Thursday, May 30, 2019

Lenny Breau - A 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 colours 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 intensely 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; Italian-American social life wouldn’t be the same without it.

Its beautiful sound usually came from a classic, Gibson played acoustically, although at times, a basic, small 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’s [The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau Live! RCA LP - 4199; One Way Records CD OW 29315] 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 reissues, over the years I have been able to acquire a number of Lenny’s recordings including Lenny Breau: Five O’Clock Bells and Mo’ Breau [Genes CD 5006/12] which contained these descriptions of what makes Lenny’s approach to Jazz guitar unique.

Five O’Clock Bells [AD 5006]

“Lenny Breau is a legendary guitarist among musicians, but an unfamiliar name to much of the general public because he has heretofore never been sympathetically recorded. This session is the first recording that Lenny feels accurately represents him.

This CD recording documents a magnificent session which took place in New York City. Lenny Breau played his guitar the way he wanted, using his own choice of materials. The results were awesome. Few interpreters can rework a ballad as effectively as Breau. a master at controlling overtones with acoustic guitar.

Breau's style allows him to use all of his fingers simultaneously, like a keyboardist. He can play a walking bass line with his thumb and forefinger while picking notes with his other fingers. The range is enhanced by Breau's customized electric guitar, which is fitted with a classical guitar neck. The classical neck is wider than a regular electric guitar neck, so the strings are further apart, allowing for better high register definition and giving Breau the ability to chord at higher octaves.

Just about all jazz guitar techniques prior to Lenny's innovation came in two forms: either single string work for solos, or strummed chords for accompaniment. Lenny's finger technique allows for simultaneous playing of both lead and rhythm guitar, allowing him, in effect to accompany himself.

To succeed at this, of course, required him to be a master musician. Lenny more than met the challenge. As he played, his legend grew. Canadian guitarist, Domenic Troiano, tells one of the many stories about him: "A guy was standing outside a club where Lenny was playing and said to me. 'Boy are there two great guitarists playing in there'?’ " These recordings will be remembered for years to come as a landmark in the history of jazz guitar.”
- John Swenson

MO' BREAU (AD 5012)

“Breau is one of those (musicians) who, like Art Tatum, hardly even needs a rhythm section..., (his) warm, almost acoustic sound and rhythmic poise make his only serious peer in the field of solo jazz guitar, Joe Pass, sound hopelessly mechanical.”
- Terry Teachout, KANSAS CITY STAR

“Breau has a round, burnished tone, and an extraordinary command ol dynamics and textural nuances …  an encyclopedia of possibilities for the solo guitarist, more than living up lo his reputation.”

“Breau’s ability to accompany himself gives his playing a sense of interior dialogue that make other jazz guitar sound incomplete by comparison.”
- Geoffrey Himes, WASHINGTON POST

“Lenny Breau is an almost mythical figure to serious students of the art of playing guitar…”

“He is one of the true geniuses of the guitar…. I suppose he is a musician's musician. His knowledge of the instrument and the music is so vast, and I think that's what knocks people over about him, but he's such a tasty player, too.  I think if Chopin had played guitar he would have sounded like Lenny Breau.”
- Chet Atkins.

“What I'm trying to do is make impressions. I think of myself as a colorist. adding different colors and shades by using different techniques and touching the guitar in different ways.  I'd like to play sounds you can see if you've get your eyes closed. I'll always be a student, because I think of music as never ending. I just improvise and keep it going and see what happens. Just one big long tune.”
- Lenny Breau

Guitarist James W. Lane, Jr.offered these comments about Lenny as the insert notes to Lenny Breau: The Last Sessions [Genes CD 5024].

"If you are an aspiring guitarist or enjoy listening to a unique approach to music and the guitar, this album is for you."

The one word that describes Lenny Breau’s abilities with the guitar is "Incredible!" His music contains a rarely-found artistry. After hearing these tunes … I came away with a better understanding of the multi-faceted use of the guitar. Breau's playing is mostly spontaneous, totally inspired and captivating. His romantic feel for the instrument creates an environment of sound that carries the use of color and texture, which are enhanced by the many techniques of the player. The dynamics of the pieces just seem to occur. His use of harmonics is extremely fluid, and the way in which they are woven through his works, flow in a manner I’ve never heard before.

Jazz guitarist, colorist, impressionist, stylist?

Trying to categorize the music of Lenny Breau would not do it justice. Instead, listen and enjoy his music. If you find, as I do, that this music is a rare treasure, put it at the top of your collection.”

See what you think of Lenny’s solo guitar stylings on this version of I Love You.

1 comment:

  1. Steve, this is an incredible page and great compilation of liner notes and commentary on Lenny.
    If you don't mind, I've pasted a link to your page in my youtube uploads of "The Legendary Lenny Brea...Now!"
    here is a link to 'Visions'


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