All three solo improvisations are outstanding, creating beautiful and original variations on the melody without letting it slip away. You might want to include this track in your "Lost on a Desert Island" list.
Track 16, "How Long Has This Been Going On?"
Possibly the most beautiful recording of this Gershwin tune is Ella Fitzgerald's 1954 rendition, on the album titled Pure Ella. Listen to this first, then go to Kessel. His version Is pure and simple: a few alternating solos between guitar and oboe, and not a lot of improvisationhe's just letting this gorgeous melody play out naturally.
The track opens with a straight rendition by solo oboe backed by guitar, and then at 0:35, Kessel takes a turn at playing the melody straight. At 1:03, listen for a bit of counterpoint, with the oboe playing behind the guitar. Then it's back to a guitar solo, and at 1:35 more counterpoint, this time with the guitar playing behind the oboe. At 2:07, a little improvisation by Kessel (notice the bit of "Oriental" flavor here), and at 2:39 the piece closes out with another oboe solo with guitar counterpoint.
Track 24, "64 Bars on Wilshire"
Like "North of the Border" (track 12), this is a written-on-the-spot kind of tune, partly arranged, partly improvised. It's taken at a very fast pace, and yet despite the breakneck speed, the ensemble playing is crisp and clean and the solos are logical variations on the original melody. Think of it as tightly controlled frenzy, and notice how the discipline makes it all the more exciting.
The basic theme is laid out first, with Manne adding tight drum interjections. Notice at 0:32 the way he inserts a quick roll on the snare drum to kick the music in the pants and push the players into another arranged segment. Then listen closely to the interplay between the dominant tenor sax and the subsidiary guitar.
At 1:01, a piano solo that manages to be delicate despite the speed; at 1:28 a solid tenor sax solo; and then at 1:55, three choruses of nice guitar improvisation. At 2:49, more counterpoint between tenor sax and guitar, and finally at 3:02 the ensemble returns to the basic theme to close things out.
These three tracks are from the album "Music to Listen to Barney Kessel By," recorded several years after the first two albums. Here Kessel expands his palette of wind instruments to include clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe, bassoon, flute and English horn. It yields a lush, intriguing sound, a treat for the ears (although some of the meticulously arranged tracks are barely jazz).
Track 16, "Carioca"
You've probably heard this tune without knowing its name. It was written in 1933 by Vincent Youmans for the hit Astaire-Rogers movie, "Flying Down to Rio." Kessel treats the tune essentially as written, but he uses contrasting rhythms and textures to create excitement. (All those woodwinds really help!) The result is a joyous feast of sound, with lots of room for some wonderful drumming.
The track begins with Kessel stating the theme, accompanied by the assembled horns. Then at 0:21, Kessel plays the main melody with a Latin beat underneath. At 0:42, there's a sudden, exhilarating switch to a standard jazz beat, with Kessel improvising on the melody. At 1:03 it's back to the Latin beat with everyone playing the melody in unison (and someone playing castinets!).
At 1:37, listen for a remarkable dialogue between guitar and drums, a musical conversation in which Shelly Manne proves that in the right hands, the drum can be an expressive "instrument," not just a tool to mark the beat.
At 3:17, a return to the basic theme, stated by the guitar and answered by the ensemble. At 3:38, the piece is closed out with guitar improvisation over a strong jazz beat.
Track 17, "Mountain Greenery"
A delightful song by Rogers and Hart, with chuckle-out-loud lyrics filled with puns and internal rhymes. Before dipping into Kessel's rendition, be sure to listen to Mel Torme's recording of this song, on an album called Live at Marty's. (Torme made other recordings of "Greenery," but the one at Marty's is by far the best.)