Kenny Burrell: How vs. When

Kenny Burrell is a fixture on the Los Angeles jazz scene. As the Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, he serves as the resident expert on all things Duke Ellington, and has even coined a phrase, “Ellingtonia,” to describe his in-depth study of Ellington lore. Oh, and if you didn’t already know, he’s an incredibly talented guitar player.

It’s only natural, then, that the LA community, where Burrell has made his home, would want to show its appreciation by throwing its hometown guitar hero his own tribute concert. And as it turns out, that’s exactly what’s happening.

On August 18 at the Ford Theatre in Los Angeles Kenny Burrell will receive the musical recognition he deserves. It won’t be his first tribute concert – UCLA threw him one on his 80th birthday – but it will be a big one. The World Stage Performance Gallery big band benefit concert will feature music direction by John Beasley, Burrell’s Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited and Beasley’s MONK’estra. Guitarist Lee Ritenour and singers Gretchen Parlato, Georgia Anne Muldrow and Dwight Trible are also scheduled to perform.

Personally, I couldn’t be more excited for this concert. That’s because I have some personal history with Mr. Burrell. When first switching from trumpet to guitar, Kenny Burrell was the first guitar player I listened to. I remember picking up his album Midnight Blue from a record store in South Florida, and just being floored with what I heard.

Kenny’s lines were clean and forceful, carrying a deliberateness I hadn’t heard in other, more rock-oriented guitarists. But what surprised me most was the simplicity of his phrasing. The beauty of Kenny’s technique was that he made the guitar sound like anybody could play it. But as I picked up my instrument and started transcribing lines, I quickly found that wasn’t the case. If the sign of a true master is to make something look easy, Kenny Burrell certainly qualifies.

I first noticed it with the blues scale. Kenny’s blues scale, like everyone’s blues scale, has only six notes. We’ve all heard them a million times before, so much so that running the blues scale in its entirety has become a jazz cliche of amateur musicians. Or so I thought.  For Burrell, the blues scale is a limitless palate, and with it he paints masterpieces. When transcribing his solos, I am often shocked by the simplicity of his licks. What I heard on the record as a complex jazz line turns out in the end to be one of Kenny’s soulful rearrangements of the blues scale. It’s an impressive feat, and certainly one of the more pleasant surprises of the transcription process.

I think another part of the reason I like  Kenny Burrell so much is because he’s so hard to categorize. A guitar player with equal footing in the jazz and blues camps, Burrell stands at the intersection of countless styles and schools of thought. His ballads carry the same energy as his bop tunes. His swing charts are just as heartfelt as his bossa novas. He has single-note lines that can rival any horn player (have you heard him go toe-to-toe with John Coltrane on “Freight Trane”?), but when he feels like doing some chordal work, as he does on “God Bless the Child” for example, he pulls it off without a hitch. You have to appreciate that versatility.

I guess you can say that when it comes to technical repertoire, Kenny Burrell’s is practically limitless. He can play every style under the sun, and that’s is a good thing. But it’s not the best thing. In my opinion, Kenny’s best quality is not that he knows how to play so many different styles, but that he knows when he needs to play them. Burrell understands that there is a time and place for everything – single-notes, chords, the blues scale, silence – and I think that’s why I never get tired listening to him. Just when I think I’ve he’s exhausted his material, he breaks in with something new. And that’s something worth paying tribute to.


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