Guitarist Kenny Burrell was born 31st July 1931 and has just celebrated his 92nd birthday. As a musician he is celebrated as one of the foremost jazz guitarists of the late 1950s and 1960s. He recorded prolifically as a sideman and was no stranger to the recording studios to make albums under his own leadership.
Essentially Burrell’s playing was based on a solid grounding of both the blues and bebop, and as such this placed as a go to guitarist for many sessions. Never the most exciting guitarist, he was none the less extremely dependable in any situation that he found himself in.
If he was not one to push at the boundaries of the music, his playing was always full of interest. Throughout his career he worked quietly and patiently at his music, and careful listening reveals a player of immense good taste and a flow of melodic ideas that are cliché free.
It is these traits that made him a first call musician for labels such as Prestige, Blue Note and Verve among others. Some of these dates as sideman were little more than blowing sessions but the calibre of the musicians would ensure the much fine music was captured on tape.
The guitarists own leadership discography extends to more than seventy titles, and trying to narrow this down to just six recommended recordings is sure to leave out many noteworthy albums.
The selection below should therefore be viewed as no more than a starting point and focusses on Burrell’s recording under his own name.
Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane (Original Jazz Classics – 1958)
An interesting album that pitches mid period Coltrane with the relaxed and swinging guitar of Burrell. The saxophonist was yet to unleash his sheets of sound but is suitably restless and inquisitive on the opening ‘Freight Trane’.
With Paul Chambers on bass, he had a familiar companion from the Miles Davis Quartet of the day, and if pianist Tommy Flanagan played things a little too safe, both the guitarist and saxophonist have plenty to say especially on the delightful duet ‘Why was I Born?’.
Blue Lights (Blue Note – 1958)
Actually, released by Blue Note as two separate albums, Volume 1 and 2, and recorded in a single day on May 14, 1958. Essentially a blowing session the resulting albums provide some exciting music from all concerned.
Burrell himself seems to be playing exceptionally well inspired by the bass and drums of Sam Jones and Art Blakey who make an impeccable team.
Piano duties are split evenly between Duke Jordan on Volume 1 and Bobby Timmons on the second volume. Timmons offers the more contemporary sound of the time with his funky accompaniment on ‘Rock Salt’ against the bebop inspired playing of Jordan.
The tenorists featured in Tina Brooks and Junior Cook both have their moments, but it is the trumpeter Louis Smith (a cousin of Booker Little) who impresses along with Burrell, and it their contributions that provide the most interesting solos.
Bluesy Burrell (Original Jazz Classics – 1963)
This glorious album has also been released under the title Out of This World. Recorded on 14th September 1962 four of the originally released seven title feature Coleman Hawkins on tenor and catch the saxophonist in magisterial form. More in the mainstream than in the guitarist usual context the music is a triumph.
The rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan on piano, bassist Major Holley, Eddie Locke at the drums and conga player, Ray Barretto are well versed in the idiom, and while there is a quietly combative drive to Burrell’s ‘Montono Blues’ all is held in check in preparation for The Hawk’s solo.
The tenor giant also takes the spotlight in a splendid ‘I Thought About You’ with some wonderful interplay between saxophone and guitar. Hawkins’s sound is a round and large as ever. Hawkins’s also weaves his magic on ‘It’s Getting Dark’ and the Brazilian number, ‘Tres Palabras’.
Not to be outdone on his own date, the guitarist delivers a lovely, if all too brief solo reading of ‘No More’ and a gentle yet robust romp through Arlen and Mercer’s ‘Out of This World’. A lovely album and a marvellous example of Burrell’s versatility.
Midnight Blue (Blue Note – 1963)
Without doubt Midnight Blue is Kenny Burrell’s best known and well-loved album, and rightly so. Expressing a wish to record an album focussing on the Blues, his wish is granted here and then some. Retaining the services of Major Holley and Ray Barretto from the earlier album and aided and abetted by drummer Bill English.
The guitarist wished to play without a piano, and this both lightens the overall sound and heightens the blues element of Burrell’s playing.
The rhythm section works well together and there is no conflict between drums and congas. If anything, their role is underplayed and listening again to this marvellous record, the music is given over suitably to Burrell and tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine is who absolutely the right choice to play alongside the guitarist.
Outstanding is the slow blues ‘Mule’ written by Burrell and Major “Mule” Holley with a superb solo from Turrentine and equalled by the guitarist.
This is followed by the clipped phrasing of the title track before settling into a fine groove for Burrell’s solo, Turrentine sits this one out, but the saxophonist is back with his blues inflected and soulful tenor on ‘Wavy Gravy’ and the excellent ‘Saturday Night Blues’.
Ellington is Forever (Fantasy- 1975)
And now for something completely different, Burrell’s acknowledgement to one of the greatest composers and bandleaders in jazz. Recorded over two days in February 1975, Burrell leads an all star cast through some of Duke’s compositions with respectively individual arrangements that mark this as probably his finest album.
Juan Tizol’s ‘Caravan’ has some lovely solos from Jerome Richardson on soprano saxophone and tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson and at the opposite end of the spectrum, vocalist Ernie Andrew totally owns ‘My Little Brown Book’. ‘C-Jam Blues’ has some fine solos from Jon Faddis and Thad Jones, and organist Jimmy Smith gets in on the act too.
‘It Don’t Mean A Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)’ does so with a vengeance and Burrell takes the honours with a finely spun solo, and the album reveals yet more delights on ‘Blues Medley’ that incorporates ‘Carnegie Blues/Rocks in my Bed/Jeeps Blues/The Creole Love Call’ with another excellent contribution from Burrell. However, it is the overall concept and execution of the album as a whole that marks this album out as a classic.
Lotus Blossom (Concord – 1995)
To round of this selection of Kenny Burrell’s finest albums we conclude with a beautiful album made up of a series of solo, duo and trio tracks and a set of standards that are second to none. What could look like on paper as a gentle stroll for the guitarist becomes much more with his gentle sense of lyricism front and centre.
Burrell’s love and respect for Duke again shines through in delightful solo renditions of ‘Warm Valley’ and ‘Lotus Blossom’, and the oft covered ‘Satin Doll’ with bassist Ray Drummond and Yoran Israel is definitely one of the more satisfying getting the album off to a swinging start.
Israel only hangs around for a couple more tracks bringing a lightly swinging presence to ‘The Night Has Thousand Eyes’ and ‘I’m Falling You’, but the bassist ensuring his bus ride across town was worth the fare plies his trade in some fine duets. The subtle shading and tentative phrasing on ‘I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance’ and the closing ‘Old Folks’ is utterly charming.