You may know that the man many agree is the best guitar player ever born in Maine, Lenny Breau, did not get his full serving of life. He died in Los Angeles in 1984, at the age of 43, found at the bottom of a top-floor, apartment-building swimming pool, the circumstances of which remain a mystery.
The loss is all the more painful for seeing the career had by his friend and frequent collaborator Brad Terry, who at 85 will on New Year’s Eve celebrate his 70th uninterrupted year of performing and recording jazz whistle and clarinet — “and I’m proud to say I’ve never missed a gig and I’ve only been late twice,” he laughs over the phone on a Sunday morning. “And one of those was really maybe not my fault.”
Just imagine how many gigs the two could have played together, how many records the two could have created with Maine’s many great players, how many young upstarts at Maine Jazz Camp Breau could have inspired by Terry’s side.
For a taste of what we missed, look no further than the “Original Living Room Tapes” Terry has uploaded to his Bandcamp page, which is becoming a treasure trove of improvisational live jazz performances. The 23 tracks are a selection of recordings taken from informal duo performances at Terry’s family home and various other small, local shows across the Midcoast, and they are spectacular.
The nine-minute “Blues for Carole” that opens the collection sometimes seems impossible: How is Lenny playing that run and those chords at the same time? It’s like he’s his own rhythm player. How is Brad able to … whistle … that precisely and for that long? The precision and tone he gets on intricate drops and scales, off the top of his head, is a marvel. And it’s just the beginning of hours of music that teems with creativity and playfulness and virtuosity.
At 18 minutes, “Autumn Leaves” is the B-side of a 1970s LP all by itself. At times, it’s easy to hear that it is very much an improvisation, as though Breau especially is lost in thought, noodling, considering, but then Terry will come firing in with a melody and Breau will jump into tight chord bounces, walking basslines, sometimes seeming to prod Terry, sometimes to mimic.
And it is so cool to hear the guitar in the left ear and the clarinet in the right and to be able to shut them off and turn them back on if you want. They are playing in parallel, like kids building sand castles next to one another, and then they find the bridge and all of a sudden Breau is the architect while Terry handles interior design.
Breau’s playing on “My Funny Valentine” is just so soulful, so sensitive, and then so explosive — there are only a handful of guitarists who have ever been able to command a song in this way as a solo performer. It’s no wonder Terry lets him shine.
Be thankful, too, that Terry shows us so much of Breau’s personality, as we hear him sing his Johnny Cash impersonation, his mimicry of a person scrolling the radio dial. It’s a perfect moment in time we are lucky to have available. And truly proof that Breau could do absolutely anything he wanted on a guitar.
But as good as he was as a player, he was a better listener. “At any given moment when I was playing with him,” Terry remembers, “he could have buried me with all kinds of technical stuff, just go ridiculous.“ Instead, “When I was playing he was doing everything he possibly could to make me sound good. As an accompanist, he was the most sensitive player. With all that dazzling technique, he never overplayed, and he was listening like crazy all the time. I couldn’t get away with anything. I’d play a little line and he’d throw it back at me four measures later. I tried to do the same.”
As a lifetime soloist who grew up next to Benny Goodman, Terry knows accompanists, that’s for sure. Hearing the work he’s posted with guitarist John Basile, and pianists like Fred Fischer and Eddie Thompson, it’s easy to understand why players would want to support him. His melody lines are graceful and artful, full of call and response and side-by-side playing, and he loves to greet players on their way back from a solo with a joyful burst.
He’s even found another guitarist in Maine, the 25-year-old Peter Herman, who accompanied him at the Readfield Union Meeting House back in July. Terry loves to sing his praises: “He’ll show up with my master list of tunes, songs we’re absolutely sure we’ve never played before.” Maybe they’ll play some more house parties and potlucks, but Terry’s not sure he’ll play a “venue” again. He has some balance problems and can’t really stand overly long anymore.
He’s trying to save up a few bucks, though, to get his old Dodge van up and running so he can make one more run across the country, maybe get back to Poland, where he has made lifelong musical friends over 23 trips (it’s a long story). In the meantime, he’s got a Gershwin record and an Ellington record to post, and he’ll probably release that Readfield concert at some point — “We’ll publish it as-is. With all the hairs and warts. It’s all right there.”
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at [email protected].
Two Weeks, Five Songs
• Dead End Armory, “Slowly Drift Away” – The opener of “Hope You’re Good,” the band’s 2008 full-length, this is a classic Wes Hartley number, beautiful and haunting. Now it and everything else recorded by the band seemingly hatched at the late Acoustic Coffee is available digitally. Download it all now before it goes away.
• SeepeopleS, “Lots of People” – This is a burning rock number with a pounding kick-drum in the bottom. Make sure to find the video, among the most artful we’ve seen in Portland.
• Kurt Baker, “Electric Fire” – Few people keep the flame alive for rock and roll as brightly as Kurt Baker, and his first new original piece since the pandemic is a barn-burner, with slicing guitars, pounding piano, and bright backing vocals.
• Lisa/Liza, “Songs Bloom” – The title track and standout of a five-song EP of “songs that got lost along the way,” this is intimate and close, raw with emotion, vocals like they’re being pulled out of her.
• Phil Redo, “Aspire” – This four-song EP of solo piano numbers is the latest in a slew of releases from Phil Redo, a retired radio industry vet now making music in a variety of ways from his Maine barn, the Flying Pig. He can do some things.
— Sam Pfeifle