Great Guitarists #4: Kenny Burrell

Today we look at the man behind one of my favourite jazz albums of all time…

Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell, at the Midnight Blue sessions, 1963

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1931, and into a musical family, Burrell has been recording and performing on the guitar since the start of the 1950’s.

Burrell’s recording debut recording was as part of none other than trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1951. He started recording solo records almost immediately after, often working in collaboration with other big names in jazz. His discography as band leader is enormous (well over fifty studio cuts). Yet Burrell still found time to work as a sideman for scores of artists, such as Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and Benny Goodman (taking the chair once held by his hero Charlie Christian), and many, many more.

His main guitar influences are a mix of jazz (Charlie Christian & Django Reinhardt) and blues (T-Bone Walker & BB King). This blurring of the lines between jazz & blues continued throughout his career, in a style known as Hard Bop (or Soul Jazz). This sub-genre of jazz, of which Burrell is considered a key proponent, is considered by some to be a reaction to the Cool Jazz of the West Coast musicians. His warm tone came from his Gibson Super 400 (a fairly large archtop) combined with failing down the treble on his Fender amplifiers for a ‘fatter’ tone.

One of the reasons I really enjoyed listening to Kenny Burrell when I started learning jazz was how accessible he made the genre sound. His more blues-tinged works (see below) provided an aural link I found familiar as a blues player. However, I soon discovered that his phrasing was as sophisticated and intelligent as the other jazz players – he just made it sound effortless. Making such advanced playing appear so effortless, and therefore more listenable, is one if the traits which makes Burrell a great guitarist!

Essential Listening

It can only be Midnight Blue (1963). I’ve linked to the title track here – a masterclass in laid back, bluesy jazz – but do yourself a favour and spare yourself 45 minutes to enjoy the entire album.

To hear a different side to Burrell’s playing, try Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, also from 1963. Bebop plays more prominent on this album although Burrell’s tasteful restraint still shines through,and hearing him trade solos with Coltrane feels genuinely seminal. This LP is an underrated album which deserves more attention and acclaim.

I’ll be back with another Great Guitarist tomorrow. Until then, don’t be shy about getting in touch with your thoughts on the series so far, as well as your suggestions for future features. Bye for now!

Published by timguitar

Guitarist, composer, music therapist and avid bibliophile. Providing an insight into my life as a professional musician, lessons learned as an allied health practitioner, as well as various musings on the world of music in general. Expect plenty of articles about music & wellbeing, classical guitar, jazz, world/roots genres, and all sorts of guitar-related chat.

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