgman
December 22, 1995
Chicago seems to be flush with excellent jazz guitarists right now, their work covering a remarkable range of styles and idioms.
Among the mainstream players, Frank Portolese has gained some attention over the past couple years, and for good reason, judging by his show Wednesday night at the Rusty Pelican in Lombard.
Portolese has no great interest in exploring avant-garde ideas, nor does he care for the "lite" noodling that sometimes passes for jazz improvisation these days.
Instead, he works the middle ground, playing in a straightforward, straight-ahead tradition and making no apologies for it. The boldness of his tone and the sureness of his technique transcend the conservative musical realm in which he works.
During his Wednesday night set, Portolese offered mostly standards. Yet his vigorous, hard-charging versions made them sound refreshed. The fleet and fluid lines he articulated in "At Long Last Love," the rush of enery and melodic ingenuity he brought to "What a Difference a Day Makes" commanded attention even among the talkative diners at the Rusty Pelican. Though the chatty dinner crowd has overwhelmed various musicians during the room's Wednesday night jazz sessions, this time the headliner made visitors sit up and take notice.
In part, that's because Portolese plays with unusual self-assurance and drive. There are no whispering pianissimos or etherial arpeggios when Portolese is deep into an improvisation. Instead, he pushes unflinchingly from one musical climax to the next.
The other appealing facet of Portolese's playing owes to his musical imagination. Not content to settle into a particular pattern for more than a couple of bars, Portolese constantly is shifting the tone, touch, attack and texture of his work. A single-note line might suddenly be interrupted by a majestic chordal passage, which in turn might be cast aside for a virtuoso flourish or a series of fiercely syncopated riffs.
So Portolese has a great deal to offer. Indeed, considering the standards-only repertoire he performed, one would welcome hearing some of his original compositions. If they are as strong as his readings of more familiar fare, they might add depth and context to his show.
As for his bandleading skills, Portolese aquitted himself well, though he was working with two of the most accomplished rhythm players in town. Drummer Rusty Jones played with precisely the rhythmic dynamism that Portolese requires, and bassist Brian Sandstrom produced characteristically inventive accompaniments.
Together, Jones and Sandstrom easily matched the exuberance of Portolese's guitar playing.-Howard Reich
June 4, 2000
"Last Call" CD review
There's a logjam of guitarists out there, but not many boast a truly distinctive sound. On his second effort, the late-flowering veteran Portolese certainly does with his twangy flattened tones and fondness for spinning out of weighted chords with single-note sprees. Heading up two bands featuring Larry Luchowski, he draws deeps personal meaning form post-bop classics including Wayne Shorter's "Virgo" and Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge," and offers five originals.-Lloyd Sachs
All Music Guide
"Last Call" CD review
AMG EXPERT REVIEW: Using two sets of musical units, Frank Portolese's second album for the Chicago-based label, Southport, is a mix of five of the guitar player's originals, one classic, and five jazz standards. The use of two units here is not based on who happens to be available for the session, as so often is the case. Rather, the selection of personnel appears to be linked to the type of music that Portolese wants to present. For a more avant garde, creative, improvisational, introspective set, Portolese uses Brian Sandstrom on bass and Rusty Jones on drums for a pianoless trio, doing some artful work on such tunes as "Burn Unit" and Joe Henderson's Inner Urge." Both of these tracks feature the drums of Rusty Jones in interesting and sometimes daring interplay between him and Portolese. Initially, they start off in different directions, like a heated argument between a couple of old friends using their instruments to make their points. Then quite suddenly, the dispute is resolved and they get back together again, ending the cut in musical accord. Brian Sandstrom's bass is the subtle but articulate cornerstone for this unit. That this group can also wax rhapsodically is shown on "The Dance," where Portolese and Jones exchange musical ideas but in a far less frenetic atmosphere. Jones is clearly from the Elvin Jones school of drumming, where he extends his participation far beyond timekeeping.
