The Guitar Wizardry of Larry Koonse and Mike Moreno

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Jazz guitarist Larry Koonse Photo by Bob Barry

I’ve loved and admired many jazz guitarists over the years—Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Pat Martino, Django Reinhardt, and Kenny Burrell—to name just a few. But for various (and obvious) reasons, rock guitarists get all the attention, fame, and kudos, while jazz guitarists typically remain under the radar. An old quote I heard goes, “…and asked why he became a jazz musician, he replied, ‘I hate crowds’.” The truth is, jazz guitarists can play circles around some famous pop and rock guitarists. So for this post, I thought I’d spotlight two jazz guitar wizards who can inspire anyone who’s not afraid of the challenge of learning and playing jazz guitar.

Mike Moreno and Larry Koonse are both so busy touring and recording with big-name acts that they rarely have time to make their own albums. They can accompany anybody, from singers to orchestras. With their keen improvisational sense and ability to read any chart, plus their crisp articulation and sense of swing, they have no trouble finding steady work with top names in the business today. Which makes their own albums even more special. I’ve been listening to Larry Koonse’s latest album New Jazz Standards Volume 4 (Summit Records) as well as Mike Moreno’s 3 for 3 (Criss Cross Jazz) from a couple of years back.

Larry Koonse, the son of guitarist Dave Koonse, earned the first-ever Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies at USC. Early on, Larry toured the world with the Johnny Dankworth/Cleo Laine band, and went on to work with Hubert Laws, Natalie Cole, Luciana Souza, Bob Brookmeyer, Charlie Haden, Alan Broadbent, and many others. He performed in South Africa by invitation of Nelson Mandela/UNICEF, and has been a featured soloist with orchestras around the world, including our own L.A. Philharmonic.

Koonse is a schooled musician with keen ears for improv, loads of technique, and obvious discipline. I like his ideas and his clean and clear execution. His latest album New Jazz Standards Volume 4 covers the music of trumpeter Carl Saunders, who worked with the big bands of Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Mel Tormé, Ella Fitzgerald and other luminaries. I only learned about Saunders’s music with this new album, which features Larry in the company of pianist Josh Nelson, bassist Tom Warrington, and drummer Joe LaBarbera. The tight-knit group excels in ballad playing as well as swinging 4/4 tunes. This seasoned pro deserves the ears of more jazz guitar fans. Koonse currently teaches at Cal Arts.

I first heard Mike Moreno on a record from the Criss Cross label from a few years ago, and immediately knew I wanted to follow this artist. More recently, while checking out the new Blue Note CD by drummer Kendrick Scott, my ears perked up when I heard the guitar solo and I wondered, “Who is the guitarist?” Turned out it was Mike Moreno.

An extremely versatile guitar virtuoso, Moreno works both in and outside of the jazz arena, backing musicians from Jason Moran, Eric Harlan, and Aaron Parks, to Gretchen Parlato and Meshell Ndegeocello. Moreno has also performed and recorded with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Like Koonse, Moreno plays fast, clean, and complicated lines with aplomb. His articulation and fingering are crisp and authoritative. But he can also adorn a slow ballad with a singular elegance. His chops and finesse come from his studies at the Houston High School for the Performing and Visual Arts as well the New School University in New York.

Mike Moreno is busy on the New York scene, but I hope to hear him live in Los Angeles soon. (Sam First Bar, Jazz Bakery, and bluewhale, are you listening?) As for Larry Koonse, we’re lucky to have him here in Los Angeles, at least when he’s not touring. He’ll be performing with Alan Broadbent on Sunday, June 16 at the Moss Theater in Santa Monica.

The videos below hopefully prove my point in praising these two wonderful guitar players. First up, from Moreno's 2017 album 3 for 3, his version of Wayne Shorter’s “The Big Push,” with Doug Weiss on bass and Kendrick Scott on drums:

The recording session for “The Big Push”:

Larry Koonse gives us a free master class guitar lesson for comping on II-V-I changes in jazz music:

Another master class lesson on blues changes:

Before I end…some of you may have heard about the effort to help Kenny Burrell with his medical and housing expenses. Please join me and donate to his gofundme campaign here.