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Green Goes Blue With 'Grant's First Stand'

The blues — usually 12 bars long, with three basic chords moving underneath — ranks among the 20th century's great contributions to world culture. The blues is as indestructible as titanium and malleable as gold, whether coming from Memphis Minnie on a Beale Street corner, Count Basie at the Reno Club, or Cream at the Royal Albert Hall. Even one musician's blues can contain multitudes.

On Grant Green's 1961 album Grant's First Stand, five of the six tunes are blues, all played by a stripped-down trio. The challenge for Green is to expound at length on one topic without repeating himself. Sometimes he roots his lines in earthy, well-worn patterns; other times, he gets a bit more abstract.

Green didn't go in for distortion or other special effects; he liked a neutral amplifier tone to let you hear those metal strings ring. Jazz musicians' blues are usually slicker than those of a straight blues guitarist. Green has a solid swinger's knack for skippy, airborne jazz rhythms, but some of his lines wouldn't sound out of place in a Chicago blues bar — if he had a grittier tone.

Green's compadres are drummer Ben Dixon and organist Roosevelt "Baby Face" Willette. Like the guitarist, Willette played gospel music coming up — it fed his approach the way spirituals informed the blues in general. Blues is sort of the flipside of spirituals: Religious folk even denounced it as the devil's music. The duality of the sacred and profane is implicit in jazz organ groups, splitting the difference between the rituals of Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Bluesy organ groups like Grant Green's were very popular by 1961, then fell way out of favor in some circles. Later, they became fashionably retro, seeding hip-hop with a billion samples and loops. The blues has had its ups and downs as a commercial property, too, but with times like they are now, it could be making a comeback.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.