Friday, July 22, 2011

Lenny Breau – Magical Guitarist

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“What I am trying to do is make impressions. I think of myself as a colourist, adding different coulours and shades by using different techniques and touching the guitar in different ways. I like to play sounds you can see if you’ve got your eyes closed. I’ll always be a student because I think of music as never ending.”
- Lenny Breau

“I approach the guitar like a piano. I’ve reached a point where I transcend the instrument. A lot of the stuff I play on the 7-string guitar is supposed to be technically impossible, but I spent over twenty years figuring it out. I play the guitar like a piano, there’s always two things going on at once. I’m thinking melody, but I’m also thinking of a background. I play the accompaniment on the low strings.”
- Lenny Breau

“A kind of modern-day Django Reinhardt, Lenny Breau was enigmatic, unpredictable, and wide-ranging in his life and music. Largely unrecognized except by the select few who are touched by his sphere of brilliance, he improvised and innovated kaleidoscopic fusions of styles and techniques that continue to amaze and confound. With his genius itensely focused on the guitar’s labyrinth of strings and frets, the result was the stuff of legends.”
- Jim Ferguson, Jazz guitar historian, writer and Grammy nominee

The sound of the guitar has been present in our family for as long as I can remember; Italo-American social life wouldn’t be the same without it.

It’s beautiful sound usually came from a classic, Gibson played acoustically, although at times, a basic amplifier was employed.

Later, when recordings came into my life, sometimes “the sound of the guitar” would be strummed as a rhythm guitar by Freddie Green in Count Basie’s rhythm section while at other times Charlie Christian picked and plucked it as a solo instrument in Benny Goodman’s sextet or Barney Kessel both strummed and soloed on it in Oscar Peterson’s classic trio with Ray Brown on bass.

And then there was the discovery of the instrument’s Jazz virtuosos: Django Reinhardt, Joe Pass and Bireli Lagrene along with what Neil Tesser refers to as the “… softer tone and less pronounced attack of Tal Farlow, Jimmy Raney and Johnny Smith” [I still can’t stop listening to the gorgeous recordings Johnny made with Stan Getz in the early 1950s]. One could also add Jim Hall and John Pisano to the latter group.

Guitar players have always fascinated me.

Which brings me to the night in 1968 that I walked into Shelly Manne Hole and encountered guitarist Lenny Breau.

I had no idea how to categorize his style, but he just captivated me. I sat there, spellbound through the entire set and absorbed as much of it in as I could.

Although he was accompanied on the gig by bass and drums, it was his solo guitar work that just blew me away. His work that night was a magical tour de force; I had never heard anything like it before and rarely since.

Much to my delight, RCA issued an album in 1969 of Lenny’s gig at Shelly and acquiring it gave me access to the following liner notes by guitarist Johnny Smith that helped me to understand a bit of what was on offer that night:

The Electric Guitar Rises to New Levels of Musical Excellence in the Hands of Lenny Breau

“In the relatively short career of the electric guitar as a prominent solo instrument there have been many excellent players but com­paratively few guitarists who have contributed new styles and ap­proaches to the instrument.

Lenny Breau has created a new concept and direction for the electric guitar that should remain far beyond the short life-span of a musical fad. He is a young man with a musically inquisitive mind for new thoughts and devices that give his playing a refreshing and com­manding quality. His technique and performance on the instrument encompass a wide variety of tonal colors and styles that range from sitaristic slurs to some excellently executed flamenco passages. His melodic concepts of jazz are harmonically sound and denote depth of musicianship. The unaccompanied solos are captivating and intrigu­ing with a neoclassic flavor and employ some interesting Chet Atkins-inspired harmonics and amplifier-induced sustained pedal tones.

Drummer Reg Kelln and electric bassist Ron Halldorson contribute to the excellence of this recording. Their constant communication with Lenny is evident in the spontaneous mood and rhythmical changes that occur throughout the performance, which is a refreshing de­parture from some of the over-arranged or completely disjointed "free style" groups.

There will, no doubt, be self-appointed critics who will say that Lenny at times is too exuberant on the guitar and inserts too many dif­ferent thoughts and styles into a song, but, no matter what the criticism, the reservoir of musical knowledge, musicianship and the technique to produce are there and should do nothing but improve and contribute to a higher and higher standard and acceptance of the electric guitarist.

- Johnny Smith”

Thanks to CD re-issues, over the years I have been able to acquire a number of Lenny’s recordings and these covers along with some photos of Lenny are featured in the following video tribute to him.

See what you think of Lenny’s solo guitar stylings on the version of Mercy, Mercy, Mercy that forms the audio track to the video.