The good thing about compiling a Kenny Burrell “best of” is, since his 1956 solo debut, it’s hard to find any clinkers; the hard part is knowing where to begin and when to stop. The fact is, several retrospectives could be compiled, and indeed have been. But even if you subdivided his career by labels (Blue Note, Verve, Prestige, Chess, Fantasy, Contemporary, Concord, Muse, and others), decades, or repertoire (he’s one of the foremost interpreters of Ellington and enjoyed a long association with the late Jimmy Smith), there’d still be gaps and overlap.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a jazz guitarist with a more consistent level of high quality, but at 74, Burrell almost seems taken for granted; if he’d been a drug casualty (and had a much more uneven output as a result) like, say, Grant Green, he’d probably have more hip cachet. But from the opening track, 1957’s “I’ll Close My Eyes,” it’s clear that you’re in the presence of a master bop improviser with an innate sense of swing.
The following track, “Montong Blues,” shows the other, equally indelible side of Burrell’s personality, his mix of blues and funk, with a guest solo by tenor sax titan Coleman Hawkins. Few jazz guitarists can get as lowdown as Burrell; lest we forget, this is the composer of “Chitlins Con Carne,” and a hero to Stevie Ray Vaughan. But in the next breath, on Cole Porter’s “All Of You,” Kenny shows a degree of sensitivity with a ballad few can attain.
An added treat is the presence of jazz luminaries in the role of sideman – something that was commonplace in the ’50s and ’60s. So pianist Tommy Flanagan, organist Jack McDuff, drummers Elvin Jones, Art Taylor, and Jimmy Cobb, and even sax icon John Coltrane pop up on different tracks – just as Burrell did so often. This is one of 19 CDs in Fantasy Records’ “Best Of” series, with different artists’ work on the various labels under Fantasy’s umbrella, spotlighting everyone from icons like Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery to overlooked greats like Bobby Timmons. Burrell shows up on the Hawkins and Chet Baker volumes. The packaging, annotation, and sound are typically first-rate, and, at $11.98 list, each is a steal. Start with Baker and Burrell, who are conveniently at the front, alphabetically, and buy them all. Hopefully, more are on the way.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.