By Wolf Marshall Few can claim the title of living legend. Kenny Burrell is just such a person. He has recorded at least albums as a band leader and is today, at age 82, still on top of his game. His latest offering is Special Requests, a live set from , ; which reached 1 on the jazz charts in September and was the most-reported jazz album on 51 radio stations. The paragon of taste, feeling, and sophistication, Burrell is also the quintessential sideman, lending his touch to hundreds of important recordings over the last six decades. Today, he is active recording and performing, a respected educator, and an elder statesman of the music.
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By Wolf Marshall Few can claim the title of living legend. Kenny Burrell is just such a person. He has recorded at least albums as a band leader and is today, at age 82, still on top of his game.
His latest offering is Special Requests, a live set from , ; which reached 1 on the jazz charts in September and was the most-reported jazz album on 51 radio stations. The paragon of taste, feeling, and sophistication, Burrell is also the quintessential sideman, lending his touch to hundreds of important recordings over the last six decades.
Today, he is active recording and performing, a respected educator, and an elder statesman of the music. His legacy is pervasive. His soulful sound and approach have influenced virtually everyone claiming a jazz pedigree but extends to many outside the genre, a la Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Steve Howe, Andy Summers, and Freddie King. Talking with him is like taking a guided tour through the soundtrack of jazz, with casual asides to Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, Stan Getz, Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, Eubie Blake, and Jimmy Smith along the way — a travelog accompanied by a healthy dose of deep musical philosophy that bespeaks his years of paying dues and life lessons learned and assimilated.
Innovation and history-making have followed Burrell through the decades and are part and parcel of his jazz journey, marked by advances in the organ trio, guitar trio, solo chord-melody playing, orchestral experiments, and much more. The blues has drawn many listeners and fans of different genres to you. The blues is part of my heritage, part of my surroundings growing up in Detroit — on the radio, on records, in clubs, on the street. Like most guitarists, the blues was what I first learned to play.
In my earliest jam sessions, we always played the blues. It felt natural. I will never deny that part of who I am. I never felt that way. Time has proven me right. Throughout the history of jazz, people play the blues in many forms — fast, medium, slow, funky, sophisticated, in different meters and avant-garde.
The argument that blues is beneath you is not right. Who were your guitar influences? And I was indirectly affected by acoustic blues players, on record, radio, and around the neighborhood. King has cited you as his favorite guitarist. Have you played much with him in your career?
I made a record with B. We played a song together in a jam session; it was very nice. And, he was onstage with us at my 80th-birthday concert. But there was nothing like the timbre, volume, grandeur, and dazzling appearance of the Super Representing the pinnacle of archtop evolution, the Super reigned supreme in swing bands and pop orchestras, but was also played by country artists Roy Rogers, Hank Snow, Don Gibson with Joe Maphis, and Hank Thompson. The Super CES cutaway electric Spanish was introduced in and ushered in an era of amplified excellence akin to what the Super had done for acoustic archtops.
The sixth version of the Super CES was nearly identical to the acoustic Super C — same appointments, dimensions, ornamentation, Y-shaped adjustable tailpiece, and finish options. It had a carved spruce top and back of bookmatched curly maple. However, its top was fitted with two built-in pickups and carved slightly thicker to reduce vibration and feedback.
Small strut braces were used at the tips of the tone bars for greater rigidity. Its sharp point and larger space necessitated a rim fashioned of two pieces instead of a single bent piece.
The first was attached alongside the neck block, bent into the cutaway, and brought up to its outer point. The second piece began there as the outside rim and continued around the outer edge of the body to the heel block. The two ends meeting at the Florentine point were covered with thick white binding. The new body style was accompanied by a longer neck block and shorter pickguard screwed into the top. The three-way pickup selector switch was mounted in a rubber grommet to silence switching noises.
The tailpiece had smaller and simpler engraving. This is detected by comparing grain patterns inside the body, through the f-shaped sound holes, with grains on the back — revealing differences in direction and figuration.
