|Kenny Burrell: |
by Adam St. James
Jazz guitar master Kenny Burrell is a national treasure. He has played as a sideman on countless recordings - many of them classics, from his beginnings with Dizzy Gillespie in 1951 to more recent collaborations with the likes of bass legend Ray Brown and Medeski, Martin & Wood - and has released nearly 100 albums as a leader. Between recording and live dates, Burrell serves as the Director of Jazz Studies at U.C.L.A.
In this informative Musician.com interview, Burrell talks about Lucky So and So, his latest release on the Concord Jazz label; the music of Duke Ellington; accompanying great soloists such as Oscar Peterson and Jimmy Smith; and the differing responsibilities of a sideman and a leader.
Q: With your latest album, Lucky So and So, you've recorded something like 96 albums as a leader - in addition to a vast catalog of recorded work as a sideman with some of the greats of jazz. How does your role differ between being a leader and a sideman?
Kenny Burrell: Well, the leader has the responsibility for the overall decision, the overall project - and we're talking about recording. In other words, I have to pick the tunes, I have to pick the musicians, and I have to direct the arrangements or write the arrangements. And I have to start and stop everybody and give directions.
If you're a good sideman, you're goal is to make the music work, follow the directions of the leader - assuming and hoping that he knows what he's doing. And so the end product is something that everybody will be happy with and not an embarrassment.
So the main thing is the caliber of the people that I like to deal with both as a leader and as a sideman - people who want to make the music work, who want to make it happen. And that's the goal: to make this music work, no matter what the tune, no matter what the tempo, no matter what the mood. Make it work. To join together in a co-operative effort and make this thing happen.
The leader is simply the one who calls the shots. He's the one who says, 'This is what I want to do and this is how I want to do it.' And everyone knows that they're there because they're special; the leader wants them there because they can do the job, musically, that he wants. So that's about it.
Q: When you work as a sideman with a great soloist, such as an Oscar Peterson or someone of his caliber, how do you stay out of the way of that person and yet still satisfy your own musical desires? What do you recommend to players who have sideman gigs?
Burrell: Well, first of all, again, basically you make the music happen. If someone is soloing you do your best to make them sound good or sound better by doing your best as an accompanist. You know accompanying is a great art. So no matter if it's Peterson, whoever - Bill Evans, Red Garland, Herbie Hancock, Eubie Blake, all those people I played with - it doesn't matter. The point is, whatever they want to do, you do your best to help them get there and help them sound good. If it means resting for a beat or bar, if it means filling in for a beat or a bar, if it means playing just a few notes for a beat or bar, or playing a lot of notes - whatever works to make the music sound as best as you can, that's what you do.
Q: Do you find that when you're accompanying a great soloist, like a lot of blues accompanists, you will drop down to playing something sparse, like a two-note figure - a double-stop as opposed to a more fully voiced chord - for the majority of an evening? How do you stay out of the soloist's way?
Burrell: No, I do not because the soloist, if he's the caliber of, for example, Jimmy Smith - who I've made many records with - he's going to do something. He's going to start at a certain point and his solo is going to build to a climax. So I'm supposed to do what I can to help him reach that climax. And it's going to take more than a couple of notes to do that.
Q: So you build a harmony, maybe over the course of a couple of choruses.
Burrell: Right. Sure, and some licks and some riffs and some chords and some patterns that are going to enhance what he's doing. And that's what usually happens. I understand what you mean about the blues, I've played a lot of blues. And Jimmy Smith is one of the people that I play a lot of blues with. And certainly there are a lot of times where I do what you were saying - just a couple of notes - but if I stay there it's not going to help the whole thing move forward with dynamics.
Q: Right. Plus it's probably different between when you're behind a single note instrument like a sax than when you're backing a Hammond organ.
Burrell: Right. Of course. It all depends on the situation. Yeah, sure. If you're playing for a vocalist that's even another situation.
