Tag Archives: Billie Holiday

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!

Great Guitarists #2: Barney Kessel

Welcome back to my Great Guitarists mini series (you can read Day One’s piece on Earl Klugh here). Today, allow me to introduce you to my favourite guitar player of all time…

Barney Kessel

While Kessel might not be the most recognisable face or name to many, his prolific session work over several decades means you are guaranteed to have heard his guitar playing. Early gigs for Kessel included the bands of Chico Marx, Artie Shaw, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Oscar Peterson.

Later, he was one of the regular LA session players known collectively (and famously) as The Wrecking Crew. Around the same time, Kessel found ample work as an accompanist. His most recognisable song is Julie London’s definitive version of ‘Cry Me A River’ (from her 1955 album Julie Is Her Name – worth checking out for Kessel’s guitar arrangements alone). He also provided similar guitar backing for several other great jazz singers, such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Anita O’Day.

Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, in 1923, Kessel was known by early bandmates for practising up to 16 hours a day. Judging by the amount of work he had, those hours of practice clearly paid off – and I haven’t even touched upon the countless records he released under his own name, not to mention his film scores, world tours with other legendary jazz guitarists or his regular guitar advice column!

In terms of a definitive track, where do I start? Pick up any album by him and you’ll be rewarded with his amazing guitar playing, from choral soloing through to wonderfully fluid single note lines. Kessel played hollowbody electrics almost exclusively, and although he moved around from various Gibsons to Kay models and back again, his thick tone with a piano-like clarity rings through. Perhaps we should begin with his beautiful version of the jazz standard Autumn Leaves, performed live in this video from 1979. Enjoy!

As always, do tell me what you think. The full list of guitar players featured in this week’s series aren’t set in stone yet, so if you have any suggestions (ideally with a jazz bent for this week’s run), please do get in touch. I love hearing what you guys think!

Until tomorrow…

Happy (belated) birthday to Billie Holiday

Yesterday, 7th of April, was the birthday of the great Billie Holiday.

  
Holiday was undoubtedly one of the greatest singers – in jazz or otherwise – of all time. There’s a few great posts which tell you about her troubled life, but for me, the most important thing is always the music.

With that in mind, here’s is the song with which she is most regularly associated – the seminal tune ‘Strange Fruit’. Written in 1937 by Abel Meeropol (originally using the pseudonym Lewis Allan) as a poem, then later set to music, the song is a direct response to the practise of ‘lynching’. That is, the hunting, murder & stringing-up of African-American people in the USA. Meeropol has since highlighted a photograph of one particular lynching, of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith in the state of Indianna, as the main source of his disgust which prompted him to create the song.

Now, imagine yourself growing up & living in America at that time, as an Africa-American woman. This song is Billie Holiday’s song. Though it’s message is powerful enough to remain in our consciousness, I don’t believe there will ever be smother version of this time which carries as much emotional weight. You can feel every bitter word & syllable on Holiday’s delivery.

A picture might paint a thousand words, not to mention inspire them in verse, as in the case of this song. But some words, carefully chosen, masterfully set to music, and delivered by a performer who truly believes in the subject matter of their art, can sometimes deliver even more. Like good literature, the best music allows you to paint the pictures in your own mind. Thanks to Holiday, this song can be counted as a supreme example of this within popular song.

Happy belated birthday, and rest in peace, Billie Holiday (1915-1959).

For those of us who remain, please lend your ears to Holiday’s original recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ from 1939 by clicking on this link.

Enjoy, reflect, and never forget.