Choosing 5 definitive albums by Kenny Burrell is a pretty daunting task. He was so prolific as a leader (and perhaps even more so as a sideman) that sifting through his massive catalogue becomes almost overwhelming. There’s some serious gold in there though, so here we go. As always, YMMV, and this list is coloured by my own experiences and discographical (is that even a word?) biases.
This record features the great Stanley Turrentine who plays off Burrell’s earthy, bluesy phrasing perfectly. Thematically, this outing pretty much defines the soul jazz sound of the post bop era perfectly. Burrell’s obvious assimilation of the more electric blues styles of T-Bone Walker, BB King and Muddy Waters permeates the session and demonstrates a connection to the blues and a true grasp of the sound of electric blues that most of the jazz guitar greats never really achieved (or maybe did not aspire to…). At times he bends, twists and wrangles notes (as on Chitlins Con Carne) and at others ventures into beautiful chordal excursions (such as on the minor dirge Soul Lament) and it never sounds like a pastiche by a guitarist trying to schizophrenically play every style he knows. It just sounds like a musician following his instincts and expressing himself - always a bit on the edge, always reaching for something. Do yourself a favour and learn Kenny’s Sound, a Rhythm Changes with a dominant pedal in the A sections and an alternate bridge. Seriously hip.
This blowing session was my first introduction to Kenny Burrell when I was a teenager. Sifting through the jazz tapes section at Sam The Record Man (yes tapes…) I saw the striking Saul Bass-esque album art and immediately took a second look. “John Coltrane AND Kenny Burrell?? No way!” Popping it in my yellow Sony Walkman on the bus home, I relished in the unexpected chemistry between the tenor giant and the guitarist. Standouts include Tommy Flanagan’s Freight Trane (A medium-up backcycle blues in Ab), the incredibly wistful duet with Coltrane Why Was I Born? and the swinging I Never Knew. The whole band is stellar and includes Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums.
I think it’s always good to know what an artist sounded like right out of the gates. Or put another way, when a musician has arrived at a place where a record label has decided that you have something to say and that people should hear it. Recorded when Burrell was all of 24 years old, he sounds mature beyond his years. His tone is gorgeous, sounding rhythmically assured on the up-tempo numbers and double time lines (How About You, This Time The Dream’s On Me) and resonant on the ballad treatment of Weaver of Dreams. I also really love the almost glacially slow take on Moten Swing. Given that this record predates or at least coincides with the release of Gibson’s PAF hum bucking pickup, I think we can be sure that Kenny’s guitar was sporting a P-90 or Charlie Christian style single coil on this date. Add his trusty 5E3 Tweed Deluxe and you have recipe for a gorgeous jazz guitar tone with just the right hint of break up and compression.
Reissued as Blue Moods with a different cover and running order for some reason, the vinyl copy I had featured Kenny standing over his upright ES-175 (with two P-90 pickups) in a striking black and white portrait. This is a quintet outing with Burrell sharing frontline duties with baritone saxophonist Cecil Payne and featuring a rhythm section of Elvin Jones on drums, Tommy Flanagan on piano and Doug Watkins on bass. (Payne is the only player not from Detroit on this date, incidentally…) The simple but effective arrangement of All of You features a bookended ballad treatment to the melody going into medium tempo solo sections. Burrell solos lyrically and Flanagan takes a typically assured flight. Bud Powell’s Strictly Confidential finds Burrell navigating the bebop changes with aplomb, venturing at times into almost exploding double time lines that sound like harbingers of future deconstructionists like Sonny Sharrock and Marc Ribot.
Any record featuring Roy Haynes is worth a listen and this one is no exception. The bonus here is you get to hear him support Kenny Burrell and Richard Davis! The trio is in fine form and sets the tone early with the grooving blues All Night Long which features Burrell’s double stop blues hooks and sumptuous organ-like chordal vamping. The up tempo take on Will You Still Be Mine finds Burrell drawing inspiration from his friend Wes Montgomery’s block chord excursions while retaining a distinctive sound of his own. (Using the plectrum instead of his thumb is part of that.) Monk’s Well You Needn’t doesn’t exactly pay homage to the composer’s conceptual idiosyncrasies, but really, how many guitarists can lay claim to doing that? (I will, however, refer readers to the 3:20 mark of that cut. That one 4 bar trade with Roy Haynes is worth the price of admission. ) The trio creates an understated pseudo-bolero vibe for the ballad I’m A Fool To Want You. Kenny’s sophisticated harmonic sense is on full display here. In fact, I think I’m going to go and lift this arrangement right now. I’d be a fool not to.
Steve Raegele is a guitarist based in Montreal. He’s played many styles of music (except Bluegrass) in dozens of cities across 4 continents. He enjoys playing jazz, rock, R&B and improvising creative music. As a sideman Steve has played the music of Thom Gossage, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Nicole Lizée, Christine Jensen, and many others. His trio record, Last Century, is available from Songlines.