Kenny Burrell is a modern jazz guitar master, and his 75th birthday about a year ago is the occasion celebrated on this eclectic, enjoyable live outing. Recorded at Yoshi’s, the venerable Bay Area club, the disc features Burrell in trio, septet, and Big Band settings. The Birthday Boy sounds as he ever has — limber, tasteful, subtle, and firmly in ensconced in blues playing.
In many ways, Burrell is a jazz master who tends to fall between the cracks. Neither one of the architects of the modern style (as, say, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery are seen) nor one of the fiery upstarts who arrived as the rock era was dawning (say, George Benson), he tends to be heard as the peer of guitarists such as Grant Green and Jim Hall — heavyweights, to be sure, but maybe light heavyweights.
This set certainly shows that Burrell has never skimped on ambition or reach. The proceedings begin with half a dozen tracks featuring Burrell fronting the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, the most impressive long-standing West Coast big band working today. Three of the tracks are well-known Ellington tunes, cementing Burrell’s reputation for interpreting Duke with aplomb. Burrell rides out in front of the band like a good vocalist, swinging the melody without needing to overpower the proceedings. On “Love You Madly” and “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”, the whole arrangement is built around goosing the guitar into the air. Better, on this night, were the other Wilson tunes. “Viva Tirado” is an attractive Latin theme that lets the big band dance front and center before setting a nice place for Burrell’s low and bluesy picking. The leader effectively uses repeated tones to create both rhythmic interest and a sense of mystery. Just as fun, certainly, is a vocal take on “Stormy Monday” that morphs into a Wilson blues original. Kenny — how about it — is a charming vocalist.
For my money, however, more sparks fly with Burrell in the smaller setting. The second half of the date is given over to playing that is more exposed and intimate. A trio take on Wayne Shorter’s familiar 6/8 theme “Footprints” repays repeated listenings. Burrell is barely amplified here, and the sense of skin on string helps the tune to insinuate with power. Clayton Cameron’s brush drum solo is tasty. Also in waltz time is Miles’s “All Blues”, with Burrell playing both the melody and the classic chord figure on guitar. The trio makes the familiar theme its own.
These small group sides, however, may be of most interest because of the fire and beauty ignited by two guest soloists. First is the participation of flutist Hubert Laws. For a short time between 1964 and 1974, Laws applied outstanding classical tone and technique to jazz, creating a minor but compelling body of work that was more substantive than “smooth jazz”, but seductive and easy on the ears nevertheless. Since then, however, Laws has happily worked in R&B and in the studio doing relatively little jazz. To hear him, out of the blue, on J.J. Johnson’s “Lament” with Burrell is like seeing ghost. His tone, imagination, and phrasing remain impeccable.
More exciting, if less unlikely, is the organ work by Joey DeFrancesco, currently the finest B3 player on the planet. On “A Night in Tunisia”, DeFrancesco plays after an alto solo and a tenor solo, and he blows them both so far out of the water that you wonder how the horn players got cab fare back to the club for the next tune. Joey phrases with a fluid freedom that few musicians have on any instrument — at once nasty and hip. On “I’ll Close My Eyes”, DeFrancesco lays back in his ballad mode, and he serves up the leader on a gorgeous platter of organ wash. Burell sounds utterly at home playing with DeFrancesco — making you wish that the whole date had matched these two guys, with a healthy side dose of Hubert Laws.
But it’s not that kind of a gig. After all, it is labeled as a birthday “bash”, and the main thing is fun. The closer is “Take the A Train”, with Burrell introducing his band in between vocal scat licks and short rips of tasty guitar. It has, as it is supposed to, a late night feeling — the sense of a guy doing what he loves without any real weight of expectation or worry. Which, perhaps, has always been Burrell’s style.
After all, here is a guy who played and recorded with Coltrane, yet isn’t really afforded “god” status among fans. At 75, he found himself typically carefree and whimsical, lyrical and unforced, playing the music he loves for the world’s most famous jazz label without trying too hard to create a masterpiece. A nice weekend’s work.