Last week would have been the 55th birthday of jazz guitarist Emily Remler … had she not died in 1990. To commemorate this great jazz guitarist and one of the pioneering female instrumentalists, I wanted to do a retrospective of her musical legacy.
There are way too many tales of artists who have died too young … it is just sad how many times we see examples of talented people whose careers were cut short because of their own self-destructive choices. In the case of Emily Remler, she died of a heart attack … no doubt exacerbated by some substance abuse struggles. She might not have been part of the ’27 club’, but at she 32 wasn’t far behind. Yet in less than a decade of recordings as a leader, she amassed a great reputation as instrumentalist, composer and bandleader and put together a solid discography.
My favorite quote from her:
I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavyset black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery
Looking back, I can understand why I never sought out the music of Emily Remler until close the end of her career. When she emerged in 1981 and gained immediate recognition, I was listening to very avant garde music and had little interest in mainstream jazz music. A few years earlier I had fallen in love with the ‘Great Guitars’ Concord Jazz recordings of Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and Charlie Byrd. Had I heard Firefly at that point, I would have been hooked … but not so much later.
The first recording I got featuring Emily Remler was ‘Together’, the duet with Larry Coryell on CD. I had heard some good things about it, and given that I already knew Larry Coryell from his long history at the forefront of jazz fusion playing, it was a simple decision. I loved the CD and it remains on my iTunes to this day.
My next purchase was ‘This Is Me’, which I got a bit after it was released, at which point I was saddened to learn I would never hear it live since she had already died. Over the following years I filled out my collection, including getting the two ‘collections’ without realizing that I already owned pretty much everything.
Let’s take a brief look at her recorded output:
1981 – Firefly (limited CD availability)
Summary: a young jazz guitarist facing bias against women instrumentalists deals with things head on – a straight-ahead record of swinging classics and a couple of originals that showed great artistry and potential. It came around the time that the ‘young lions’ such as Wynton Marsalis were revisiting the classic sounds from before fusion, and this recording fit in well with that crowd and got her more attention than she might have a couple of years earlier. The record was uneven, but had enough fire and promise to gain Remler a reputation.
Highlight: The song Firefly showed all of her influences, but also where she was headed – there is a reason it remains a fan favorite.
Here is the studio version of The Firefly:
Summary: A year after her debut, Remler was back with an album that is in many ways similar to her first, but also shows some significant growth as an artist, bandleader, composer and guitarist. The song Waltz for My Grandfather is gorgeous and a favorite, and her reading of Coltrane’s Afro Blue is stellar. For many, THIS was the moment when they really took notice – she was more than just a good young guitarist with promise.
Highlight: While everyone loves Afro Blue, I have to go with Waltz for My Grandfather as my fave. It is a gorgeously constructed song that I always enjoy hearing.
Summary: The aptly-named Transitions was all about Remler respectfully stepping out of the shadows of her mentors and seeking her own path. Part of this was changing up her band by removing the piano and adding a trumpet to the front line. This simple move broke her out of the Herb/Wes band mold, and her compositional direction shifted to a more Latin feel as well. All six songs on the record are strong, with great performances by all – and Remler shows versatility and stylistic variety we hadn’t heard before.
Highlight: Nunca Mais highlights Remler’s Latin grooves and ability to easily genre hop, mix lyrical passages with burning riffs, and her overall excellence.
From a Berklee Alumni concert, here is Nunca Mais:
Summary: Continue to seek her own voice, Remler keeps the band makeup the same and this time records all originals – and the results are excellent. She has found a great voice on the guitar, writes solid songs, and has teamed up with musicians who work well with her and keep things going at a very high level throughout.
Highlight: While all of the songs here are strong, Mocha Spice is one of her greatest works, showing off her skills on all levels.
Summary: As I mentioned, this was the first recording of Emily Remler I bought due to Larry Coryell – and it remains a favorite. I find that guitar duets tend to be hit or miss, but there are many I love: Ralph Towner/John Abercrombie, Larry Coryell/Philip Catharine, Jim Hall/Pat Metheny … and this. The best thing for me is that their instrumental voices are unique but complementary; there is no ego here as the two swap back and forth and play supportively throughout. Great listening for any occasion.
