I’m still so high from singing onstage with Kenny Burrell this weekend. I got to sing the solo parts in front of the choir on Kenny’s tune “We Must Find A Way.” It followed the legendary Lalo Schifrin, and preceded B.B. King with special guests Stevie Wonder, Dee Dee Bridgwater and Kenny, himself. Just amazing.
Later when looking through the special gifts given to the Friends of Jazz members, I saw that they’d included an essay I’d written for Kenny’s 75th Celebration. I thought I’d share that with you. He’s such an important man and I’m so honored to be a part of his circle.
Talent gives you opportunity. Desire leads to greatness. Talent, desire, and humanity create giants. Kenny Burrell is a giant of jazz. He’s achieved that status by a commitment to “sounding good.”
Kenny had talent from the beginning, perhaps genetically. His parents and both of his brothers played music.
Kenny and a fellow Detroit great, Tommy Flannagan, showed brazen desire as underage boys—painting moustaches on their faces so they could sneak into nightclubs to hear Charlie Parker and others play. In a more formal or traditional show of desire, Kenny played percussion in his high school youth orchestra and studied conducting. He also worked in the local jazz orchestra.
In that musical community, Kenny witnessed the generous legacy that he continues pay forward. Kenny singles out Charlie Parker as being especially encouraging. “Bird” would stop by local jam sessions and told the young guitarist that he could “hear what I was trying to do, and that I sounded good even when I didn’t think so.”
Anyone conscious in the last half of the 20th century has been touched by Kenny’s sound. Whenever you tear up listening to Louis Armstrong singing “What a Wonderful World,” or ache with Billie Holiday singing “Good Morning Heartache” and “God Bless the Child” in her later years, Kenny is right there with you, playing guitar on these legendary recordings. On the lighter side, at the height of the Bossa Nova craze, there’s Kenny on the “Getz Au Go-Go” record.
It’s impossible to talk about Kenny without mentioning Duke Ellington. Though they only played together soon before the Maestro’s death in 1974, the admiration flowed freely between both men. Duke called him his favorite guitar player and when Kenny was unavailable for Duke’s “My People” project in 1963, he just left the guitar out.
That’s the sort of irreplaceable giant that is Kenny Burrell.
Kenny often quotes Duke Ellington as saying, Be yourself. “He said it in so many different ways.” Another phrase that Kenny often recalls came from his brother, Billy, as Kenny left for New York in the early ’50s: “Play what you feel, and mean it.” He also advised him to “treat everyone decently.”
These are the foundations of Kenny’s artistry. He’s done amazing work as a sideman. But few that fit so flawlessly into another leader’s concept have ever been able to stand so strongly as a leader. There is a tension between an individual voice and ensemble work—playing what you feel and treating everyone decently. Kenny navigates that terrain singularly.
Kenny serves the music with feeling, intention, and respect. There’s openness in his sound, an invitation to come along on a loving quest for communication.
His best-selling album, Midnight Blue, is a conversation with blues form. He invites discussion in Latin with his most covered composition, “Chitlins Con Carne.” The following track, “Mule,” begins with a lone man’s plantation work song, then he heads up to the North to excitement, freedom, and growing complexity. There, Kenny meets compatriot, Stanley Turrentine, who’s been waiting for him. They converse in their new surroundings; then Kenny breaks it all down to tell him in palpable detail of the journey he’s been on.
Beyond blues and Latin conversations in jazz, Kenny collaborated with Gil Evans on the gorgeously orchestrated Guitar Forms LP. On this album you never get the feeling that he’s telling you what he can do; rather, you feel he’s showing you what the guitar can do, how it can sound good in various settings.
Though he often dialogues with established compositions and forms, Kenny also has a very individual message that he shares.
Like his mentor, Ellington, Kenny has written long-form compositions, telling the stories of African American culture and spiritual journeys in structures that are truly beyond category. In his 2004 “Ralph Bunche Suite” and his 1998 album “Love is the Answer,” recorded with the Boys Choir of Harlem, he blends elements of Ellingtonia, classical and folk spirituals, African and Latin rhythms and textures to create powerful meditations on the human spirit and its ability to achieve great things.
And Kenny’s tone? Though he did participate in the ripping of speaker cones to get funky, distorted sounds in his session days, the tone he’s most known for is a broad warmth. Sometimes you can hear him considering the notes in a way that asks, “How can I get my idea most lovingly across?” It’s a quiet moment of listening to his heart and his compatriots. It lets you in, allowing you the freedom to question, to take time to get to know yourself. Then he takes you on flight like an assured aviator, pointing out the route of history that has allowed him to soar. But don’t look to Kenny for lofty rhetoric.
This July, just before his 75th birthday, Kenny’s band sat backstage for dinner before a performance at Catalina’s Bar & Grill. The conversation turned to how you find your voice as a musician. The participants ranged in age from 30 to Kenny. Some talked of being challenged to transcend the sound of their musical influences, others of competition and nerves. Kenny said he found his center by “just trying to sound good.” An hour later the quintet was on stage presenting the best of their individual selves, musically conversing in the truest example of what jazz is all about: an honest, present, and active communication.
Jimi Hendrix once said, “Kenny Burrell: that’s the sound I’m looking for.” There’s a recording of a 26-year-old Hendrix writing songs for his Electric Ladyland album. He often stops the tape changing the tones on his guitar, switching pickups, and so on.
His role model, Kenny has been at it for more than half a century and 9 times out of 10 at a performance, he’ll pull a good friend aside and ask about the tone of his guitar and amp.
Sounding good isn’t contentment. It’s a quest for tone, connection, beauty and, ultimately, truth. It can take you to unimaginable heights, but sounding good is success in its own right. It is integrity and compassion for yourself and others. That lesson is Kenny’s gift.
Kenny Burrell indisputably sounds good!
Jason Luckett, Los Angeles, October 2006