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First Memories of Ed Bickert

Or: how I came to dig him...




Boxing Day: December 26, 1975. I remember walking about two miles in the snow to go downtown [no bus service on holidays in my humble little town! ]. The reason: our biggest record store's annual Boxing Day Sale, when every price was reduced. This was the big day to buy those records that never seem to go on sale for ya...
At that time I'd only been listening to jazz for about a year. A friend had recommended Dave Brubeck as a starting point, and from there I'd gotten heavily into Paul Desmond. So one of the things I made a point of buying that day was a Desmond album.

I found a Desmond album on the CTI label, Pure Desmond. Now I had to be careful. I'd already been burnt once by a CTI Desmond record, where Paul's alto sax was buried beneath strings and horn sections -- not the sound I was into at all, then or now. I preferred small-group jazz, I wanted to be able to hear Desmond, he was my hero. But Pure Desmond seemed to be a quartet album, cuz the back only listed four names: Desmond [natch], Percy Heath and Connie Kay [whom I knew as the bassist and drummer for the Modern Jazz Quartet, i.e., good], and Ed Bickert, a name I didn't recognize at all -- I assumed he must be the pianist. Seemed promising, so I snagged it.

When I got the record home, I learned that A) Bickert was in fact a guitarist -- I hadn't heard any jazz guitarists at this point so didn't know what to expect, and B) Desmond himself raved about Bickert in the glowingest of terms in the liner notes. So I'm like "Okay, I gotta hear this guy!"

I'll be honest: Ed didn't make that big an impression on me at first. For years I'd been weaned on a diet of faster-and-louder metal guitarists, and Ed's slow, gentle wafting seemed anticlimactic in comparison. But Desmond shone on that album like never before, so I was thrilled... and played that album on heavy rotation...
and eventually Ed Bickert sank in. I began to notice how his tone and approach complemented the band, and his amazing chords [pianistic in their richness], the sheer gorgeousness of his sound and his touch... in other words, I began to hear jazz guitar as a separate instrument in its own right. And in that context, I grew to love Bickert as I already loved Desmond. And now I had double the reason to play that album!

After that, my Ed-radar was on full alert, 24-7! I bought anything and everything of his I could find [and afford ]. A few more live quartet albums with Desmond, a few leading his own small groups... I just listened, marvelled, and watched him grow [as if he had room to!! ].
In those intervening years, I also had the chance to hear more jazz guitarists, including the acknowledged giants of the instrument... and, to me, they all fell short of the glory of Ed! It wasn't till I heard Pat Metheny playing straightahead jazz guitar that I found anyone who could approach Bickert's majesty. To this day, Ed remains unsurpassed in my book.

One hurdle remained: to see and hear him in person, to convince myself that he was in fact a real live human being! And one day, by a fluke, I cleared that hurdle -- by winning two concert tickets in a radio trivia contest, of all things. All I knew at the time was that it was a Moe Koffman concert, which is certainly worth winning tickets for... but later when I learned that Ed was accompanying Moe at this same gig, I could not believe how the jazz gods had smiled on me!

Friday, September 16, 1994: a special day. [Yeah, it's my mom's and B.B. King's birthday, but besides that!] That night Sharon and I got dressed up, hired a baby sitter, and actually went for a night out like real grown-ups! Not sure what to expect [Koffman works in a variety of formats], we arrived... and learned to my great joy that we were in for an evening of small-group acoustic jazz. With Moe on reeds, Bernie Senensky [a name I barely recognize] on piano, bassist Patrick Collins [knew nothing about him, and still know nothing except he's good], drummer Barry Elmes [new to me at the time, but I would soon learn much more about him], and the sole spark of electricity in this otherwise - acoustic quintet -- My Man!

There he was, one of my Gods of Jazz, sitting on a humble folding chair stage right... and plugged into what looked like nothing more than a small practice amp [no Marshall stacks here! ] was Ed's same old, worn, creamy-yellow Telecaster that I've seen in so many pictures. He just sat quietly throughout the gig, wearing a shy smile, often closing his eyes to gaze on what cosmic vistas I dare not guess...

And when he played -- man! I swear, it looked like his left [fretting] hand just kinda rested lightly and limply on his Tele's neck, and sometimes it would drift up or down the neck a bit. His fingers seemed to never move! And yet we could all hear those same awesome chords and unearthly runs, as if the music was emanating telepathically from Ed's brain! Music just flows out of Ed as smoothly and naturally as his breath flows in and out...
I went to that gig to see if that kind of jazz guitar could be played live by a real human. And now that I've seen him, I'm still not sure.







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