Q: With nearly 100 albums under your belt, how did you pick the tunes for your new album, Lucky So and So?
Kenny Burrell: The group that's on the album - Onage Alan Gumbs on piano, Rufus Reed on bass, and Akira Tana on drum - is a group that I was working with at the Blue Note in New York the week before we did the recording. And when I was working at the club, I was certainly thinking about the fact that we were going to record and I was kind of just thinking about which pieces were successful and strong and that we liked to play. I knew "The Feeling of Jazz" was one that we would definitely do, and I hadn't recorded it. And "Tenderly" was one that I like a lot and I just hadn't recorded it.
And there's a piece I wrote called "Bass Face," which I wrote for Ray Brown. I recorded it with Ray Brown on a Bill Evans album about 10 years ago and then Ray recorded it on his own album and I said, 'Well, it's time that I recorded it. I wrote it, I might as well record it." So we recorded it and featured Rufus on that particular piece. Also, the piece on there called "Blues Scape," that's just another one of my originals. It's just a blues line. I like to keep something in there like that because it's a part of who I am and a part of what I love. Then Onage submitted a few pieces and one that I liked in particular was "Too Soon." And another tune that I have been meaning to record for years and I love very much is "In A Sentimental Mood" by Duke Ellington. I play it all the time and never recorded it.
Q: You haven't recorded a lot of vocals in the past. What led to your singing four songs on this album?
Burrell: The song "Lucky So and So," which is the title track of the album, is one that I've been singing for years, in fact I even recorded it on a radio show with Marian MacPartland, and it came out on one of her CD's. But I just said, 'I would like to record this and do it, finally, just as a part of my album.' So the reason I decided to do this tune and the other three songs on the album is because I love to sing, number one. And I have done it through the years as just kind of a part-time thing for several reasons:
One, I've just been very busy as a guitarist and I haven't taken time to really learn a lot of words. And then another thing is that people, when they come to hear me, they come to see and hear me play the guitar and not to sing, so it's not something that I want to force on people. And finally, I did record an album singing way back in the '60s and it was kind of a mixed blessing in the sense that the record - I didn't know this - but the label really wanted me to be more of a pop singer and I didn't have that in mind at all; I was just glad to get a chance to record. It turned out though that we had some conflicts in terms of the recording process and it ended up that neither myself nor the record company was very happy. And I decided then - although some people liked the album - that if I ever did it again I would make sure I felt right about it and I was with a company that wanted me to be who I am - who wanted me to do whatever I wanted to do and the way I wanted to do it.
So I did the three other vocals "My Ship," "I'm Glad There Was You," and "Squeeze Me." They're all different songs with different kinds of moods, but they're songs that I like. It just turned out that four of the songs on the album were by Duke Ellington. If you know my music, you would know it's not a surprise that I like Duke Ellington's music.
Q: Knowing that Duke Ellington is one of your favorite composers, how did you narrow down the four Ellington tunes you recorded on Lucky So and So?
Burrell: Well, "Lucky So and So" I had never recorded on my own. Actually, the other one let's see "Sentimental Mood" no, I told you about that. "The Feeling of Jazz" no, I hadn't recorded that. And "Squeeze Me" I may have recorded that with Jimmy Smith. I believe I recorded that with Jimmy Smith, but not on my own.
Q: So, you just wanted to round out the catalog?
Burrell: You'd never round out that catalogue. That catalogue is so enormous, and like I said, "Lucky So and So," I didn't record it, but you know I did that with Mary MacPartland.
Q: Right. You also recently did one song with Medeski, Martin and Wood - a version of "C Jam Blues" - on an Ellington tribute album. That must've been fun.
Burrell: That was fun, working with those guys.
Q: Was it a different approach for them?
Burrell: Yeah, for them. But one of the things I appreciated about them was, they didn't indicate at all that they wanted me to change anything. They just wanted me to be who I was and they were very respectful and appreciative. And we had fun.