Remembering Ed Bickert, who helped turn the fender telecaster into an expressive Jazz voice: Photos, Videos

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Ed Bickert, whose exceedingly modest way in conversation belied a nimble sense of humor, used to tell one story deserving of a permanent place in guitar lore. At a concert in Montreal, the host introduced the band by naming each player as well as the make of his equipment — for instance, “Bill Mays on a piano by Yamaha.”

When he homed in on the guitarist, the announcer said: “Ed Bickert on a guitar by Fisher-Price.”

Bickert died on Feb. 28 of complications related to cancer, as reported by the Toronto Star. A Canadian jazz hero, he was 86 and had been retired since 2000, following setbacks including injury and the death of his wife.

His plaything of an ax was in fact a terrific-sounding Fender Telecaster, outfitted with a Gibson humbucker pickup near the neck, for a fatter, fuller tone. When his recording career as a leader began thriving in the mid-’70s, he wasn’t the only guitarist arguing for the Tele’s place within the jazz arsenal; the master teacher Ted Greene, for one, was applying a jaw-dropping command of chord-melody arranging to this archetypal solidbody electric guitar, a staple on country bandstands. But the oddness of Bickert’s choice shouldn’t be overlooked. Even in the fusion era, self-respecting players geared toward bop-based acoustic jazz were expected to play archtop hollowbodies.

When I asked him about his guitar in 2015, his explanation was essentially a shrug. Engaged more and more in studio work in Toronto during the ‘60s, he found in the Tele an instrument that met the demands of both commercial music and jazz.

“It could have been any other kind of solidbody, I guess,” he said. “It’s just one of these things where I got used to it, felt comfortable with it and it’s certainly very hard to smash it.” Today, Tele-style guitars cease to be surprising in jazz settings — just ask Bill Frisell, Julian Lage, Mike Stern, John Scofield, Joyce Cooling, Adam Rogers and others tempted by their clarity and no-frills charm. With his tone knob rolled back to achieve that smoldering archtop timbre, Bickert shimmied the doors open.

In the end, the Tele was simply the most direct possible pipeline for Bickert’s endless store of harmonic and melodic ideas. He was born into a musical family in 1932 and raised in British Columbia, about a decade removed from Barney Kessel, Tal Farlow and Herb Ellis, a jazz-guitar generation dedicated to reconciling the innovations of bebop with the comforts of small-group swing.

Bickert, who began establishing himself in Toronto after making his way to the city with an aspiring writer friend in the early ’50s, was a midcentury postbopper akin to his friend Jim Hall. Although Bickert has gently argued to the contrary, the congruities are plain, even in terms of harmony.

Cue up alto saxophonist Paul Desmond’s Take Ten, featuring Hall and released in 1963, alongside Pure Desmond, another quartet record, this one with Bickert and dating from 1975. Hall can be a harder-edged, more rhythmically savvy player, and Bickert’s harmonic depth is incomparable, but the seamless lyricism of the single-note lines, the narrative precision at play in the solos, the balmy temperament that suggests both complete control and absolute self-awareness… It’s no wonder why Hall recommended his Canadian pal to Desmond.

While his reticence could be legendary, Bickert appeared with a showbiz Who’s Who as a studio musician, and remained a go-to resource for his country’s stalwarts and for American jazzers touring through Canada — even when the leader didn’t dig guitar, per this classic Miles anecdote. His reputation at home garnered him a Juno Award as well as membership in the Order of Canada.

Within the swinging jazz mainstream, Bickert’s recorded credits are impressively adaptable. In addition to that profile-raising stint with Desmond in the mid-’70s, his discography includes work with Canadian trombonist Rob McConnell’s Boss Brass big band, as well as Oscar Peterson, Benny Carter, Ken Peplowski, Buddy Tate, Ron Carter, Moe Koffman, Ruby Braff, Phil Nimmons, Frank Rosolino, Ernestine Anderson and many others.

His duo conversations with Don Thompson for Sackville are exemplars of intuition and intimacy, and as a leader and label “All Star” he enjoyed a bountiful stretch with Concord Jazz in the 1980s and ’90s. When singer Rosemary Clooney reactivated her jazz passion for Concord, Bickert’s guitar was often a crucial ingredient in the small groups assembled for her.

On Clooney’s 1985 album Sings Ballads, Bickert offers a method book on how to accompany a vocalist. His reharmonizations are imaginative yet unobtrusive, and his leads and fills are plush visions of perfection. His presence is beyond unassuming, yet you can’t help but notice him.

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