Tal Farlow Interview: 23 September 1981

‘Thank you for posting your Sept. 23, 1981 interview with Tal Farlow, which I recently found online and shared with his widow, Michelle Hyk Farlow, now living in Philadelphia. We both enjoyed your piece a lot. Really wonderful in-depth talk you had with “The Man”. I found out much I never knew, and I thought I knew a lot’. LORENZO DeSTEFANO, Producer, Director and Editor of Talmage Farlow: A Film by Lorenzo DeStefano.

The esteemed author Stuart Nicholson has posted a wonderful essay chronicling the creative career of Tal Farlow, 1981 photos he took of Tal and Red Norvo and a lengthy and fascinating interview with Farlow on September 23, 1981. A rare treat that amplifies our knowledge of this singular artist. MICHAEL CUSCUNA, Jazz Record Producer, Special Consultant, Producer, and Reissue Director of Blue Note Records, Leading Discographer of Blue Note Records and three times Grammy winner.

‘Great interview Stuart! I will watch this now on Amazon,’ JACOB YOUNG, Guitarist, Composer and ECM Recording Artist.

‘I have shared this great Tal Interview with all my students,’   PROF/DR TOMMY SMITH, Saxophonist, Composer, Arranger, Artistic Director of Jazz, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, ECM and Spartacus Recording Artist.

‘Keep this work up!RAN BLAKE, Pianist, Composer, Recording Artist, Educator and Recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, former chair of the Contemporary Improvisation Department, New England Conservatory and currently faculty member at NEC

Just before Christmas 2018 one of the finest documentaries of a jazz musician ever made found its way onto the Amazon Prime video streaming service. Talmage Farlow: A Film by Lorenzo DeStefano, originally released in 1981, is a gentle, intimate portrait of  the man they called the “Art Tatum of the jazz guitar.” Yet Tal Farlow always maintained an air of polite bewilderment at any compliments aimed in his direction. A genuinely modest man, he never seriously contemplated jazz as a full time occupation, enigmatically dipping in and out of the big time throughout his life.

Widely acknowledged to be the leading figure in defining the modern jazz guitar in the 1950s, he emerged as a member of vibist Red Norvo’s Trio with Charles Mingus on bass in 1950. The recordings they made between 1950-51 for Albert Marx’s Discovery label  (later taken over by Savoy Records in 1953 and subsequently Atrista Records, who released every title recorded by the group as a Savoy two-LP package in 1976) assured his place in the jazz pantheon. They made history, regarded by many as among the finest small group recordings in all of jazz. While most young guitar modernists such as Sal Salvador, Jimmy Raney, Billy Bauer, Barney Kessel, Herb Ellis, Chuck Wayne, Johnny Smith, Howard Roberts and Dick Garcia were following a broadly similar path, influenced by the likes of Charlie Christian, Lester Young and Charlie Parker, it was Farlow who was setting the pace on jazz guitar. 

Tal Farlow, 1981

Collectively,  Norvo’s trio represented virtuosity writ large, but it was Farlow’s control and ease of execution, even at the fastest tempi, that caught the ear — had the guitar ever been played this fast and so effortlessly before? But  like a duck gliding across a pond, there was much going on beneath the surface. Closer listening revealed a thorough command of bebop harmony; an ability to effortlessly string chains of arpeggios together to give contrast his single note lines; a very personal way of using large intervals and a highly developed melodic sense that allowed him to spin ideas   across bar lines and chord changes. He also tuned his guitar an octave lower, giving a feeling of warmth to everything he played. But there was one one extra ingredient that made his playing compelling to listeners then as now,  eloquently summed up by fellow guitar legend Johnny Smith. As he recalled, he and a fellow guitar player went to  see Farlow perform with Red Norvo’s trio at The Embers in New York in 1950. “This guitar player said to me, ‘No wonder he can play so good, look at those long, skinny fingers,’” recalled Smith.  “Well, I thought for a few moments and said, ‘No that’s not right…that kind of playing doesn’t come from the fingers, that kind of playing comes from the heart and soul.”

Tal Farlow, 1981

The impact of Farlow’s playing on his fellow guitarists was profound. The speed and construction of his single note lines on pieces like ‘Move’ has lost none of its “wow” factor, even today. When guitarist Howard Alden played with Red Norvo in 1979, the vibist underlined just how much Farlow had shaken-up guitarists at the time, for example, the great Barney Kessel, like most Christian disciples, played mostly using downstrokes, but after hearing what Farlow was doing with alternate (down-up) picking, he completely re-thought his right hand technique. Listen to Farlow’s playing on the out choruses of ‘Zing Went the Strings of My Heart’ and you get a sense of what caused Kessel’s re-think. As a series of widely admired albums for Norman Granz’ Clef and Verve labels followed, he was voted the new-star guitarist in the 1954 Downbeat Critics Poll and took top spot in the magazine’s guitar polls of 1956 and 1957. But after a run at Sy Barron’s Composer club with pianist Eddie Costa and bassist Vinnie Burke in 1958  (the trio is captured on This Is Tal Farlow, Tal and The Swinging Guitar of Tal Farlow, all on the Verve label), he was not seen or heard of on the New York scene for almost a decade — although he continued recording for the Verve label until December 1959, his last sessions producing The Guitar Artistry of Tal Farlow and Tal Farlow Plays the Music of Harold Arlen. Four years later, in December 1963, Downbeat magazine ran a story by Ira Gitler that somewhat plaintively enquired, “Whatever Happened To Tal Farlow?” He was missed, uniquely as much by fans as musicians and critics.

