In Memory of Les Paul

posted by Tom Moon on August 14, 2009 at 8:05 pm
in , , ,

A brief thought on the legend of the guitar, Les Paul (1915-2009)

When future generations think about Les Paul, the titan of music who died this week at age 94, they will no doubt marvel at his electric-guitar innovations, his sizeable contributions to the art of sound processing (the “Paulverizer!”), the long trail of his recording career. Of course that’s the Twitter version of a legend’s life, not the whole story. Watching Paul perform his regular weekly gig at Iridium a few months back, I found myself astounded by how “present” and refreshingly un-legendlike he was – and then by his enduring command of his instrument, his respect for music, and the obvious delight he took in playing.

Let’s be real: When you go to hear a 90-something man play guitar, you adjust your expectations. You don’t demand feats of dazzling technique – you’re maybe happy to catch a few good notes. The room was packed, as usual. In between songs, the guitarist engaged in his usual banter, which included more than a few dirty-old-man jokes. But when he finished that stuff, he pushed the microphone away and transformed into a completely serious musician. You could tell this right away, just from the tone: To the end, Les Paul coaxed a firm, and deep, and utterly quintessential sound from the guitar. He sustained one pearly, perfectly articulated note, and it registered as an essence; you couldn’t help but say to yourself “This is what the electric guitar is supposed to sound like.”

You didn’t say “This is what the electric guitar is supposed to sound like when played by a 94-year old.”

And then he tackled a melody – maybe a too-familiar one, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Working phrase by careful phrase, elaborating in the easygoing manner of jazzmen from a more gracious era, he made that theme come alive all over again, in new ways. As he played, he conveyed reverence for the tune itself, and running right alongside that was a parallel commitment to invention, to seeing what might happen if he veered hard left, away from the theme right this minute. He took the music places, using a mixture of elegant lines and tart chords and rhythms he slapped out on the fretboard with obvious joy. He didn’t always wind up in the far reaches of the galaxy (though in his day, he went there, too), but with Paul, the journey was always interesting.

Incredibly, that was still true this year, decades after the records he did with Mary Ford, and the great Chester and Lester and the many more. And that makes Les Paul an inspiration for the ages: Here’s a guy who invented great tools for music, and instruments that radically changed the game. He could have been home counting the money and accepting the awards, and yet at least once a week, year after year, he was out there making music, engaged in the lifelong pursuit of the next thrill, the stirring sound, the perfect phrase.

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#1 from Jay Fienberg, Seattle, WA - 08/20/2009 2:30

Awesome that you got to see him perform so recently, and that it was a great performance.

If you haven’t seen it, check out the documentary, “Les Paul: Chasing Sound” (2008):

I just watched it a month or so ago, and I am sure I’ll watch it again, now. It really captures the wonder of the long, genius, happening career of Les Paul.

The documentary also has footage from some of Les Paul’s recent performances at the Iridium, and his playing really is not “aged”—it’s just great. It’s like he just sustained his high peak for the entire last few decades of his life.

Coincidentally (per your previous post), the documentary has an interview with Richard Carpenter where he’s talking about how much he was influenced by (and still loves) the Les Paul and Mary Ford hits. Hearing Carpenter speak about music reminded me of the talents of the Carpenters. They’re not to my tastes, but definitely something to really hear.

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