Contrast these performances with the rest of the cuts where Portolese is joined by Dave Marr's bass, Tim Davis' drums and Larry Luchowski's piano for more straight-ahead renderings. On "These Foolish Things," Portolese gets enchantingly romantic with his clean sounding, downtempo rendition of this standard from the Great American Songbook, with Luchowski's piano getting plenty of attention. Miles Davis' "Milestones" is done at an exhilarating tempo in contrast to the almost somber, thoughtful rendition of Wayne Shorter's "Virgo." There's a brief recollection of "Fugue for Tinhorns" from Guys and Dolls during the Portolese penned (sic) "Room 608," which swings. The last track, appropriately titled "Last Call," is a vehicle for Portolese's solo virtuosity.
Portolese is obviously familiar with those guitarists who fostered the melodic approach to the guitar, like Tal Farlow and Mundell Lowe. In doing so, Portolese avoids the colder tone of the more modern players to create a warm musical experience for the listener. This is a fine album and is recommended.
October 13, 2000
A few months ago I heard Chicago guitarist Frank Portolese accompanying a singer at a north-side club, and within half a chorus I was paying more attention to him than to the artist in the spotlight. Not that his comp work lacks the appropriate humility: Portolese knows how to stay in the background when the situation calls for it, even though in his own band he dashes through daredevil acrobatics at burning tempos. But the cleanly conceived lines and inventive chord variations of his supporting statements reward careful listening the same way a solo does. A defining feature of Portolese's style is the anachronistic tone he gets from his obscure 1965 Barker guitar, a tone that has its roots in the period just before the golden age of jazz guitar, which began in the late 1950s. His timbre isn't as dark as that favored by, say, Kenny Burrell or Jim Hall, and it's led Portolese to seek relatively open, even buoyant chord voicings. He tends to remind knowledgeable listeners not of any of his contemporaries but of Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney, both of whom forged their styles in the late 40s from the bebop innovations of Charlie Parker and the hard county-tinged swing of Les Paul. And since Paul himself brought to full flower the style created by Charlie Christian-who in the early 40s infused bop with his own southwestern roots and colorful chromaticism, Portolese's stylistic lineage can be said to extend back to the first appearances of the electric guitar. He's chosen not to dwell in the past, though: his new second album, "Last Call" (Southport), features tunes by Wayne Shorter and Joe Henderson as well as several of his own compositions, which set modernist harmonies and knotty solo lines in creative tension against the Barker's translucent twang...Neil Tesser
Press And Journal (Aberdeen, Scotland)
August 8, 1998
"FRANK TAKES 'COOL' AWARD" The award for the coolest conductor of this year's festival goes to Frank Portolese, a director of the brilliant Mid West Young Artists Senior Jazz Combo, USA.
I have never seen anyone conduct a band with their whole body, but Frank did last night at The Music Hall, in the most subtle way imaginable. It was like watching the re-birth of the Cool.
Meanwhile, his Chicago based nine-piece band scorched their way through their set like a burning fuse wire searching for a cache of dynamite.
Outrageously talented with a single focused vision, their sound was about as menacing, tense and thrilling as it can get.
Then, as if to prove they had a heart, they played Monk's Round Midnight like a sweet, dark anthem.
In the first half the excellent Guild Hall Jazz Ensemble reminded us that the UK also has its fair share of young jazz stars and masterly technicians.
Inspiring is the only word to describe it-Roddy Phillips (This was a review of a student group I took to Scotland for the Aberdeen International Youth Festival, 1998).
"Last Call" CD review
Frank Portolese...stands out with a fat, deep guitar sound and a born knack for swinging. He shows he can play insanely fast on "Burn Unit," navigate tricky compositions like Wayne Shorter's "E.S.P." and Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge," and play cool blues worthy of Les Paul in "Quinton." He works with two groups here, one with a piano and one without. The pianoless trio sounds best because that frees him to really interact with the bass and drums and liven things up. This is a good, individual session-Jerome Wilson
Just Jazz Guitar
"Last Call" CD review
A CD passed over my desk recently from the fine jazz guitarist, Frank Portolese. Frank hails from Chicago and is not a newcomer to jazz, but is a fresh sound to my ears. He has recently released a CD called "Last Call," on the Southport Label (S-SSD 0072) which features jazz classics and originals.