Tal Farlow and Red Norvo, 1981

Recently married, he had settled for a simpler life at his riverside retreat in Sea Bright, New Jersey returning to his old trade of sign writing which he had pursued since apprenticing after high school  — remarkably, it was not until he was 22 that he took-up the guitar. Now he could enjoy boating, fishing and playing local gigs out of sight and out of mind of the jazz media. He seemed to like it that way. Then, in October 1967 he was finally persuaded by DJ Mort Fega to open at the Frammis club on Manhattan’s East Side. During his absence from the New York scene and without any new recordings, a mystique had developed around him, and with his knowing, he had become regarded as something of a living legend. “It didn’t take long for word to get around that the guitarist was back in town and people came from near and far to hear [him],” said Fega in Downbeat magazine. “He turned everybody around…to a man, everyone agreed that, if possible, he was even more of a monster on his instrument than they remembered…It had taken considerable persuasion to convince him that he had been the undisputed champ when he quit the scene, and that since then no one had begun to approach his unique style, a style that had earned for him the highest reward — designation by many of his fellow musicians as the world’s best jazz guitarist.”

The Complete Verve Tal Farlow Sessions (Mosaic)

Then Farlow was gone. To all intents and purposes, he was a homebody, “I don’t need expensive things or a hectic life, so I stay in Sea Bright” he told Downbeat magazine in 1979, and his activity during that decade reflected his in-out relationship with the big time. On 5 July 1969 he appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival as a member of the Newport All-Stars, briefly reuniting him with Red Norvo, and he recorded The Return of Tal Farlow that sounded as was as if he had never been away, “Basically, I play pretty much in the same manner [as I did on the 1950s Verve albums],” he said, “I guess if anything I’ve gotten faster in my old age.” He was 48 at the time. Participating in several more albums produced by Don Schlitten, including saxophonist Sonny Criss’s Up, Up and Away, and Sam Most’s Mostly Flute, he appeared again at the Newport Jazz Festival  (now moved to the Wollman Amphitheatre in Central Park), this time  in a duo with Jim Hall on 30 June 1973. On 4 July 1976 he appeared in Carnegie Hall accompanied by Hank Jones, Jack Six and Roy Haynes in a “Salute to Tal” concert as part of the Newport Jazz Festival in New York and the following month he began an association with Concord records, recording On Stage  with Red Norvo, Hank Jones, Ray Brown and Jake Hanna live at the Concord Jazz Festival, in Concord, California. From then on, encouraged by Concord’s Carl Jefferson, more recordings followed — Sign of the Times from 1977, again with Hank Jones,  and Tal Farlow ’78 — while his involvement in jazz beyond his local scene grew. Between 1980 and early 1981, producer Lorenzo DeStefano completed his documentary on Farlow’s life, Talmage Farlow, which began previewing mid-1981. In September, he and Red Norvo arrived in the UK for a series of dates arranged by Concord, and mid-afternoon on 23 September, I met them both off the train to take them to their hotel, where they had also agreed to do short interview

As events turned out, after a brief lunch, Red Norvo retired to his room for a nap, and it was Farlow who kindly obliged with an interview plus posing for a couple of portrait shots. I wanted to capture Farlow’s face half-in and half-out of the available light as a metaphor for his half in, half out career in jazz. I now see that the jacket he was wearing at the time also made a couple of appearances in DeLorenzo’s documentary Talmage Farlow. In our interview, Farlow references the documentary, which had been completed earlier in the year and had recently made its world premiere at the Carnegie Hall Cinema in New York City. The critical response was enthusiastic — “Superb. Brilliantly crafted. A remarkable film about a remarkable artist,” Sight & Sound; “A revealing glimpse of Mr. Farlow, both as a person and a musician. As much concerned with a philosophy of life as it is with music,” The New York Times; “One of the most striking portrait documentaries ever made, a classic,” Jazz Educators Journal.

As a result of Lorenzo Stefano’s documentary and the attendant publicity it attracted, the clamour to hear Farlow play became too great, even for such a notorious homebody to ignore. It resulted in his venturing from his Sea Bright retreat more and more often for international tours and festival appearances, including, in the early 1990s, replacing Barney Kessel in the Great Guitars line-up alongside Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, with whom he toured until shortly before his death. For our interview, Farlow was warm, friendly and generous with is time. I later learned he had the reputation of being the nicest guy in the music business, which gets no argument from me.  Warm and witty, he often told stories on himself, underlining the denouement with his easy smile. Born in 1921, he died on 25 July 1998 without once having believed he was the true jazz great he really was.