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Lenny Breau: Swingin' on a Seven-String

John Kelman By

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While guitarist Lenny Breau's innovations may not seem so significant now, he was like a bolt of lightning when he emerged in the '70s out of Manitoba, Canada. A true self-accompanist who integrated virtuosic skills in jazz, country, and flamenco into an unmistakable voice, Breau made his guitar sound like an ensemble. Legend has it that Chet Atkins was walking down the hall of a Nashville studio and, hearing music coming out of one of the rooms, said to himself, "Who are those guys? When he went into the studio and found Breau playing by himself, it was the beginning of a friendship that would last until Breau's untimely and still mysterious death in '84.

With the upsurge of archival Breau sessions in recent years, Art of Life Records' recent rescue of Breau's last studio release, When Lightn' Strikes—now remastered with a bonus track and retitled Swingin' on a Seven-String—finds him at the peak of his musical powers. That Breau was a substance abuser for most of his adult life seems miraculously to have had absolutely no effect on the pristine perfection of his playing. Breau pioneered a number of techniques, including a self-accompaniment that roots contemporary players like eight-string guitarist Charlie Hunter, as well as an uncanny ability to wring rapid-fire harmonics out of his instrument that gave his guitar an almost bell-like timbre. He was equally at home on classical guitar—and a seven-string variant comprises the majority of Swingin' on a Seven-String—as he was on electric.

The new title is wholly appropriate, given the way the entire session swings along comfortably with an unhurried pace. Five duet tracks feature bassist Jim Ferguson; on six tunes, Breau fleshes things out to a quartet with drummer Kenny Malone and pedal steel player Buddy Emmons (both of whom Breau had already collaborated with on Emmons' '78 recording, Minors Aloud, to be reissued by Art of Life in August of '05). Breau's growing posthumous discography has plenty of high points, most notably his '83 live duet set with bassist Dave Young, Live at Bourbon Street (Guitarchives, '95), but he has never sounded so completely relaxed as on Swingin'.

The record draws from popular tunes of the time, like singer Anne Murray's hit "You Needed Me and Engelbert Humperdinck's faux country tune "Please Release Me, as well as country tunes like Bill Monroe's "Blue Moon of Kentucky and Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry. Breau reinvents and reharmonizes, shaping a programme where a wealth of musical riches are masked by an unforced and easy-going complexion.

Breau may not have broken any turf in terms of pushing jazz out of the mainstream, but his interpretive skills and ability to retain a tune's essence while reimagining it in a pure jazz context remains evocative to this day. For those unfamiliar with Breau's magic, Swingin' on a Seven-String is a perfect place to start.


Track Listing: Back in Indiana; You Needed Me; Bonaparte's Retreat; I Can't Help 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; Anytime; Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain (bonus track)

Personnel: Lenny Breau (7-string classical and 6-string electric guitar, vocals); Buddy Emmons (pedal steel guitar); Jim Ferguson (acoustic bass); Kenny Malone (drums)

Title: Swingin' on a Seven-String | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Art of Life Records

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