"Last Call" is a strong mainstream jazz project with a slightly different edge than you may be used to. There are two separate rhythm sections being used. With bassist Brian Sandstrom and drummer Rusty Jones, two Chicago veterans, Portolese leads a trio on four tracks. The other six he performs in a slightly more relaxed groove, with drummer Tim Davis, bassist Dave Marr and pianist Larry Luchowski (who also performs one solo track). It is a class act, for sure.
"Last Call" starts with an original by Frank that initially has shades reminiscent of Kenny Burrell, but then takes it to a vibe that's
all his own. Track two starts with a very "out" intro with bass and drums, and eventually settles into a groove so fast that I found it a little hard to listen to; a little too intense for me. The third tune slows down a bit, with Frank performing a beautiful rendition of "These Foolish Things." He displays sensitive lines with a very tasty piano solo in the middle. Next on the roster is the Wayne Shorter Tune "E.S.P." My only complaint with it, as many JJG readers have heard me say before, is that the solos were just too long: 7:40 in two cases. I'ts a challenge for even the best of players to hold the listener's attention to a track that long.
"Milestones" ensues by Miles Davis, another Wayne Shorter tune, "Virgo," followed by the Horace Silver tune "Room 608," which had a groove and feel that put a smile on your face and a tap to your foot.
The album ends with three Portolese originals that definitely reflect his playing, as they are fresh and creative, with strong undercurrents of mainstream jazz guitar. My favorites were the last two originals, "The Dance" and "Last Call." Both these cuts display Frank's command of solo guitar with a depth of feeling that was superb. He has chops to die for, but what impressed me the most were his ballads and the harmonic side of his playing. His tone, the continuity of his lines and his general artistry shine on these. "Last Call" has eleven tracks and 66 minutes of music.
For all you archtop fans, Frank performs on a real classic. His main guitar is a 1965 Barker archtop with the original DeArmond pickup. A REAL GEM!
Frank also has a previous release, "Transparent" (S-SSD 0025) from 1994, which is a mix of traditional standards and originals.-Charles Chapman
"Last Call" CD review
Guitarist Frank Portolese plays with a distinctive snap that grabs your attention and a melodic imagination that keeps it. This is energetic, modern jazz guitar-but not fusion. From itchy, freewheeling swing to feathery ballads, Portolese shows knowledge and technique a-plenty but never shows off. There are two groups: one an especially inventive trio with the outstanding bassist Brian Sandstrom and great drummer Rusty Jones (also on CDs by Rich Crandall and Francesco Crosara), the other a quartet in which Larry Luchowski and Portolese keep a rare textural clarity for the tricky combination of piano and guitar. From tunes by Horace Silver, Joe Henderson and Miles Davis to "These Foolish Things" and a handful of originals, no complacency is to be heard. The first time I heard Portolese was a dozen years ago the Chicago's teeny, legendary Get Me High. He was good then-now he's awesome.-Seth G. Markow
"Last Call" CD review
This Chicago-based guitarist plays straightahead jazz with more than a few twists. First there's his somewhat eccentric, bright but compressed-sounding tone, which has a decidedly retro vibe. Then there are the sometimes-disjointed phrases that he manages to keep in the air like a juggler lofting a combination of ping-pong and bowling balls. It all contrasts and conflicts with his penchant for long, fluid lines. Whether he's taking a grooving approach to a tune like "Milestones" or rendering a moody ballad like "Virgo," his ability to develop intriguing phrases, which use space instead of fill it, carries the day. Portolese also has a knack for picking material, most of which is mainstream with a hard-bop bent. "Burn Unit," an original, however, introduces an element of craziness as it moves from pointillistic interaction with the rhythm section to frantic, blistering blowing. Two different but capable supporting groups are featured throughout, except on the title track, a soulful free-blowing blues sans accompaniment.
While Portolese has mannerisms that most guitarists would try to lose in the woods as quickly as possible, he intergrates them into a fresh, unique voice. Dig it: the guy's on to something.-Jim Ferguson