Oscar Alemán,
Swing Guitar Masterpieces, 1938-1957
(Acoustic Disc, 1998)

Imagine for a moment that you are playing Jazz Trivial Pursuit and that you have drawn the following question: "Name two swing guitarists who played in Paris during the 1930s." Well, there's Django and ... jeez, I don't know. Of course, Jazz Trivial Pursuit realizes this is a difficult question, so it also offers you the following clue: "One of these two guitarists was born in Argentina." Give up? The second extraordinary guitarist is none other than Oscar Alemán.

Although he was well known in his native country, widespread fame eluded Alemán. Perhaps this was because Paris, in the '30s, just wasn't big enough for two swinging guitars; or perhaps it was because Alemán chose to return to his home in 1940 instead of touring the United States. Whatever the reason, David Grisman's wonderful Acoustic Disc label is trying to re-educate guitar lovers about the immense talents and historical importance of Oscar Alemán.

Swing Guitar Masterpieces aptly describes the two-and-a-half hours of music on these two discs. Alemán has been recorded in Paris and Buenos Aires, with twelve-piece orchestras and solo, playing both swing jazz and Latin rhythms. The fifty-two tracks recorded between 1938 and 1957 provide a comprehensive look at a great jazz guitarist.

All of Alemán's solos ebb and flow with a subtle but complex progression. He plays less wildly than Reinhardt, and the texture and coloring of his solos build in an even succession. Earlier arrangements, as on "Hombre Mio (Man of Mine)" and "I've Got Rhythm," resemble Hot Club-style set-ups (minus one rhythm guitar). Alemán and violinist Guillermo Oliva open each song together, and then trade leads back and forth throughout the number. During the development, Alemán's leads become increasingly intricate and energetic. He loves to bend notes, inserting a bluesy tone into the swinging mix. This approach even enlivens over-familiar standards like "Stardust" and "Sweet Georgia Brown."

Alemán also added Latin rhythms into his repertoire when he returned to Argentina. "Negra De Cabello Duro" and "Temptation" find Alemán zipping through minor chord patterns, creating a jazzy-Latin sound similar to, but not as light and bouncy as, bossa nova. These songs are clearly in the minority, but show Alemán's genius at blending jazz to his own native music. Likewise, Alemán's creative choice of arrangements gives the music variety and spunk. After listening to a number of Hot Club-styled tunes, it's refreshing to hear a piano added to the mix. It's also fun to compare the use of only one rhythm guitar as opposed to two (as in the classic Hot Club style). This less "heavy" rhythm -- the chug, chug, chug of the guitars -- lays down a less monotonous background.

Other standouts on this album include "Russian Lullaby," sung by Wilson Myers. The mellow vocal, and Alemán's graceful and vivid lead complement each other faultlessly. Alemán seems to enjoy intricate melodies and complicated structures that challenge his playing, as in the beautiful instrumental, "Bye Bye Blues." There is something so warm and immediately accessible about these recordings.

There are few complaints worth mentioning about this superb collection. Perhaps the first disc seemed the more inspired, the choices of material more intriguing. There's a three-year gap between 1947 and 1950 when Alemán made no studio recordings. When he returned, he began to record in larger settings. While his playing is never buried in the mix, the interplay is less personal than his earlier work with violinists Oliva and Manuel Gavinovich. Still, this is an exciting anthology that should offer Alemán some of the name recognition that has escaped him in the past. This collection is highly recommended for lovers of swing jazz or anyone who appreciates excellent guitar playing.

[ by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr. ]

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