Kenny Burrell: Alive, live and 75

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am

To describe a musician who Duke Ellington called simply 'my favourite guitarist' as 'underrated' is a paradox, but it remains a fact that Kenny Burrell has never commanded the kind of audiences that peers such as Charlie Byrd, Wes Montgomery, Joe Pass and Barney Kessel enjoyed. Still less

has he enjoyed the record sales of musicians he has clearly influenced, including George Benson and Pat Metheny.

He can take some consolation in the esteem in which he is held by his fellow musicians - particularly those with a special feeling for the blues who recognise the depth his roots in that music impart to his instantly identifiable style of jazz.

Although he never recorded with Ellington, Burrell has long been one of his biggest fans, and most eloquent advocates, leading seminars on the compositions as well as recording them and playing them live. He taught the first university course in Ellington's music to be offered in the US. Duke's compliment is probably the one that means most to him, but there have been plenty of others over the years.

Dizzy Gillespie, with whom Burrell made his recorded debut in 1951, called him 'the grand master of jazz guitar', Benson says 'there is no finer guitarist than Kenny Burrell', while Metheny cites him as 'one of my favourite guitarists'.

The co-pioneer with Grant Green of hard-bop guitar, he is pre-eminently the blues player and blues/soul rocker's jazz picker. B.B. King calls him 'overall the greatest guitarist in the world' while Stevie Wonder says he is 'a great musician and his music helped to make me what I am today.'

Jimi Hendrix observed in an interview, 'Kenny Burrell, that's the sound I'm looking for,' and you can hear how close he got to achieving it on the long blues jam version of Voodoo Chile on Electric Ladyland where the interplay between the guitar and the organ explicitly evokes Burrell's work with Jimmy Smith.

Stevie Ray Vaughan, the most notable latter-day torch-bearer for Hendrix's legacy, went back to the source and covered Chitlins Con Carne from Burrell's classic 1963 Blue Note album Midnight Blue.

Although he has recorded at various times for a number of different labels including Verve, Concord and Fantasy, Burrell is particularly strongly associated with Blue Note, which has just released Kenny Burrell 75th Birthday Bash!, a fine live set which, without rehashing greatest hits - nothing from two of the three albums generally considered to be his classics, Midnight Blue and Guitar Forms - aptly summarises the musical preoccupations that have defined his career.

Burrell appears on hundreds of albums as both a leader and a sideman. He has led small groups since the early 1950s, but is equally at home in a big band setting, which is probably what Ellington most appreciated about him. Some of his most effective playing is to be heard on Guitar Forms, a mid-60s album for Verve made with a big band under the direction of Gil Evans.

The first six tracks of this album showcase Burrell in a big band setting with the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and include three Wilson compositions, the opening Viva Tirado, Blues for the Count which

is played as a coda to T-Bone Walker's Stormy Monday, and Romance, all of which suit Burrell's swinging solo style.

He used to sing early in his career, and has lately taken to the mic again, performing Stormy Monday in a light blues-jazz style reminiscent of Charles Brown, but the substance of the performance is in the guitar playing.

A trio of Ellington tunes follows, including one that also appeared on the third album usually cited as a Burrell career peak, Ellington is Forever Volume One, Don't Get Around Much Anymore. He also demonstrates that he hasn't lost his touch with the Duke's tunes on Love You Madly and Sophisticated Lady.

The second half of the set finds Burrell back in his favourite small ensemble setting, initially with just Robert Miranda on bass and Clayton Cameron on drums for a trio version of Wayne Shorter's Footprints, followed by J.J. Johnson's Lament, for which Hubert Laws joins the group on flute.

This is his strongest album in some years and a fitting way to mark the birthday of one of the greatest living exponents of jazz guitar.

It is also the best new Blue Note release - Burrell has just returned to the label - I've heard in a while.

It's good to see that the label's old guard is getting the respect it is due. Further collaborations with Wilson are promised and should be well worth hearing.