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Lenny Breau: 7-String Swing

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In August 1982, Canadian jazz guitarist Lenny Breau was in Nashville to record, of all things, a country album. Or rather, a guitar album with Western Swing sensibilities. For the studio session, Breau played a seven-string guitar and a six-string electric guitar. He was backed by the legendary Buddy Emmons on pedal-steel guitar, Jim Ferguson on bass and Kenny Malone on drums.

The seven-string guitar is unusual and adds a string to the more common six-string setup. The extra string gives the guitar an additional bass note (a low B). This type of guitar turns up most often in Brazilian models and the type used for Russian folk music. In jazz, Bucky Pizarelli and George Van Eps have played the seven-stringer along with Howard Alden and John Pizarelli.

Breau's grace on the sever-string guitar is only enhanced by the inclusion of Emmons, who keeps a lid on his meowing pedal-steel guitar and allows Breau to lead. Ferguson's bass is solid and tasteful as the low voice, and Malone's drums swing with a feathery touch.

Originally released in 1984 as When Lightn' Strikes on vinyl, the album has been reissued by Art of Life Records. The label digitally remastered the original analog master tapes via 24-bit digital technology to give it a clean, warm sound.

In addition to the original tracks—(Back Home Again In) Indiana, You Needed Me, Bonaparte's Retreat, I Can't Help It If I'm Still In Love With You, I Love You Because, Please Release Me, Blue Moon of Kentucky, She Thinks I Still Care, I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and Anytime—a previously unreleased track has been added: Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.

This little-known guitar gem is gorgeous in so many ways. The song choices are perfect, the talent is extraordinary and the pairing of the genial cosmopolite Breau with country's man of steel, Emmons, was ingenious. To accommodate the material, Breau shifts a little country while Emmons dusts off his swinging jazz chops. Through this album, we hear yet again Breau's exceptional ability and craftsmanship on guitar. It's also a joy to hear Emmons let loose on Blue Moon of Kentucky.

Here's what Jim Ferguson told me about this session:

At the time we recorded this album, I had been playing mostly duo gigs with Lenny for about a year. I also was working occasionally as a singer for a Nashville company that did “sound-alike" records, mostly of different pop artists of the late '70s.

I casually mentioned to the engineer one day in the studio that I'd been working with Lenny and that I hoped someone would record him again before his reckless behavior did him in. Little did I know he'd be gone in a short two years.

To my surprise, the engineer, Hollis Halford, called me the next day to say that he'd told Paul Whitehead, who owned the company, about my working with Lenny and that Paul wanted to make a record. I got with Lenny, and he decided to make it half duo and half quartet.

Lenny had recorded with Buddy Emmons about four years earlier on a project called Minors Aloud, so they were well acquainted. Kenny Malone had also been on that recording along with the pianist and songwriter Randy Goodrum and the late Nashville bassist Charles Dungey.

For our sessions there were no rehearsals. Lenny made a few chords charts, but he often strayed from them considerably. You Needed Me is a great example of how he might launch into a completely different feel in the middle of a take. Recording direct to two-track stereo meant no fixes, so I generally just held on for dear life.

Lenny was a little more straight-ahead on the quartet numbers, thankfully, though no one knew he was going to sing the intro of Bonaparte's Retreat. He spontaneously leaned over and sang into his guitar mic to start the tune! The engineer was quite surprised, to say the least, but it was perfect!

Lenny Breau died in 1984; Buddy Emmons died in 2015.

A special thanks to Jim Ferguson, who alerted me to this precious album.

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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