Monday, November 20, 2023

Kenny Burrell: The Making of the Guitar Forms Album By Steve Siegel

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“ Burrell is on hundreds of records, many of which are among the more famous jazz sessions of the LP era, yet he has never secured the popularity which a guitarist might have expected in a period when its practitioners became as important as saxophonists and pianists. He grew up in Detroit and worked there until a tour with Oscar Peterson minded him to look further afield, and he moved to New York in 1956. His Christian-derived style helped get him a job with Benny Goodman, but thereafter he played in settings which were in the heartland of hard bop, for Prestige, Blue Note and New Jazz. Less a sideman and more a partner with several small-group leaders - especially Jimmy Smith, who was a favourite collaborator - Burrell's easy going manner fits so snugly and accommodatingly into any jazz groove that he can almost disappear in a band situation, but his solos and rhythm parts are bluesily effective whatever the prevailing conditions. Gil Evans arranged Guitar Forms for him at Verve, which is perhaps the closest Burrell has ever been to a big-time date, but earlier or later records alike are highly enjoyable and only occasionally slip towards noodling.”

  • Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopedia

With previous features on pianist Wade Legge, the Great Day in Harlem Photograph “Mystery Man” - William J. Crump, drummer Frankie Dunlop, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, critic and author Nat Hentoff, Jazz Party: A Great Night In Manhattan featuring the Miles Davis Sextet, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, the September 9, 1958 fest that Columbia Records put on at the Plaza Hotel for its executives and guests, vocalist Ed Reed, Dupree Bolton, Helen Merrill, Sonny Clark and Herbie Nichols, Steve Siegel has assumed the role of “unofficial” staff writer for JazzProfiles.

© -Steve Siegel copyright protected; all rights reserved; used with the author’s permission.

“The guitar as a lead or soloing instrument was late to the jazz party.  In the early days of jazz, you might have found a guitar in a big band, such as Count Basie's use of Freddy Green on rhythm guitar. Finally, in the late 1930s, Charlie Christian liberated the instrument and showed its potential as a lead instrument. But following Christian’s early passing in 1942, not much occurred to further the instrument's reputation until the early 1950s.

 It wasn't until 1953 that a major jazz label recorded a guitarist as a group leader and featured his name on the album cover (Blue Note’s recording of Sal Salvatore, followed in 1954 by one of Tal Farlow). In fact, looking at the classic instrumentation of a jazz combo as it exists today, since the early 1950 the only other instruments beyond the guitar to integrate into the fabric of the jazz combo as a solo instrument were the soprano saxophone and the bass clarinet (originally popularized by Sidney Bechet (reintroduced by Steve Lacy and John Coltrane) and Eric Dolphy respectively).

Guitarist Kenny Burrell arrived in New York City in 1956, in the midst of the great diaspora of jazz musicians who grew up in the greater Detroit area. But unlike the others who left Detroit to test themselves in the shark-infested waters of the many thriving jazz clubs and recording studios of the world's mecca of jazz, Burrell arrived with a rather unusual possession - a four-year baccalaureate degree in music from Wayne State University.

In the world of New York City jazz, circa 1956, a college degree in music signified that the holder of said degree might have merely wasted four years that they could have spent woodshedding in those clubs - learning the ins and outs of jazz from the “street professors” who invented the curriculum of bebop and hard bop. But before entering college, Burrell had already gone to “graduate school” guesting in “professor” Dizzy Gillespie's big band. This combination of great natural ability on the instrument, a broad exposure to the “legitimate” world of music (there were no collegiate jazz programs in universities in the early 1950s) and working within a world class jazz organization had more than prepared Burrell who, along with his friend and fellow Detroit native, pianist Tommy Flanagan*, arrived in New York in early 1956 as a fully formed musician and almost immediately integrated himself into the jazz scene.

Though Burrell was profoundly talented on his instrument, it did not hurt that compared to the large pool of talented players on other traditional instruments used to produce jazz, there was, in 1956, few guitarists who possessed Burrell's combination of total mastery of his instrument, crack reading skills and the ability to play in most of the styles of jazz, popular and even classical music that a record producer or a group leader in a club might ask for. With the exception of Burrell, in 1956 the future wave of modernist jazz guitarists had not yet arrived in NYC. Jim Hall, Joe Pass and Barney Kessel were on the West Coast. Wes Montgomery was still in Indianapolis and Grant Green was not to arrive in NYC until 1960.

The track was wide open and Burrell was soon recommended to Blue Note Records major-domo Alfred Lion as well as to Prestige Records Bob Weinstock – the two biggest jazz labels of the day on the East Coast.

