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Kenny Burrell: Every Note Swings

By Published: February 6, 2012
AAJ: Have you experienced any culture shock moving to the Los Angeles area from the US Midwest?

KB: I live in Los Angeles because I've been the Director of the Jazz Studies Program here at UCLA for more than a dozen years now. Since 1996, I've been permanent here, because that's when I started the jazz studies program. It's different, of course. But I had been coming out here since 1978 because I've been teaching part-time at UCLA since then, so I had been spending part of the year out here anyway.

AAJ: You recorded a series of wonderful albums for Blue Note Records, including Midnight Blue, which is often cited as the highlight of your Blue Note catalog. What are your recollections of Midnight Blue?

KB: I remember quite a bit about it because it was something that I had a vision about before I went into the studio. I was thinking about recording an album, and was writing songs and did not hear a piano involved. It came to me that it would be musically okay and seemed like it would be a nice thing to do. That was the first thing: I had these harmonies, which I wanted to play on the guitar, that I felt were sufficient. That was the sound I wanted to get for the backup harmony. That was one of the first things that made it different: It was just guitar, bass and drums, and saxophone. I was envisioning Latin percussion and had been working with Ray Barretto
Ray Barretto
Ray Barretto
1929 - 2006
a lot, so he was obviously the first choice. I had also been working with Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
Stanley Turrentine
1934 - 2000
sax, tenor
a lot, with Jimmy Smith and so on. That was another choice that I was hearing in my head about the sound I wanted to get for this album, so I asked Stanley to do it, and he was onboard.

And then the tunes that I was writing seemed like they all had to do, or were closely associated with, the blues. Some of them—two or three or maybe four of them—were blues, and they had a certain kind of a mood. That's been kind of my philosophy for a number of years: If that's where the mood's going, make it good—stay with it, and make it good. So that was the idea.

For some strange reason, I felt like including a tune by Don Redman
Don Redman
Don Redman
1900 - 1964
. Not because it was Don Redman but because I liked the song "Gee Baby, Ain't I Good to You?" which is kind of a bluesy song anyway. The point is that I just felt like including that for no apparent reason. We don't always know why we think of things when we're being creative. I don't know why this one piece would come to me in the midst of all these original pieces. I could have just made it all originals, but I went with my feeling, and I felt that it would fit.

The other thing about that record, which I don't know that I've told a lot of people, was one piece called "Soul Lament." I made that one up on the spot, and I had never done that before. But I was just kind of fooling around in between takes and this idea started to take form in my head. I was just sitting there and I asked Rudy [Van Gelder], "Turn the mike on. Let's see what I can come up with here." I was thinking of it more as a composition. Then he turned the mike on and I think it was just one take that I did it and then said, "Well, now, that's not too bad." So we decided to keep it. But that was just made up and I had never done that before.

Two more things about it that I really appreciated: a lot of the musicians who I respected, great jazz musicians, really liked the album. I was surprised because it's basically an album with a lot of blues on it. It's not complicated. I was surprised but they said that they liked it a lot. It made me feel really good because I wasn't trying to simplify anything. That was just the way I was feeling on that particular album.

Then, lo and behold, later on I found out that the label's owner, Alfred Lion, said that was his favorite album of all the albums he had ever done on Blue Note. Again, I was blown away. I was in shock, because this was an album with not a lot of complication to it but it had a lot of feeling, of course. His wife was the one who told me. A couple of people told me that. She asked him the question, "Why do you like it so much?" And he said, "Because every note swung." I couldn't receive a better compliment. In fact, it was one of the records that were buried with him. I'm sure he liked other albums, but for him to say that...I guess how we played the stuff really touched people and that made me very happy.

AAJ: You were the only guitarist with whom John Coltrane recorded. What do you recall about Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane?

KB: I moved to New York in '56, and lived in '57, '58, '59, into the '60s there. I was very involved in a various kinds of record dates, a lot that you probably don't even know about, pop records as well. But the jazz records—I did a lot of those, as you know.

There was something they called "blowing sessions" which were usually done on Prestige, Blue Note, and Savoy Records. Those three record companies did a lot of blowing sessions. A "blowing session" meant that the A&R person or the owner—in this case, it would be Bob Weinstock for Prestige—called up a group of young jazz musicians and said, "Okay, we're going to record in a couple of weeks. Everybody bring at least one song, two if you like." So we'd all bring a song or two, and we'd kind of run it down maybe once or twice, and then we'd record it. That's the way those blowing sessions went.

This was a blowing session with me and 'Trane and [Tommy] Flanagan, and I think Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
Jimmy Cobb
and Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
Paul Chambers
1935 - 1969
bass, acoustic
. That was what that was. The leader was not necessarily determined all the time in advance, but I think in this case it was determined that we would be co-leaders (not by us, because we were both young, but by the record company), which was fine.

Because I had met John Coltrane in '51 while we were both playing in Dizzy Gillespie's small group; my first real experience with the big time, when Dizzy came to Detroit and played a month at a club there, Club Juana, and Coltrane was in the band. Coltrane was in there, Percy Heath
Percy Heath
Percy Heath
1923 - 2005
bass, acoustic
, Milt Jackson, and the drummer's name was Kansas Fields
Kansas Fields
. I made my first recordings within a few weeks of that gig, which were "Tin Tin Deo" and "Birk's Works." "Tin Tin Deo" at that time was one of the first Latin jazz pieces.

Anyway, that's when I met 'Trane. We remained friends. He was one of the most focused people I have ever met in my life, and just to be around him really made you maintain a seriousness about what you were doing. When I moved to New York, he and I and others were in kind of a group of players that often got called for these blowing sessions. I guess 'Trane and I decided in the middle of it just to do a duet, and we did "Why Was I Born?"

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