Kenny Burrell is a legend in the annals of jazz guitar history. Emerging from Detroit in the 1950’s with a background in organ trios, he has done just about everything imaginable in music.
Through it all, his artistry and integrity have never been questioned. A master soloist, the perfect complement to a vocalist or soloist, he’s always been able to do it all. And, now, he not only plays, but is a teacher too. As the head of Jazz Studies at UCLA, he assures jazz’s legacy with a whole new generation of players and listeners. Burrell’s latest record, Lucky So and So, features all of his trademark playing, along with something that might at first throw listeners expecting a guitarfest – he sings four cuts – and does the expected terrific job.
Burrell sat with us on a lunch break at UCLA to talk about the album, the state of jazz, and other things.
Vintage Guitar: Okay… let’s get the vocal thing out of the way right away. Why four vocal tracks at this point?
Kenny Burrell: Actually, I’ve sung a bit on my last two albums for Concord – I did one vocal track on each. The reason I decided to do four on Lucky So and So was because I felt really comfortable working with Concord and John Burke, in the sense that they encouraged me to do what I felt.
I did a complete vocal album back in the ’60s, and I had, at that time, some problems with the A&R people at the label, who had, more or less, designs for the vocals to go in a pop direction. When they had asked me to do it, I thought they just wanted me to be myself. But that wasn’t quite what they had in mind. So, that didn’t turn out to their satisfaction, and it didn’t turn out to my satisfaction. I made a vow then that if I ever did it again I’d do it like I wanted to do it, with people who really wanted me to be myself and do what I felt. Therefore, the vocals on the new album.
And even though you’ve heard and played with hundreds of great singers, you have your own style.
Thanks. I appreciate that.
So, who do you really love as a singer?
The list is too long. As you pointed out, I’ve recorded with so many. I’ve worked with Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Joe Williams, even James Brown. I did a thing with B.B. King at one point. On the female side, there’s Ella [Fitzgerald], Lena Horne, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone. Ray Charles is another.
A nice, eclectic group. Along those lines, did you do a lot of session work in the ’60s?
Yeah, I was a very busy studio musician in the ’60s. That’s how those pop names became part of my history. I also had the chance to record with some of the great jazz singers, as well. And of course there’s a long list of great instrumentalists, as well.
That kind of leads to my next question. You’ve been in the business a long time now, and played with a lot of great musicians. You’ve reached a point where you’d have to be considered a “legend” as a jazz guitarist. Any thoughts on that? Do you ever think in that direction?
Well, when I hear that, it makes me feel a little odd, and very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to have been able to do things that people like, over a very long period of time. That’s how you get the reputation – by being consistent. I’ve worked hard.
One thing I’ve always tried to do is maintain a certain level of artistry. I think all musicians do that, they want to sound good. Simple as that – as I tell my students and tell myself – you’ve got to be consistent. You just can’t be good today and then maybe tomorrow. And if you are consistent, you’ll get a good reputation, and you’ll find good work as a musician.
Back to Lucky So and So, I’m curious about how you go about picking tunes. You obviously have a pretty big catalog to choose from. How do you set up a new record?
In recent years, I’ve done things that have a certain mood, a certain feeling to them. Once that starts to happen, when two or three songs fall into a certain mood, I say “Well, this is kind of a nice feeling. Maybe we should go down this road.” Then I start to think about other tunes that might fit that, and that’s where we go.
What happened on this album, this group was working in New York at the Blue Note, and we had worked about a week. I was thinking about recording, so part of it was the things that seemed to feel right, and there were comments from the audience, so we could get an indication of what they liked. There were certain songs that stood out, for no particular reason, and I guess that it was just falling into a kind of certain mood.
The album is a little on the laid-back side. It just kind of fell into that relaxed kind of groove, and I’m not one to fight that if that’s the way it’s going.
Would it be safe to say you’ve always used this sort of idea, because some of your Concord stuff from the ’70s, like Tin Tin Deo, had a similar overall feel.
I guess that’s one of my methods or philosophies in terms of producing music on an album, to take the listener on a kind of trip. When the trip’s over, hopefully you’ve enjoyed it. It can be an exciting trip, a laid-back trip, or whatever.
Can you give us an overview about what you do at UCLA?
Well, I’m the director of the jazz studies program. I started the program five years ago, and it has been a really rewarding thing for me. From the comments by other instructors and students, it has been for them, as well. We have quite an outstanding roster of instructors and feel we’ll be producing some outstanding students. Like I said, we’re in our fifth year now, so the first students are just finishing.
