Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Listening to Prestige 206: Kenny Burrell

Jazz writer Ted Gioia, in a recent article called "Does the Music Business Need Musicianship?" quoted a veteran producer as saying "Does anyone under 25 play an instrument any more?" Somewhere else, I read that the guitar has virtually disappeared from rock and roll. No more Chuck Berrys, no more Hendrixes, no more George Harrisons or Eddie Van Halens.

So a world and a time in which musicians did pick up instruments, and do the very hard work involved in learning to play them, has maybe more of an appeal that one would think. And interestingly, the genre of today's music that many would think did more than any other to destroy musicianship -- hip hop -- is the genre that's turning more and more to jazz.

Jackie McLean once said,
When I was coming up it was mandatory to know something about music and play an instrument. In order to do this it required hours and years of dedicated study and practice. Today if you can just rhyme and talk and have a talent for matching words and rhythms together you pretty much are on your way; it wasn’t quite that easy when I was coming along.
Well, it ain't necessarily all that easy to match words and rhymes together, which is why us poets make the big bucks. But of course McLean has a point.

Now, however, his grandson, Rene McLean, is a hip hop producer, as are the sons of Quincy Jones, Ornette Coleman, Roy Haynes, Horace Silver, to name just a few. And hip hop, more than any other recent popular music form, has embraced jazz, with many rappers sampling the work of jazz musicians.

Still, there's something about those hours and years of dedicated study and practice that delivers to the audience in a way that no one else can. The impossibly fast tempi of Bird and Diz, or the impossibly weird tempi of Brubeck and Desmond. The strange and beautiful melodies of Thelonious Monk or Tadd Dameron.

Of course, the knowledge that someone has mastered incredibly difficult technical skills is not enough to make us love something. What makes an art like jazz, or like dance, elicit such love from its fans? It's knowing that it's mind-bogglingly difficult, but feeling it as something else. We feel that our better selves, in a parallel universe, could play a drum solo like Gene Krupa or execute eleven perfect pirouettes like Mikhail Baryshnikov in White Nights. They express our yearnings to be our best selves.

Which brings us, more or less, to Kenny Burrell. It's now February 1, and this is already his fifth session for Prestige: one with Gene Ammons, three with the Prestige All Stars, and now this one under his own name. So maybe that's why all the All Stars album credits -- so they wouldn't be putting "Kenny Burrell" on the cover of every album they put out.

There's a reason -- well, there are all sorts of reasons -- for this much excitement about Kenny Burrell. Mostly, that he was really that good. He was a new sound, a breath of fresh air. And in a way, a great guitarist brings us one step closer to those better selves in those parallel universes. A lot more of us have picked up a guitar and played a stumbling version of "This Land is Your Land" than have picked up a saxophone and tried to stumble through "Now's the Time."

This is a beautiful album, and an interesting lineup for Prestige. Doug Watkins represents the regulars. Tommy Flanagan was never quite a regular, but he did do several Prestige sessions. Cecil Payne had been on three Prestige recordings, the sort of sessions you would expect to find a baritone sax on -- octets with Joe Holiday, Gene Ammons and Tadd Dameron. Unless you're Gerry Mulligan, it's relatively rare for a baritone man to be the only horn on a date. The drummer was Elvin Jones, who was really starting to come into his own. He had been on a few important dates over the past couple of years, including an Art Farmer session on Prestige, and one with Miles Davis for Charles Mingus's short-lived Debut Records.

Payne appears on four of the five cuts, which means that the fifth -- Cole Porter's "All of You" -- is essentially a guitar-piano duet between Burrell and Flanagan, which you really don't hear all that often. The two instruments are so similar -- both percussive, both melodic, both played with single notes and with chords. And yet so different. They make a wonderful balance on this duet.

Having a baritone sax as your only horn on a session brings a certain gravitas, perhaps at the cost of a loss of flexibility? Not if the baritone is in the hands of Cecil Payne. Don't forget that the tenor saxophone was once relegated to the oom-pah section of marching brass bands, until Coleman Hawkins showed what could be done with it. Payne got his start playing in swing ensembles with J. J. Johnson and Roy Eldridge, then was introduced to bebop when he joined Dizzy Gillespie's band. His work in the late 40s and early 50s gives some idea of his range: bebop with Tadd Dameron, R&B/swing with Illinois Jacquet, and the adventurous African-influenced music of Randy Weston, with whom he was closely associated.

He gets a chance to show that range with Burrell's tune selections for the session. There is one of his own compositions, "Perception," which starts off with a gently swinging, Mulliganesque solo by Payne, and then gets edgier as it goes along.

From there, the selections get seriously eclectic. "Drum Boogie" reaches into the swing era. Composed by Roy Eldridge and Gene Krupa, it became a hit, and a classic, when recorded by Krupa and Anita O'Day, and reached Hollywood when Barbara Stanwyck lip-synched it to Martha Tilton's swinging vocal. Interestingly, they are the only composers credited. No lyricist, so Eldridge or Krupa must have handled the lyrics.

No lyrics here, and somewhat more surprising, no drum solo, especially since Elvin Jones is the  modern player who could well be voted Most Likely to Take On Gene Krupa. Jones was still something of a new kid on the block, but not that new. He'd been in New York longer than Kenny Burrell, and had recorded with Miles Davis, Thad Jones, J. J. Johnson and Art Farmer. And like Burrell, Flanagan and Watkins, he was from the jazz cauldron of Detroit. But for whatever reason, this could more appropriately have been called "Bass Boogie." Doug Watkins has a longer solo than Jones, and provides the main rhythmic propulsion.

"Don't Cry Baby" reaches even farther back. Co-written by stride piano legend James P. Johnson, it was first recorded by Bessie Smith in the 1920s, and it opens with a bluesy vamp from Tommy Flanagan that Bessie would have appreciated. Johnson's co-writers were Saul Bernie and Stella Unger. Unger had a pretty decent career in music, including writing the book and lyrics for a Broadway musical, Seventh Heaven, but I could find absolutely no biographical material about her. Such is fame.

Then we move forward to the bebop era, and one of its finest composers. "Strictly Confidential" is a bebop standard by Bud Powell, and Flanagan is given room to solo on it

Who could not like this album? The range of musical voices that go into the tunes that were chosen, the close-knit Detroit camaraderie among the players, the chance to hear Cecil Payne stand out as a solo voice. And Kenny Burrell, already a giant in the jazz world.

It was originally released as Kenny Burrell,  then rereleased as Blue Moods, a title that had been given to an earlier Miles Davis album that Elvin Jones also appeared on.

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