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Barney Kessel: Barney Kessel: The First Four Albums

Mark Barnett By

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Getting Started

If you're new to jazz, go to our Getting Into Jazz primer for some hints on how to listen.

CD Capsule

Beautiful work by a luminary of the jazz guitar. These albums are a showcase for Kessel's skill and sensitivity, and a reminder of how gifted he was as an arranger.

Background

Barney Kessel, perhaps the most celebrated jazz guitarist of the 1950s and 60s, was a disciple of jazz pioneer Charlie Christian, whose earlier work was instrumental in introducing the amplified, or "electric" guitar to jazz.

Kessel spent most of his musical life in and around Los Angeles, which meant countless studio sessions and the opportunity to continually hone his skills. He was technically impeccable and at the same time a creative improviser. On slow ballads his playing had a luminous, melting quality while on up-tempo numbers his attack was crisp, clear and intense. Kessel was also an inventive musical arranger, as you'll hear in these CDs.

Most of Kessel's many albums were issued during the 1950s and 60s by the Contemporary Jazz label. Among the very best of these were the first ones he made. Luckily for us, four of those early albums have been re-issued in this two-CD collection.

We'll concentrate here on three of the four albums: Easy Like, Kessel Plays Standards and Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By. Nearly all their tracks have tightly arranged sections alternating with improvised solos, and this yin and yang—constriction and then freedom—generates a lot of excitement. Kessel uses a variety of wind instruments in these albums—alto and tenor sax, flute, oboe, and a variety of other woodwinds— but practically no brasses, perhaps to achieve a more mellow, woody tone. In all three albums, Kessel surrounds himself with top-flight, technically proficient musicians able to follow his split-second arrangements. But as you'll hear in their improvised solos, they can also play with drive and creativity. Pay particular attention to the work of Shelly Manne, a marvelous jazz drummer who appears on nearly every track. He's an absolute master of "tight but light" drumming: propulsive, tense as a coiled spring, pushing the music forward, and yet never loud or intrusive, never stepping on the toes of the other players. The fourth album, To Swing or Not to Swing, a traditional swing-era jam session, is in a different genre from the other three.

CD Highlights

Disc 1

Track 12, "North of the Border"

This written-on-the spot tune (not to be confused with the 1980 country music hit of the same name) is a joyful introduction to Kessel's arranging style. Listen to how the arranged and improvised parts alternate, and to the lyrical yet hard-driving work of the other players—all of this underlined by Manne's tight drumming.

The track opens with the melody played in unison by guitar, piano and alto sax. From 0.14 to 0.20, listen to the brief but tight interplay between guitar and sax. At 0.36, Kessel launches a nice improvised solo, followed by sax at 1:05 and piano at 1:36. At 2:04, it's back to the written stuff for a repeat of the opening.

Track 13, "Speak Low"

This beautiful song, written in 1943 for the musical "One Touch of Venus," has an impeccable pedigree: music by composer Kurt Weill, words by poet Ogden Nash. Be sure to listen to Sarah Vaughan's version, recorded live in 1958. But be ready for a downer—this is possibly the most angst-filled song in the Great American Songbook. You may want to wash it down with a Bugs Bunny cartoon or two.

Kessel's wordless version, taken at a medium-fast pace, leaves melancholy behind and concentrates on the tune. In the first third of so of the track, played in unison by guitar, oboe and piano, Latin rhythms alternate with a driving jazz beat, generating more excitement than either could alone. At 1:21, Kessel takes over for an extended improvised solo, and then at 1:17 it's back to the opening arrangement. Listen for the bit of dissonance inserted at the very end.

Track 15, "Slow Boat to China"

This is a nice song (you can listen to the Peggy Lee version first), but it's hardly a classic. Yet Kessel & Co. make something wonderful of it, a perfect, self- contained answer to the question, "What is jazz?" In fact I've used this track to help beginners understand jazz, and the little nods and smiles tell me it works.

Kessel's "Slow Boat" opens with the tune played straight and in unison by guitar, piano and tenor sax. Then, beginning at 0:31, the musicians take turns interpreting the melody—first piano, then sax, then guitar. Notice that each solo follows the same pre-ordained pattern: first a bit of scored introduction, then a measure of "stop-time," in which the rhythm section is silent for a moment, leaving the soloist playing alone, and finally two choruses of improvisation. (In the stop-time portion of Kessel's solo, Shelly Manne violates the silence with a bit of nifty drum work, which just makes things better.)

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