Tal Farlow (1921-1998) was a remarkable musician who revolutionized jazz guitar playing and then disappeared. He abandoned the plaudits, the fame, and the limelight for a quiet life in a town called Sea Bright on the Jersey shore, returning to his previous occupation as a sign painter. But he never stopped making music.
This 1981 documentary reveals the quiet life Farlow led in Sea Bright and features many interludes of his jaw-dropping exploits on the guitar. Farlow proves warm-hearted and winning. His remarkably huge hands reached intervals and chord shapes on the fretboard that are impossible for nearly all guitarists. He was physically gifted to accomplish special things on this instrument. That's not to say it was easy for him. Just like any other musician he had to graft and toil to achieve his skill set. It's a joy to see Farlow contented, flashing grins at his fellow musicians while in the midst of a jam session as they execute musical derring-do.
It's interesting to consider that Farlow's virtuosity inevitably will leave casual music fans behind. They can't countenance his quest. To them his work either sounds like background noise or something curious and unworthy of sustained attention. This is a quirk of jazz: it is the most difficult music to perform and yet it is the easiest for an audience to tune out.
Two quotes from Farlow interview sessions in the documentary compelled me the most. Each is a rumination on the act of performance:
"Jazz musicians, I believe, play for their co-players on the bandstand. They play for each other as much or sometimes more than to the people in the audience. Often there's more educated listening going on on the bandstand than there is out front. It's sort of a musical conversation. The back and forth of that I think is what makes a good jazz performance."
"There's an intensity that the good performer feels, and the business of getting it together and presenting it in a way that he's happy with can be almost painful, in a way. Physically painful. And sometimes he neglects his health. Many brilliant jazz musicians didn't live to the age of thirty-five, which is a tragedy. I think in many cases they reach for something to make them less sensitive to that feeling that they have, which is very uncomfortable. It's sort of a feeling that you're not doing what you're capable of. You probably remember back to a time or situation where you performed where you thought you did pretty good. And then that's the level that you must not drop below. And when you do, which you certainly inevitably will, it is painful then. I suppose it's about the possibility of failing, and maybe failing badly. It has never happened to me, I don't think, but it just seems to me there's enough of a possibility there to create a little worrying."