Back in the 1950's, before jazz was "America's classical music," when it was still a contender among the various genres in American popular music, Barney Kessel was the perennial winner of the guitarist's spot in the jazz polls which various magazines conducted. Readers of Downbeat, Playboy and the long-gone Metronome liked the clear electric timbre, swift runs, rhythmic licks, block chords, clever arranging and mix of standards and originals which were the staples of Kessel's style. Although Kessel's roots in the pre-bop guitar work of fellow Oklahoman Charlie Christian are readily apparent, like all the best of the 1950's players, he brought more to his art than imitation or influence, creating a pleasant and light-hearted music with enough subtlety to keep the fans interested, yet without so much complexity as to alienate the larger group of more casual listeners.
He came up in the 1940's, working in the big bands, settling in Los Angeles, garnering a reputation as an able session man. He picked up on the new sounds the boppers were bringing from New York, contributing several Christian-inspired solos to Charlie Parker's 1947 "Relaxin' at Camarillo" date. Touring with pianist Oscar Peterson in the early 1950's brought him more notice, and he settled into regular studio work with the west coast based labels Verve and Contemporary, including dates with Art Tatum, Benny Carter, Shorty Rogers, Lester Young, Ella Fitzgerald, and Hampton Hawes, among many others: a range of swing, mainstream, and modern players. As a musician popular among listeners as well, Kessel was a leader on quite a few LP's for Contemporary Records, and many of these are making their way into Fantasy's Original Jazz Classics reissue catalogue. Two of the latest are covered here: EXPLORING THE SCENE (1960) and WORKIN' OUT (1961). EXPLORING THE SCENE (OJC Contemporary) is one of several productions by a studio group, The Poll Winners, a trio of Kessel and two others who like Kessel dominated the 1950's magazine polls on their instruments: Ray Brown on bass and fellow Angeleno Shelly Manne on drums. It's the fifth reissued by OJC and features nine compositions by contemporary jazz musicians, ranging from the familiar (Erroll Garner's "Misty") to the less known (John Lewis' "The Golden Striker"). Interestingly enough, they also included a contribution by Ornette Coleman ("The Blessing"), who had just finished a lengthy residence in LA and had led a session including Manne for Contemporary the previous year. Their workout on Miles Davis' "So What" exemplifies their approach: abstracting the melody with percussion and guitar, then playing it straight, then moving into Kessel's solo, which begins with long lines and peaks with rhythmic chords, followed by Brown's solo as Kessel riffs behind him, and finally the two riffing softly as Manne lays on some tasty drumming. Throughout the session, Kessel's frequent block chording is virtuosic without sacrificing any rhythmic excitement. His long single-note lines seem less imaginative to me. Brown with his fat bass sound and Manne with his beautiful clarity are both pictures of precision, and is that a problem? Worked-out settings, easy swing, a great jazz repertoire, and a three-cornered equal partnership on mainly three and four minute selections make for some nice sounds, combining the virtues of west coast arranging and mellowness with small group interaction.
In WORKIN' OUT (OJC Contemporary), Kessel shows a bit of a Coltrane influence, with "My Man's Gone Now" taken at a waltz tempo with a long vamp section, along the lines of Coltrane's "My Favorite Things"; and his own "Pedal Point" likewise in a modal vein. The moods of the tunes vary, as pianist Marvin Jenkins switches to a simple melodic flute for the ballads "My Funny Valentine" and Kessel's "Spanish Scenery," and drummer Stan Popper plays tambourine to emphasize the stomping gospel feel of Jenkins' blues opener "Good Li'l Man." Mostly Kessel is in charge, though, with rapid-fire arpeggios in an up-tempo version of "Summertime," a flamenco-inflected introduction to "Spanish Scenery," and exciting high speed single-note lines and rapid repeated polyrhythmic chords in "Pedal Point." If the piano and guitar solos occasionally seem to fall into blues licks, there's still enough invention to keep this varied program of eight mostly five- and six-minute tracks stimulating. Jenkins, Popper, and bassist Jerry Good may be a little rougher as backup rhythm than Brown and Manne something that could be said of almost any other rhythm section but their arrangements of the tunes are similarly tight, making once again for some pleasant listening.
This review copyright (c) 1998 by Larry Koenigsberg.