Guitarist Tal Farlow took his first jazz lessons from a phonograph

Jazz guitarist Tal Farlow is known for pulling a disappearing act every now and then, yet when he reappears after a long hiatus, his fans are always waiting for him.

This time it looks as though Tal might be back for good. He's on a tour around the United States, and he has a solid recording contract with Concord Jazz.

Farlow is basically a shy, retiring fellow, and it appears that he has been content to play a few gigs, then attend to his occupation as a sign painter in between. Mainly self-taught, he has never really learned to read music - but, despite what may seem like a major handicap in today's music business he's managed to play with some of the top names in jazz, including a long stint with vibist Red Norvo.

In a recent interview at the Blue Note, a new jazz club here in Greenwich Village, Farlow mused about his inability to read music. ''Well, I know how it's done, but I can't do it fast enough for it to be practical.''

And he never found it very enjoyable. . . .

''It's hard to concentrate on the kinds of things you have to play as you're learning to read, at least that's the way it seemed to me. It's like drudgery, after you can already play.'' And Farlow certainly can play. He was, at an early age, playing things that were technically and harmonically far beyond what one encounters in an ordinary method book.

And he adds, ''I never had to read. I got called in to read on record dates, and when I said I couldn't read, they thought, well, he's not a real fast reader. But the truth was that I really couldn't read!''

Farlow's earliest influence was the legendary jazz guitarist Charlie Christian, who became his first ''teacher,'' via recordings.

''I took Charlie Christian solos off records. I played them over and over until I knew them.''

Does he think that's the best way to learn?

''I would almost have to say so, not being able to read myself. I did it all by listening. I didn't have any lessons, and nobody told me what to do. But to produce the same sound I heard Charlie Christian do, I just deliberately took the solos note for note and learned them. I just did it for fun - I was very young, and I liked the sound of it.

''I'm sure a good deal of my fascination with Charlie Christian was that it was the first time I'd heard an electric guitar. It's a whole different sound and puts the guitar up front with the horns. Before that the guitar was sort of buried in the rhythm section.

''In my opinion there was nobody like Charlie Christian, and I figured I might as well go to the top. But also, I dug that he was much influenced by (tenor saxophonist) Lester Young, so I got some Count Basie records and I memorized some of Lester's things. They're lyrical and easy to play.''

So he learned everything he knows by ear. Farlow has a few guitar students, and his approach to teaching naturally follows a route similar to the one he took in his youth. How does he teach without getting into reading music?

''It depends on what the student wants,'' he replies. ''I find a lot of the youngsters that come to me have the ability to play scales and modes and things that are taught at Berklee or North Texas - there are a lot of places where jazz is being taught now. The students know how to play these things, but they don't know how to apply them.

''I think it's a big order to try to teach someone how to improvise. That's supposed to originate within you. The only thing I can do - it's sort of a variation on the way I went about it, which was, when I found somebody's playing I admired very much, I would just steal it! Larceny, you know.'' Farlow chuckles.

Then, in a more serious vein, he adds: ''. . . not for purposes of performance, but to try to get some insight into why a certain phrase works well in a certain place. It's going to come out like copying at first, but that's called influence, isn't it?''

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