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LES PAUL: CHASING SOUND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Featuring:  Les Paul, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Tony Bennett, Jeff Beck, Merle Haggard, Steve Miller, Keith Richards
Director:  John Paulson
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Koch Vision
Features:  See Review
Length:  90 Minutes
Release Date:  August 14, 2007

“He put the tools in our hands.” Keith Richards

Film ***1/2

Words like “genius”, “visionary” and “innovator” get bandied about so much today that they tend to seem like so much faint praise…unless, that is, you’re speaking of Mr. Les Paul.  Then they become feeble and frail compliments.

What would the history of modern music be like without Les Paul?  To quote Henry Jefferson, “I can’t even think about it…it’s pathetic.”  Les Paul in his heyday was a guitar virtuoso and a technical mastermind; the kind of man that had to take things apart in order to understand how they worked.  And thank God he did.

His first innovation took a while to become mainstream, and that’s when, while looking for a signature sound, he essentially crafted a guitar out of a log using a phonograph needle for a pickup…the first solid body electric guitar.  But it was his studio innovations that truly made him immortal and earned him a sacred position in the Inventors’ Hall of Fame.

Les Paul actually gave us multi-track recordings.  Today, musicians take it for granted that they can go into the studio, lay down a track, then another, then another and so on.  But before Mr. Paul, such wizardry was unheard of.  And he not only invented it, he immediately set out to push the envelope as to what could be done with it.  His classic recordings with vocalist wife Mary Ford are still staggering to listen to, as he layered guitar on guitar and voice on voice to create walls of sound Phil Spector couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Les Paul: Chasing Sound is a loving look at the man and his legend.  It’s filled with great music, classic appearances, testimonies from some of music’s most prolific stars, and plenty of history.  To watch it is akin to seeing a documentary on Thomas Edison, so important were Paul’s contributions to the world of music to which me and many of my friends so cheerfully belong.

So crucial were his technical innovations, it’s easy to overlook Mr. Paul as a musician.  As a guitar player, he was second fiddle to no one, with his joyful, energetic style and flourishes of notes that still leaves modern players agape.  His technology expanded the frontiers, but it would have meant nothing to him as a musician had he not been so gifted.

At age 90, he’s mercifully still with us, and he still plays once a week at the Iridium Jazz Club in New York with his trio, a weekly event that is something of a true happening.  People come from all over the world to see him.  Some even bring their own guitars and jam with him.  But most just want to see a true living legend, and speak a word or two of heartfelt thanks, which the Waukesha native always accepts graciously and in stride.

He doesn’t have the speed of his youth, but he’s more than content to let the spotlight shine on others as he plays.  He still has that signature tone that changed the face of jazz, country and rock and roll, and fans are still delighted by every note emanating from his now classic guitar.

That guitar, by the way, is legendary in its own right.  Approached by Gibson in the early 50s, Paul designed a solid body electric that would forever bear his signature.  Now, more than five decades later, it still remains the standard for solid body electrics alongside Fender’s Telecaster and Stratocaster.  Everyone from Jimmy Page to Slash earned fame, notoriety and tons of money with sounds they created on Les’ guitar.  I have one myself, and honestly, for pure tone, sustain, and versatility, there is no instrument like it on the planet.  It’s not hard to fathom how in 50 years no one has ever really improved on it.

Simply put, turn on your radio anywhere and at any time of the day, and what you’re hearing would not be possible without Les Paul.  It’s rare you can point to one pivotal figure in history and truly say, “he changed everything.”  Les Paul is that figure…a giant among men, inventors and musicians, and today, he still wears his legend like a comfortable old sweater.

Thanks, Les!

Video ***

The video quality is quite good overall, with many darker club scenes juxtaposed with daylit ones.  There is some softness here and there, but for the subject matter, the anamorphic transfer is more than serviceable.

Audio ***

I’m glad for the 5.1 mix…to be sure, there’s plenty of talking, but there’s also plenty of music, and the digital audio really makes Les’ music, both classic and new, come alive with clarity and dynamic range.

Features ***1/2

Les is all over the extras.  For starters, you can hear some full length performances of him and his trio at the Iridium Jazz Club, with some special guests.  I love how he exclaims "A FENDER?!" to Steve Miller in mock indignation.

There is a collection of vintage live duets including Keith Richards, Kay Starr, Merle Haggard and Chet Atkins.  There are several of his classic television appearances with Mary Ford (dig those crazy Listerine ads), plus extended conversations with the man himself and a photo gallery.

Summary:

For anyone who loves music, Les Paul is an indelible artist and innovator.  Hopefully he will be with us for many more years to come, but when he does finally shuffle off his mortal coil, it can honestly be said about him that he left the world a better place than he found it.

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