Guitarist Lenny Breau's short life (1941-1984) is a movie waiting to be made. Before his still unsolved murder, he was able to bring a new voice to the guitar by adapting country fingerpicking technique to the intricacies of modern jazz. A Breau hallmark was his highly developed ability to play bass, chords and single notes concurrently - in effect having a trio in his right hand.
The newly re-released Complete Living Room Tapes, with clarinetist Brad Terry, is a 2-CD close look at Breau in peak form, circa 1979. It contains four new bonus tracks and presents a comprehensive picture of his influences and virtuosity. Though Breau was largely unappreciated by the general public, unreliable at times due to a drug problem, and unable to carve out his own musical niche, a listen to this intimate live portrait lends credence to guitarist Chet Atkins' claim that Breau was "the greatest guitarist in the world." Recorded over several visits to Brad Terry's Maine farmhouse, these are home or small club recordings, with, for the most part, excellent sound quality.
Breau modestly describes his new 7-string guitar by saying, "I never played this in public before...It’s got a high A string on it. It’s fishing line," and then rips off blazing country fingerpicking on "The Claw." The works of several jazz pianists restated for guitar are especially captivating. Bill Evans' "Remembering the Rain" features an arpeggio of raindrops falling through a lovely background of chord voicings. McCoy Tyner's "Visions" is gracefully translated through the use of harmonics and Errol Garner is uncannily reprised on "It Could Happen to You".
It is almost trivial to compare Breau to other jazz guitarists, in that calling him a "jazz" guitarist is somewhat of a misnomer. As Breau amazes as an innovator and master of disparate styles, genre becomes irrelevant. He is shown to be at home, country fingerpicking on "Cannonball Rag" and "Nine Pound Hammer," playing flamenco on "Flamenco" and "Send in the Clowns," and interpreting the jazz standards "How High the Moon" and "Stella by Starlight."
The pairing of Brad Terry's warm clarinet with Breau's expert playing makes for a surprisingly full sound. Terry appears on about half of the cuts and plays off Breau's guitar with grace. He makes the somewhat odd pairing of electric guitar and clarinet sound as if the two should always be featured together. The players seem immensely comfortable with each other; this is especially evident on "Emily" and both versions of "Autumn Leaves." When Terry's clarinet takes the lead, as on "Indiana," Breau plays the role of rhythm section, allowing Terry to showcase his own impressive improvisational abilities. There are also some very personal and amusing moments that feature an imitation of "Johnny Cash Sings Jazz?" and "Lenny's Radio," a trip down the radio dial courtesy of Breau's guitar. A guitarist in the truest sense, Lenny Breau utilizes an unqualified understanding of the range and dynamics of his instrument on The Complete Living Room Tapes.
This review originally appeared in AllAboutJazz - New York .
Personnel: Lenny Breau - Guitar (Acoustic), Guitar (Electric), Vocals
Brad Terry - Clarinet, Whistle (Human), Producer, Engineer, Liner Notes