Jazz Guitar Today would like to wish Kenny a Happy Birthday (belated) and celebrate his artistry.
Kenny Burrell was born in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 1931, and started playing guitar at the age of twelve, after first starting with piano and saxophone. During his early years, he was inspired by Charlie Christian’s playing. As a student at Wayne State University, he quickly became an important part of the Detroit jazz scene until his move to New York in the mid-1950s. In New York, Kenny was busy with the jazz club and the studio recording scene. He was also available to play in a number of leading Broadway musical pit orchestras. In 1972 he moved to Los Angeles to work in the recording studios, and by 1978 began teaching at UCLA where he developed a course of study “Ellingtonia” on the music of Duke Ellington. As a player, he is known for his musical sensitivity and ability to tell the story of a ballad.
A number of the leading jazz guitarists share memories of what made Kenny’s playing so special and how he has personally influenced them.
Roni Ben-Hur: He is one of these players who is able to sustain a note. This is not naturally easy on the archtop guitar. There is a way to do this. Every note he plays has an intensity that captures the listener. Whether it is a slow line or a fast line, no note is more dominant than another.
Bobby Broom: I worked with Kenny. Some people have a sound on the instrument that is so distinctive. They don’t have to do anything but touch the guitar and you know who it is by his tone, the way the pick hits the strings, and the way he holds the note. I love the way he plays solo guitar. It is so lush. Kenny’s impact upon me came much later. He wasn’t a focus of mine when I was younger. When I heard him later, I was struck by his sound and his voice that was so rich. There is so much personality in his playing. He is so musical.
Henry Johnson: I could tell Kenny’s playing from the first chord because of his touch. His chord voicings are also a little different. It is just beautiful.
Rodney Jones: Kenny Burrell is the “Jazz Guitarist Jazz Guitarist.” Having worked with him in the Jazz Guitar Band with Bobby Broom he is a master musician in the most complete way. There is no musician past or present that I hold in higher esteem than Kenny Burrell. He is a true Master of Jazz Guitar, jazz harmony, jazz history, jazz composition, its meaning, its context, everything about this music.
Peter Leitch: He is one of my very favorite guitar players. The music that Kenny played was so strong that you never felt that you were listening to guitar music. It was just music. I also love how Kenny has total control of the vocabulary. He has such a great grasp of the idiom and yet still has a very personal style.
Russell Malone: When I hear Kenny, I say to myself “Man, listen to that sound.” The thing about Kenny Burrell, who has a big, beautiful sound like that, you don’t have to overplay. You let that sound do the talking for you. Another guitarist who has a big beautiful sound is Peter Bernstein and Peter never overplays, but that sound just does the talking for him. I always felt that Kenny Burrell and Jim Hall are two guitarists that had some of the most beautiful sounds on the instrument. Kenny is always lyric. He is a singer as well and that lyricism is reflected in his playing. You can hear that he is conscious of the lyrics of the song when he is playing.
Will Mathews: Kenny Burrell’s ‘Round Midnight was the first jazz guitar album I bought. The thing that captivated me was the sound of his guitar. It is such a beautiful round tone. I like the unaccompanied guitar introductions that he played. It is tasty stuff!
John Pisano: He is one of my favorites. I first met him at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. He is the only guitarist that recorded with John Coltrane. Kenny was one of the first guitarists to sound like a horn player. Before him, guitarists sounded guitaristic when they soloed.
His Ability to Communicate Melodic Ideas
Steve Abshire: Kenny was one of the first jazz guitar players I got into after coming to jazz as a kid out of rock and roll. I had bought his CTI recording God Bless the Child and the first cut was “Do What You Got to Do” and to this day whenever I hear that cut it gives me goosebumps. I like the feel of the blues he gets and the way he digs into the strings. He states his full musical ideas, just throwing them out to you in complete statements. So many guys break their ideas up. Kenny also has a depth of feel to his playing.
Peter Leitch: When I was very young, I spent quite a bit of time transcribing his solos and listening to his records. My favorite was his album entitled Kenny Burrell on the Prestige label also, his On View at the Five Spot on Blue Note records. I have spent a lot of time listening to his records. He is a huge influence on me. Every time I hear him, he plays something fresh that I never have heard before.
Jimmy Ponder: With Kenny, there was a higher level of subtlety in his playing. He has the great ability to let the music breathe. Great technicians on the guitar sometimes don’t let the music breathe. But not Kenny. I have never seen the guitar played with that kind of execution and sensitivity. Kenny especially shines on the music of Duke Ellington.
His Ability to Communicate Feeling
Paul Bollenback: Someone said you might find a better guitar player than Kenny Burrell but you won’t find a finer guitar player. Kenny is “Mr. Taste.” He gets the most out of his sound, feel, and touch. I love his warmth of tone and the bluesy dimension to his playing.
Yotan Silberstein: Kenny was one of the first guys that I listened to. I used to have an album called Live at the Five Spot. He is such a beautiful player. Anything that Kenny plays has meaning to it and is so honest and sincere. I met him here in New York and he is a wonderful guy. He uses the blues a lot. Everything he plays is for real.