Highlight: The standards are the strongest songs, with Clifford Brown’s Joy Spring being my go-to song. That said, I have always enjoyed the CD from end to end.
How insensitive from just before she died
How Insensitive from the studio recording with Larry Coryell:
Summary: Coming after Catwalk and Together, this always felt to me like a ‘farewell to my past’ album. She pays clear homage to Wes Montgomery and Herb Ellis here, and returns to the guitar-piano-bass-drums format. The song selection is great, as are her compositions; but for me the highlight is Remler’s playing. Going from Firefly to THIS is simply stunning – she has complete harmonic mastery of the instrument and tosses off complex structures and builds amazing harmonies in every song. While thematically it was a step back, in every other way I see this as the overall pinnacle of her Concord years. Worth noting, this is pretty much THE Emily Remler recording you can find available pretty much anywhere on CD, MP3 or for streaming.
Highlight: Remler owed so much to the vision of Herb Ellis, and she did him proud with her homage ‘Blues for Herb’. A close second is the moody and modal Snowfall, a song I always seem to repeat whenever I listen to the album.
Here she plays Blues for Herb for solo guitar … for her mentor Herb Ellis:
Summary: For her final recording, Emily Remler changed record labels, and switched from straight-ahear jazz to electric jazz-fusion, adding Pat Metheny to her influences. This is my absolute favorite recording of hers – she brings the chops, vision, harmonic technique, compositional acumen and style of ‘East to Wes’ fully to bear in a new realm – and the results are one of the best albums of the genre. The melodies are catchy, solos are inventive, and best of all – it is more guitar-centric than ever without being an ego trip. Even within the album there are varying degrees of her Latin leanings, making the possibilities for further recordings even more intriguing
Highlight: My favorite song has always wavered between ‘You Know What I’m Saying’ and ‘Around the Bend’. The first is more harmonically intriguing, while the later simply burns … you just can’t go wrong.
Here is some talk about creating followed by a solo rendition of You Know What I’m Saying:
Summary: After her death, Concord Records put out two compilations of her music – one of jazz standards, the other of her own compositions. This release focuses on jazz standards. All of her Concord releases – including the Larry Coryell duet – are represented here. As I noted, Snowfall is one of my favorites from ‘East to Wes’ but is not included here. Otherwise I consider this an excellent representation of her career.
Here she plays the classic Moanin’ from a club show in 1989:
Summary: Similar to the first volume, this collects from the Concord recordings of Emily Remler – this time her compositions. We get everything from Firefly to Blues for Herb with Catwalk, Waltz for my Grandfather, and more in between. If you want to listen to Remler’s growth as a composer and in leading a band, this is a great volume.
With Astrid Gilberto in 1983 – Gilberto was past her prime and out of her element, but Emily sounds.
One of the saddest things is that you might have noticed that most of these records are labelled as ‘Out of Print’. Only ‘East to Wes’ is available digitally, and Firefly only became available over the last few months as I have been compiling this – and will soon be gone again as it wasn’t ‘officially’ re-released. The compilations were re-released in 1999, which is when I grabbed them – in general availability is very hit or miss for all of this.
In terms of buying or listening recommendations, I think that the two Retrospectives and ‘This Is Me’ would form a fairly comprehensive look at one of the most intriguing and talented guitarists of the last half-century. That makes it doubly sad that all three of those recordings are out of print with no indication from Concord (or reply otherwise) that a re-release is imminent. Therefore the only chance to check her out is by buying or streaming ‘East to Wes’ – itself a great recording as I indicated above.
It is always tragic when such a talented artist dies so young – but as I have relistened to her catalog again and again I have been struck by the amazing sense of progression: she started as merely an incredibly talented guitarist, grew into a skilled composer and bandleader and an INCREDIBLE guitarist, until for her last recording she emerged from her past to say triumphantly ‘This is me’ … only to die of a heart attack before we could see where she would take us musically.