Gibson continued to use gold-plated Kluson Sealfast tuners in the decade. The earliest Florentine models had a two-piece maple neck with a single mahogany strip. In due course, the Super CES would prove formidable in a variety of music.
Witness the varied tangents of Merle Travis, father of country picking, Scotty Moore, rock pioneer with Elvis, funk-jazz-studio wiz Eric Gale, Larry Coryell, father of fusion, blues-rock innovator Robben Ford, modern jazz-pop virtuoso George Benson, and venerable jazz legend Kenny Burrell. King shape your aesthetics? Yes, but beyond the styles of different people is a certain feeling. In blues and in jazz, the most important aspect of communicating your music is honesty. As humans, we get hung up on trying to be honest.
Music is a place where you can do that freely. It may not give you instant success, but, I believe if you do it consistently, it will give you long-term success. You got your professional start in jazz with Dizzy Gillespie. Yes, I was We met at the Club Juana, in Detroit, and I played with him for one month. He needed a quick replacement and I got the call — probably a recommendation from Milt Jackson. It was the first time Dizzy used a guitar instead of piano to play back-up chords, solos, and ensemble lines.
He continued to use that format in some of his ensembles for the rest of his career. You are the only guitarist to have recorded with him, playing on at least four albums.
What was it like at the famous session you co-led in while recording the Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane album? I was happy to be in the circle of people called for that. We were each expected to bring in one or two songs.
You run something down once or twice and record it. I had to be on my toes, but was with great people. There were no problems. We had a few originals and couple of standards, nothing complicated. For some reason, they made Trane and me co-leaders on the date.
The other record in that period was The Cats. I enjoyed playing with Trane because there was always magic happening. You recorded a hit pop song with Louis Armstrong. That was a slight departure; you played acoustic guitar. I got a call from one of my regular contractors and I was just happy to be playing with Louis Armstrong. I had no idea the record would be that big.
That was a nylon-string played fingerstyle. Did it reflect your classical training? I still use the technique I learned as a classical player. My advice to players is to learn all you can. How active were you as a studio player? Did you have a variety of instruments?
Yes, I had to have them. I certainly had a jazz guitar — a couple of them — and a couple acoustic guitars, steel-string and a nylon. I also had a couple of what I call blues or rock guitars; I set up an ES for that and used the bridge pickup and lighter-gauge strings, for bending. Those are just the sessions; my name was on maybe 10 percent of them. Usually, at a session we made four records.
I was like a doctor, constantly on call. Still, I enjoyed the studio work; it made me feel I was good at my craft. It was steady work and after a couple of weeks you hardly need to look at the music.
It allowed time to practice, think conceptually, and write music for albums like Midnight Blue and Guitar Forms. Do you consider either of those albums career-defining? I see imperfection in all my records so for me none are definitive. But for convenience you could start with Guitar Forms; that gives a broad view of what I do. I did a variety of music — blues, flamenco, classical, bossa nova, Latin, folk, and modern jazz, pieces with a large ensemble and small combo with electric and acoustic guitars.
What were your experiences with Billie Holiday? My group was popular in town, so we backed her a few times. I think we had pianist Tommy Flanagan in the band. Billie liked the way I played and that I was sensitive to the lyrics. I tried to complement her and not get in the way of her music. We became friends and had mutual respect. I also played on a number of her records, including the last one, Lady in Satin.
Chitlins Con Carne
Burrell has inspired countless guitarists to make the switch from blues and rock to jazz with his own unique style of blues and bebop inspired playing. Kenny Burrell has been a high-in-demand guitarist during his entire career. By studying these licks and applying them to your own jazz guitar solos, you will be able to insert a bit of the blues and bebop vocabulary that has made Burrell a favorite among jazz guitarists. Lines like this, simple yet great sounding phrases, are what launched Kenny Burrell to worldwide success back at the start of his career. While they are easy to play, they are deceptively tricky to nail in a solo at the same level as Burrell. The difference between the minor pentatonic scale of lick 3 and the minor blues scale is the blue note a b5.
Chitlins Con Carne