Kenny Burrell: Every Note Swings

Chris M. Slawecki By

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It's important to help people understand how valuable and how important jazz is, and also to make them understand that this music is theirs, that it's a part of them. When more people learn to understand and appreciate it, it's going to be a win-win.
Kenny Burrell has appeared on so many essential jazz recordings that jazz history and his story seem irretrievably intertwined. Billie Holiday's valedictory rumination Lady Sings the Blues (Verve, 1956)? Jimmy Smith's epochal funk throwdown Back at the Chicken Shack (Blue Note, 1960)? Tony Bennett's Carnegie Hall debut? Kenny Burrell played guitar for them all. Even Jimi Hendrix once famously remarked, "Kenny Burrell—that's the sound I'm looking for."

Born in 1931 Detroit, Burrell seemed almost destined to become a musician. While he grew up, his dad played ukulele and banjo, his mom sang in church, and his older brother played saxophone, all of which inspired Burrell to explore music through guitar. But, just as importantly, Burrell grew up nurtured by a nascent Detroit music scene that soon shone with a remarkable number of stars such as Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Milt Jackson, Tommy Flanagan and many others. Playing together in and around Detroit, like iron sharpening iron, made their musicianship soulful and strong.

Dizzy Gillespie came to Detroit in 1950 and hired Burrell, not yet 20, for an extended engagement. Afterwards, Burrell declined Gillespie's invitation to hit the road with his band and chose to stay and complete his music coursework at Wayne State University, from which he graduated in 1955. After picking up for Herb Ellis in Oscar Peterson's trio, Burrell ventured, like so many other jazz musicians, to New York, where he quickly started recording on sessions, as a sideman and as a leader, for Blue Note, Prestige, and other labels.

Introducing Kenny Burrell (Blue Note, 1956) was among the first. Kenny Burrell (Prestige, 1957) teamed him with fellow Detroiters Flanagan, Doug Watkins and Elvin Jones, plus Cecil Payne. The following year, Burrell co-led a Prestige date with John Coltrane (Kenny Burrell/John Coltrane), the only time Coltrane recorded with a guitarist. Burrell got Funky (Prestige, 1957) with Gene Ammons' All-Stars, and did some Screamin' (Original Jazz Classics, 1962) with Jack McDuff.

Burrell served as Tony Bennett's guitarist for the singer's triumphant 1962 Carnegie Hall debut, then returned to Blue Note for Midnight Blue (1963), which included his trademark soulful groove "Chitlins Con Carne." Gil Evans arranged Guitar Forms (1965) during Creed Taylor's storied run at Verve Records; God Bless the Child (CBS Masterworks, 1971), originally on Taylor's CTI Records, honored Lady Day and introduced Burrell's personal tribute to Duke Ellington, "Be Yourself."

These are just representative highlights. Burrell has shown no sign of slowing down in the four decades since. He has led the UCLA Jazz Studies Program, featuring his own course on Ellington, since 1996. Tenderly (HighNote, 2011), is a captivating solo performance warmed by Burrell's own spoken reflections (and vocal on "Be Yourself"). Through tributes to such major influences and colleagues as Wes Montgomery, Holiday, and Ellington, Tenderly writes Burrell's eloquent soliloquy on his own career.

In his introduction to "What a Wonderful World," the guitarist uncharacteristically yet graciously seems to consider his own legacy: "I've had a lot of great experiences in this journey of jazz. But as Duke Ellington says, there's only two kinds of music: Good, and the other kind. And I think I've been involved in some good music along the way. I've played with a lot of great artists. Some you might not classify as jazz, but they're great artists—and, like I said, it doesn't matter anyway, so long as they're great. One of them was Louis Armstrong. I had the pleasure of making this particular record with him."

All About Jazz: So many wonderful musicians, such as yourself, and singers have come from the Detroit area. Have you noticed any common threads or characteristics among them?

Kenny Burrell: I think a common thread would be honesty and trying to do things right—to pay allegiance to the tradition, to make the music as honest and as good as possible, and not take any shortcuts but do a thorough job of learning and playing. Maybe that coincides with the industrial idea of Detroit, I don't know. I know that the idea is to learn as much as you can and try not to cheat or take shortcuts, to gain a thorough musical knowledge, and to make every note of your music, your solos, and your melodies, really count.

AAJ: From the outside, Detroit seems like a simultaneously hard and yet soulful community. Might that be part of it?

KB: I can't speak from that outside perspective because I was inside it. I can only say that we worked hard. Speaking to the "soulful" aspect, that's just as important as your mind—your spirit. Your heart and your mind—the feeling is just as important as the thought process. That's the way that I look at it in terms of my own playing: There has to be a good balance between the heart and mind.

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 a lot, so he was obviously the first choice. I had also been working with Stanley Turrentine 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. 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.
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