Obviously, you do this to keep jazz going…
Well, one of the reasons I do this is certainly to keep jazz alive, keep the continuity going, and because I think it’s a very important art form that should be taught along with other important art forms. I feel lucky to be in a position to make that happen.
The other part is I really enjoy sharing information with students, and so do the rest of the instructors. They are able to bring into the classroom, just like I am, practical experience, because these are people who are names, who are musicians out there in the real world who are active and creating and contributing, and they bring all that experience back to the students. So they bring not only inspiration, but information about the music business, which is extremely important.
In academia, these people are “primary sources.” That is, direct information, not secondhand, because these are the people who are doing it. The great Herbie Hancock, who was in residence here a couple years back, said, “UCLA has the best jazz faculty in the country.”
I feel very strongly about that, and I hope the fruits of our labor – the students – are going to prove that.
You mentioned keeping jazz alive… it seems there are always naysayers who say it’s dying or becoming too diluted. Any thoughts on the state of jazz?
It’s bigger than ever. There’s all kinds of jazz being played today. The venues are opening up, too; venues that were always closed to jazz, like subscription series and concert halls at colleges. A lot of that programming was closed to jazz, and strictly used for classical or folk music. Jazz is now a part of folk festivals, and blues festivals, too.
The nightclubs, to some extent, are drying up. Not in places like New York, but nightlife in general has kind of dried up across the board. People don’t go out as much as they used to because they have so much they can do at home in terms of entertainment. But that doesn’t affect the real growth, like the festivals and the huge variety of things that are happening, like the rebirth of Dixieland, fusion, smooth jazz… all of that is leading to a larger jazz audience, which I feel leads ultimately to a true history of the music. That Ken Burns thing on PBS didn’t hurt, either.
Do you still do a lot of touring?
I do some. Since I’ve been teaching, my traveling is done in the summer months. I do places like the Blue Note in New York, and Yoshi’s in Oakland.
Are there young players out there who put a twinkle in your eye or really catch your attention?
There are so many. Let me just say that I’m impressed by a lot of the young guitarists I’m hearing. Not only from the standpoint of their technical ability, but they are interested in looking at the history of jazz, as well as the future. I can hear that in their playing, and that’s only going to make them better musicians.
One question about another jazz guitar legend… I know you played with Wes Montgomery, who has become kind of the patron saint of jazz guitar. What are your impressions of Wes.
Well, for me he was one of the most beautiful people, because I was his friend, as well. Thoroughly dedicated to the music and he was what I would call a natural. He had such flowing ideas that it just seemed to come so natural for him. I always admired him, and still admire him. Same kind of thing with Jimi Hendrix. The music just kept flowing out of him.
How about guitars? What’s your main instrument for stage and studio?
I play several guitars, depending on what’s happening. My latest is a Benedetto, made by Bob Benedetto. I’m very, very happy with that. I also own Super 400s and L-5s. I have some Yamaha acoustic steel-strings that I use, and I have a few nylon-strings. One of my favorites is an old Gibson, and another an old Guild nylon-string classical. I have a Ramirez, which I also love.
What about amps?
I still have the old Fender Twin that I use a lot…
One you’ve had for awhile?
I have several that I’ve had for a while. I also, on occasion, play the Roland Jazz Chorus. Those are the two I use mostly.
As gracious as he is talented, Kenny Burrell is sharing what he knows to help jazz continue to grow. It’s not hard to see (or hear) why he was Duke Ellington’s favorite player, or why when questioned what he wanted to sound like, Jimi Hendrix said, “Kenny Burrell.”
Monday Stroll (with Frank Wess), Savoy Jazz, 1957
A very nice, light swinging session that features not only Kenny, but the great Freddie Green on rhythm guitar.
Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane, OJC, 1958
Along with the brilliant rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, Kenny and Coltrane show why some people consider late-’50s jazz the era of the hottest soloists.
Blue Lights, Volumes I and II, Blue Note Records, 1958
Plain old-fashioned jamming lets Kenny show his chops. Killer solos all around.
Guitar Forms (arranged and conducted by Gil Evans), Verve, 1965
An acknowledged classic, this is somewhat off the beaten path. It showcases Kenny in a variety of musical forms, and he excels at all of them.
Tin Tin Deo, Concord Jazz, 1977, When Lights are Low, Concord Jazz, 1979
Two beautiful trio albums that let Kenny show his single-line abilities and beautiful chordal work.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s June ’02 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.