Grant Green (1935-1979) was a great guitarist often overshadowed by even greater ones. During the early part of his career, in the ’60s, his best work was surpassed by Wes Montgomery, and in the ’70s players like John McLaughlin, George Benson and Pat Metheny dominated the spotlight. Yet Green was a masterly player and composer who was uniquely diverse in his range of styles.
Some of Green’s best work was revealed after his death. Now two vintage Green recordings, “Funk in France: From Paris to Antibes (1969-1970)” and “Slick!—Live at Oil Can Harry’s” (both on Resonance Records), will be released on vinyl Saturday for Record Store Day, then in other formats next month. They showcase Green’s virtuosity, display his stylistic evolution, and counter some persistent stereotypes about that era of jazz.
Both were made from radio broadcasts of concerts by Green. The French recording documents appearances by Green’s band in the city and town of the subtitle; “Slick!” features a Vancouver show in 1975. This was a time of tumult in the jazz community. Sales nosedived in the ’60s, even though the music was at a creative peak. Then, at the end of that decade, several artists—most notably Miles Davis —began incorporating rock and funk rhythms into their music. Green is best known for music with crossover appeal. His 1970 cover of the Don Covay/Steve Cropper classic “Sookie Sookie” became a staple of the early ’90s Acid Jazz scene that typically fused jazz, hip hop and other musical styles, and his music has been sampled by a legion of hip-hop artists ranging from A Tribe Called Quest to Kendrick Lamar. Yet Green’s legacy is far deeper than that. His 1965 release “Idle Moments” (Blue Note) is some of the best music of the period; elegant and restrained, it nearly defines the concept of after-midnight tranquility. On his 1964 recording “Matador” (Blue Note)—released in 1979 after Green’s death— he works with drummer Elvin Jones and pianist McCoy Tyner, both stalwarts of the John Coltrane Quartet, to create an ambitious and sprawling work.
“Funk in France” shows Green in transition. The set includes splendid renditions of jazz standards like “Oleo” and “Sonnymoon for Two,” as well as a tender take on the bossa nova classic “How Insensitive (Insensatez).” But the recording leads off with an edgy cover of James Brown’s “I Don’t Want Nobody to Give Me Nothing (Open Up the Door I’ll Get It Myself),” which had been a big hit for the Godfather of Soul that spring and summer. Green’s solo style expands on the tune. He was always a great bluesy player, but on this ode to self-reliance he captures the firm and assertive tone of the original by adding some scratchy licks to his solo.
The Vancouver recording offers the same mix, but in greater extremes. It opens with “Now’s the Time,” by Charlie Parker, one of Green’s idols. Then, after a funkier version of “How Insensitive (Insensatez),” the band launches into a 32-minute medley of funk and jazz-funk hits that includes Stanley Clarke’s “Vulcan Princess,” the Ohio Players’ “Skin Tight,” the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money,” Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” and Bobby Womack’s “Woman’s Gotta Have It.” The bassist Ronnie Ware plays long, snorting and reverberant tones. Green’s guitar work is deep and piercing. In an interview from the Vancouver gig, included here in the liner notes, Green said he was pleased that his music was reaching a younger audience, but his renditions of the repertoire here suggest that he wanted to recruit them without sacrificing his unique sound.
Many think of popular 1970s jazz as bland, dumbed down, soulless covers of hit tunes, a trend that led to what is today called smooth jazz. In fact, Green spearheaded a movement that expanded hits in innovative ways. And they provide yet more evidence that Green was a greater guitarist than the works released during his lifetime suggested. He’s due for a re-evaluation.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.