Kenny Burrell: The Ralph J. Bunche Suite

Jerry D'Souza By

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Kenny Burrell
The Ralph J. Bunche Suite
UCLA Ethnomusicology Publications

Dr. Ralph J. Bunche was a man of indomitable spirit. He had to fight against the odds to succeed, but formidable barriers did not deter him. Among his many distinctions was the Nobel peace prize, the first person of color to be awarded one.

Kenny Burrell celebrates the life and legacy of Bunche in his orchestrated work, The Ralph J Bunche Suite. Burrell premiered the performance with an orchestra drawn from UCLA, which was fitting, given that Bunche studied there and Burrell is the director of jazz studies.

Burrell uses a wide musical canvas for his work. Jazz and the blues are the signposts as he brings in a modern stance through interpretive dance and song. His sense of dynamics and tempo make the charts bristle and come alive with a potent emotional pulse. The mood and atmosphere change constantly as the music dwells on the different aspects of Bunche's life. Burrell shows that he knows how not merely to tell a story but to make it come alive.

The orchestra is in sync and interprets the charts with panache. The soloists add to the impact, with Hubert Laws and Charles Owens turning their segments into rich melodic gold, the latter showing his adventurous side as he breaks the fetters while loosening some free riffs. Kamasi Washington completes the picture with his rich phrasing on the tenor saxophone. It all comes down to Burrell's vision: keep it simple, keep it on time, play less notes and make it swing.

Chester Whitmore and the Central Avenue Dancers make their dances an indelible weave of the fabric. If there is a wrinkle, it comes in the lyrics which, though heartfelt, tend to be cloying.

The performance is fluidly intercut with the rehearsals and it is interesting to witness how Burrell puts the performance together. One of the most striking visuals is seen when Burrell and Laws rehearse in a stairwell.

This is a wonderful tribute to an outstanding humanitarian.

Tracks: Intro; Part 1: The Arrival: Birth Into Life's Journey; Part 2: The Peacemaker; Part 3: With Trust In His Soul (He Traveled The Good Road); Man With A Mission; Part 5: Thank You (Dr. Bunche); Part 6: The Struggle For Peace, Justice, and Freedom; Part 7: Soulful Connections; Part 8: a) Man of Peace and Love; b) Home; c) Eastward Ho; d) Africa Calling; Part 9: The U.N. Blues; Part 10: Journey's End: Deeds Done, Spirit Strong, Forever!; Outro.

Personnel: Kenny Burrell: acoustic and electric guitars; Hubert Laws: flute and piccolo; Charles Owens: soprano saxophone and bass clarinet; Bobby Rodriguez: trumpet and flugelhorn; Llew Matthews: piano; Roberto Miranda: bass and conga drums; Wayne Peet: marimba; Charley Harrison: conductor; Tommy Hawkins: narrator; Dancers: Chester Whitmore and the Central Avenue Dancers; The Ralph J. Bunche Suite Student Orchestra: Elliott Deutsch, Sid Eads III, John Daversa, Meghan Turner: trumpets; Alex Bond, Nick DePinna, Robin Javier, Sean Pawling: trombones; Justin Hageman, Evan Geiger: French horns; Michael Sheridan, Jason Sklar, Megan Brewer: alto saxophones; Kamasi Washington, Daniel Panetta: tenor saxophones; Jennifer Bennet: baritone saxophone; Tanitra Flenaugh, David Diaz: clarinet; Lauren Cooper: oboe; A. J. Polidoro: bass; Michael Moreno: drums; Joshua Duron: percussion; Sharon Giarrantano, Mary Akpa, Marci Katznelson, Pablo Milberg, Joshua Duron: vocals.

Production Notes: Concert: 56 minutes; rehearsal scenes: 9 minutes.

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