Confession time. I have a rather large collection of music. I should explain for the younger readers, back in the day you had to purchase music recordings individually. One would save money and go to the record store and thumb through albums to buy a copy of the music you loved from your favorite artist. Eventually the LP records gave way to cassette tapes and then compact discs as the mechanism to own a copy of your most loved tunes. At that point we lost the great 12 inch album art, but we at least still had liner notes albeit in smaller print in little booklets. Eventually that Steve Jobs fellow made me spend hours loading all my music from the compact discs into my computer with compressed little music files. Now you could even download songs or entire albums into your collection, with instant gratification but no liner notes. With high speed internet came the streaming services, which has made almost everything available to listen to for a monthly fee. Seemed like a great idea, until it destroyed the recording industry. Finally, in recent years a few people have figured out that music could sound a great deal better than it does on terribly compressed computer files and tiny little earbuds. Those audiophiles have been purchasing vinyl LP records again and playing them on turntables, because everything comes around again. I apologize, I seem to have digressed.
I have gathered a large collection of recordings. That’s not the confession. While I think it is a pretty well rounded collection of classical music, opera, Jazz and blues, I have to confess that jazz guitar players are woefully underrepresented. My iTunes library has over 22,000 “songs” collected into about 1,200 albums, of which 543 it classifies as of the jazz idiom. Only 9 albums are led by jazz guitarists. This seems unforgivable, given that one of the greatest jazz guitar players of all time is from my home town of Detroit, the master musician Kenny Burrell. Burrell has recorded over 100 albums as a leader, and been involved in many times that as a side man. In the 1950’s, Kenny Burrell was the de facto house guitarist at the leading jazz labels Blue Note and Prestige. It is on the Blue Note label that Kenny Burrell recorded Midnight Blue, which Mark Stryker calls a “nexus of soul-jazz and hard bop, and ranks as one of Burrell’s greatest masterpieces.” (Incidentally, the 2019 book Jazz from Detroit authored by Stryker is something of a masterpiece in its own right.)
Kenny Burrell was born in 1931, started out self taught on the guitar at age 12 and by age 15 was playing gigs. He was noticed by Dizzy Gillespie at age 19 and offered a chance to go on the road, but followed the advice of his mother and took the opportunity to go to college instead. At Wayne State University in Detroit, he studied composition and classical guitar, in part because Jazz music wasn’t yet something to be studied in school. Burrell would do his own part to change that, teaching his first course at UCLA in 1978 focused on Duke Ellington and eventually becoming the founding director of the Jazz Studies program. He held that position for 20 years, balancing teaching, recording and touring.
Falling into Kenny Burrell’s discography has been like rediscovering my love for straight ahead jazz all over again. Using the Spotify streaming service, I have been able to dive deep into recordings that would have cost me all of my allowance and savings to purchase individually. I started with Midnight Blue, Blues – The Common Ground, ‘Round Midnight and Soulero. I had to listen to Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, and I have dozens more to explore. There is not a bad note anywhere to be found, as the even tempered Burrell is a consummate professional. Every time he picks up his guitar, he shows up. I know I can pick any album will find the same quality musicianship and distinctive tone without fail.
I expect that after spending some time listening to Kenny Burrell, I will expand out into other Jazz guitarists. I have a small sampling of Grant Green and Wes Montgomery, as well as individual albums by Pat Martino, Kevin Eubanks, Stanley Jordan, Earl Klugh and the Giblet Gravy album by George Benson. I will search out some Jim Hall, Joe Pass, Bill Frisell, and explore the recording career of Pat Metheny whose recent appearances at the Detroit Jazz Festival were inspiring. I owe it to myself to listen to some Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt. I loved the appearance at the DJF of the band Hudson, which included John Scofield. Please leave your favorite players in the comments with some suggested albums for me to listen to. These are the sort of musical journeys that make it all worthwhile.