When Emily Remler was a kid in Englewood Cliffs, NJ, she tried out her brother’s Gibson guitar and loved it. Soon she could figure out 1960s rock songs by ear from the radio. Although she thought of music as just a fun hobby, on a whim she applied to Berklee College of Music. They accepted her in 1973, when she was 16, and that’s when she discovered jazz.
Remler’s dual musical background – she loved Jimi Hendrix as much as she loved Wes Montgomery – gave her playing an unusual character that made her a sought-after musician during her short career. After this prodigy graduated from music school at 18, she moved to New Orleans and introduced herself to jazz guitar master Herb Ellis. He helped her book a gig at the Concord Jazz Festival, and that put her in the big time.
As a guitarist, collaboration was a necessity, and she often worked with the top people in her field. One of her most important associations was with singer Astrud Gilberto, who got her into playing Brazilian music.
As for the infamous sexism of the jazz scene, Remler never let it slow her down. But that’s not to say she didn’t experience it. She once told a reporter that, when she was playing, “I don’t know whether I’m a boy, girl, dog, cat, or whatever.” But once she left the stage, “That’s when people remind me I’m a woman.”
Remler died in 1990, at the age of 32, of a heart attack that probably resulted from drug addiction. A terrible loss and a terrible waste, but the jazz world was lucky to have her as long as it did. She deserves to be remembered. Please enjoy these eight great tracks by Emily Remler.
- “Perk’s Blues”
Remler’s debut album contains a wide range of tunes, from Ellington to Jobim, and a few by Remler herself. She signed with Concord when she was 22, and her first record was produced by the label’s founder, Carl Jefferson; Concord Records had originally specialized in jazz guitarists, so it’s not surprising that Jefferson was happy to corral another one and work with her personally.
“Perk’s Blues” is one of Remler’s own tunes. You can hear why she was so valued for her ability to swing effortlessly while playing virtuosically. And she’s joined by some top-notch swing men: Hank Jones on piano, Bob Maize on bass, and Jake Hanna on drums.
For her second album, Concord experimented with calling Remler and colleagues the Emily Remler Quartet. This time it’s James Williams, piano, Terry Clarke, drums, and Don Thompson, bass.
The album opens with the 1955 tune “Cannonball,” by alto sax legend Cannonball Adderley (who had died in 1975). Thompson’s frenetic rhythm on the drums is spectacular, helping to drive Remler’s light-fingered bop.
- “Nunca Mais”
Once again the guitarist is billed just as Emily Remler, and she’s working with yet another group of colleagues (this time with the trumpet of John D’Earth instead of a pianist). Transitions is a good example of the Gilberto influence on Remler’s taste and style.
This track is a very fast version of a samba by Antonio Carlos Jobim, usually called “Brigas, Nunca Mais.” Remler shortens the title, which seems appropriate, given her breathless tempo. By using techniques like not pressing all the way down at the frets, Remler turns her guitar into a percussion instrument.
Remler wrote all seven tracks of the Catwalk album. All the same folks are back in the studio as the previous album, including John D’Earth and his mesmerizing trumpet playing.
“Gwendolyn” starts at 11:56 on this full-album video (ignore the incorrect time links in the video caption). It’s great to hear Remler play something so lyrical. Bob Moses’ work on the brushes is particularly noteworthy.
- “Six Beats, Six Strings”
Larry Coryell, who died in 2017, was sometimes known as the “Godfather of Fusion,” which made him the perfect partner to the multi-genre Remler. Here, it’s just the two guitarists trying to get inside each other’s head on this intense but fun album.
The Coryell composition “Six Beats, Six Strings” uses Spanish fingerpicking patterns and blends them into cool jazz harmonies. What a treat to hear these masters play acoustic instruments!
- “The Second Time Around”
Rosemary Clooney is one of those rare Hollywood stars who matured into a great musician. The lower and older her voice got, the more sophisticated her performances, and she wound up being a surprisingly effective interpreter of jazz standards. Clooney was 58 when she made this album, yet she was clearly keeping up with the times, choosing young Remler to join her array of backing musicians.
“The Second Time Around” features a very mellow Remler, providing perfect support for Clooney’s understated expression of Sammy Cahn’s famous lyrics.
The Remler Quartet has another incarnation. The only surprise is that it took Remler so long to make an album in honor of one of her guitar heroes, Wes Montgomery (1923-1968). But a closer look at the track list shows that this is a more general tribute, acknowledging several of her favorite musicians.
One of those is trumpeter Clifford Brown. There’s no trumpet on this record, so Remler has to take the lead on Brown’s “Daahoud.” As she explained on the jacket notes, “I really identify with the trumpet. A guitarist can sound like a trumpet player. I try sometimes.”
- “Around the Bend”
For her last album, Remler embarked on what she presumably meant to be a new chapter in her musical life: a blending of contemporary and jazz sounds. To this end, she amassed a large component of session musicians to help out on This Is Me.
“Around the Bend” is a Remler composition. The soft-jazz harmonies and reverberating hi-hat are telltale signs of the “contemporary” genre that the music industry was pushing hard around 1990. But Remler’s playing is transparently expressive without over-reaching.