Dave Stryker: Kenny has an identifiable sound, always soulful. I love Kenny’s Midnight Blue album. Kenny plays with such joy in every note he plays.
His Ability to Play a Ballad
Henry Johnson: I always try to learn a ballad the way that Kenny would play it. I love the chord voicings he chooses to use, his sustain, his tone, his sense of rhythm, his sense of time, laying back in just the right way yet in his time staying on top of the beat.
Rodney Jones: One of my life-changing experiences was as a twenty-year-old going to a little club here in New York. That night he was playing all ballads and every note he played seemed like magic. It was timeless; I sat there spellbound by the beauty and the simplicity of his playing. Kenny that night, raised the bar line of what beautiful guitar music can be. That night I made the connection between my hands and my heart. That heart to hands connection is something that most guitar players lack. Many guitar players have a hard time communicating emotionally and not just technically. As a young person, I was looking for speed and technique but became mesmerized by the beauty, poignancy, magic, dynamics, purpose, and sensitivity in a ballad. I just floated home and carried it with me all my life.
Russell Malone: When you play a ballad like the way Kenny plays it, you have to surrender to the music. It is very tempting to overplay. Many jazz guitarists have a lot of technical facilities, but their maturity and respect for the song would not allow them to overplay. They respect the melody too much.
Jimmy Ponder: If you have an audience that is a little unruly, Kenny would bring things down by softly and sweetly playing a ballad. I learned this from him and it works every time. His ideas are always beautifully placed.
How He Thought the Guitar Fit into an Ensemble
Roni Ben-Hur: He has this strong front-line sound like Grant (Green). His tone and his lines are so great. When he was just twenty-four, he was making those Blue Note records. He was such a strong player. He is so innovative harmonically with his lush chords and interesting voicings in his chords. His lines are so great as well, flowing, full of the blues, and bop orientated.
John Collins: Kenny is a great guitarist. He is a great musician, he can read anything. His musical ideas are great. He can play in many styles, in fact, he is an expert in many styles. He is aggressive, promotes himself, and believes in himself. He is just a great guitarist.
Bill Frisell: The Kenny Burrell Trio A Night at the Vanguard with Roy Haynes on drums and Richard Davis on bass is this incredible guitar trio record! His sound is so great.
Peter Leitch: Just by the way he played he created a place for the guitar in east coast bop. On some of those Blue Note records, there was Kenny fitting right in with a combo that would not normally use a guitar.
Yotan Silberstein: I love the Standards album he did with Jimmy Smith. There is a wonderful rapport between Jimmy and Kenny. I also love the Live at the Village Vanguard done in about 1955. A guitar trio album is hard to do, and he does it so well. I love the interaction between Roy Haynes and Kenny.
How He Encouraged Younger Guitarists
Rodney Jones: When I was fifteen years old, and Kenny was playing one of the clubs here in New York I would go down to the club before the show just to watch Kenny walk in with his guitar. I was too young to go in. After doing this a few times he noticed me and said to me “You’re here again.” I said “Yes Mr. Burrell. I love the way you play.” He said, “Come on in.” and I hung out in his dressing room and watch him set up and watched him play a couple of songs, but I couldn’t stay very long because I had school the next day. His warmth, love, and kindness to this young guitarist really opened up jazz guitar to me in a huge way. The next time I saw Kenny was in Nice, France where Kenny was booked to do a concert with Dizzy Gillespie’s band when I was playing with Diz, and Kenny looked at me and said “You are the young guitarist from New York.” And it was like meeting my musical father.
One of my greatest honors was when Kenny was putting together the Jazz Guitar Band and he selected two young up-and-coming jazz guitarists and he selected Bobby Broom and me. We toured Europe and Japan. Being close to Kenny those two years and watching him play night after night and practice so methodically showed me what high commitment to this music is all about. The great players have given their lives to mastering this music with the highest commitment and Kenny is one of those masters.
His Bluesy Feel
Henry Johnson: Kenny is an older guy and the blues language he was playing during the bop period influenced all the guitarists. It bridged the gap between the blues and eventually R&B players and the jazz players. The way that Kenny plays the bop language is infused with the blues. This is especially evident in his ballads.
Rodney Jones: Talk about a guitarist that is steeped in the blues and incorporates it into jazz he is second to none. The ultimate Master of Jazz is John Coltrane and who is the one guitarist that recorded with him? Kenny! (Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane; New Jazz GJCCD-300-3) That speaks for itself.
Julian Lage: Kenny has such a blues sensibility, much like Grant (Green), but with also the chops of George Benson. My favorite Kenny record is the one he did with Coltrane. Kenny is the one guitarist who could pull off a recording with Coltrane. Kenny is just one of the most reliable, hard-working, well-educated jazz guitarists around.
Joe Negri: I think Kenny was a disciple of Charlie Christian. I was always impressed with his economy of notes. He was never eager to show off the chops he has. So many guys today want everybody to know how fast they can play. His knowledge of the blues comes out in all his playing.
Jimmy Ponder: Kenny said, “Never get too far from the blues.” The roots of jazz are there. Also, you have to make sure you have fun on the stage, and it will always be joyful for the audience.
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