Between March 12 and May 30, 1956, Burrell led three sessions for Blue Note – material that would form his first two albums as a leader. One week later, on June 6-7, he entered the studio for Norman Granz's Clef label and recorded tracks with Billie Holiday that would form the better part of her Lady Sings the Blues albuma rather auspicious introduction for the 25-year-old Burrell.

From 1956 until the Guitar Forms album in 1965, Burrell released 15 albums on eight different labels as a leader or co-leader, nine of which were for Prestige and Blue Note, as well as appearing on hundreds of other sessions as a sideman. 

Eventually, musicians can reach a career crossroads. Following 1963's critically acclaimed Blue Note release, Midnight Blue (Burrell was not to record again for Blue Note for 22 years), Burrell returned to Prestige where his soulful and smooth flowing style appeared to the label to be a perfect match for the commercially oriented emerging soul jazz and bossa nova styles. Burrell’s record sales might have been satisfactory but critical reception was rather tepid with Burrell seemingly repeating himself through no fault of his own. The labels and his producers knew what they wanted and Burrell, throughout his long career, could always deliver a credible performance regardless of the material he was given or the musical style he was asked to work within.

In time, the rewards of being such a musical chameleon and fitting into the musical sphere of others such as session leaders or producers, can weigh on a musician. The public who purchased your last recording can be put off if your next effort deviates from the feel of the one that preceded it. The musicians’ version of the “scales of justice'' with financial rewards on one side and personal aesthetics on the other, may get out of balance. At this point the musician might seek out a label and producer who might allow them to go their own way – or at least have more input into the aesthetic side of the jazz art/profit equation.

By 1964, Burrell was ready to go his own way. As he related to Gil Evans' biographer Larry Hickok:

 I just personally felt I wasn't growing fast enough. I also felt and I still feel that if I had stayed in the studios my career really would not have continued for very long.

Burrell was now looking to do a concept album drawing on multiple sources for his material - an approach that he felt would finally allow him to draw upon all aspects of his talents on his instrument.

In the summer of 1963 Burrell had worked with Verve Records, receiving co-billing with Jimmy Smith on the Creed Taylor-produced album, Blue Bash. Previous to Blue Bash, he had occasionally worked with Taylor who now approached him with a proposal that Burrell work with him to do the type of album that Guitar Forms ultimately turned out to be.


I worked with him (Taylor) a lot, doing a variety of things in the pop world and also working with some people from Brazil. So, I did a lot of different types of playing which he was aware of, and one day he approached me and said ‘you do all these different things on the guitar, would you like to do an album showcasing all of these aspects of your playing?’ And I said, yes, of course I would. I wanted to have a variety of material based on quality. After that I started to visualize what would be the best setting for this production and for the large ensembles. I thought about Gil Evans, because I really admired his work and I had worked with him in his own group… I wanted to work on it with somebody who was very adaptable and not afraid to tackle said work and was free spirited and that for me happened to be Gil Evans

Moore, Samuel: Interview of Burrell for Guitar International in 2013. 

Taylor was finishing up his work producing Evans’ newest Verve album, The Individualism of Gil Evans (with Burrell on guitar) and was well aware of Evans' reputation as a slow and deliberate arranger who, though producing unique and innovative charts, could slow down production and cause budget overrides. But despite some trepidation, Taylor felt comfortable that, despite the costs, Evans could provide charts that would support his and Burrell’s vision.

So, the impressive trio of Burrell, Evans and Taylor were all on-board. Most importantly they were in agreement on the concept and had a collective understanding of musical expectations for the outcome of the album.

Evans began work on the five charts that he was contracted to provide and as expected, his work pace was very deliberate. But Burrell was unfazed:

My position was I didn’t care how long it took because I could see him maybe once a week or every two weeks and I knew he was working. Hey, when it’s done it’s going to be great and it was.

The recording stretched over three sessions, from December 1964 to April 1965 at the Van Gelder Studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. In addition to Burrell, a total of 17 musicians were involved in the project; 11 of whom had appeared on the Individualism sessions, with some of the musicians having also appeared on one or more of the Columbia Records Miles Davis/Gil Evans trilogies of the late 1950s, early 1960s.

With Taylor producing, Evans arranging and a cadre of Evans' alumni in the orchestra, Burrell must have entered the project with high expectations - confident that the pieces were in place to produce his visionary album.

Writing credits spanned almost 50 years and include Elvin Jones, Cyril Scott, Alec Wilder, Harold Arlen, Joe Benjamin (the bassist on the album), George Gershwin and two selections written by Burrell.

The extent of styles included modern jazz, folk, classical and bossa nova (an idiom found frequently on mid-1960s jazz albums). The album had, as Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton once put it, a definite “Spanish tinge.” 

All of this came together successfully because of the remarkable arranging skills of Gil Evans and the mastery of Burrell combined with the sensitivity and musical flexibility of the “A list” players. Evans' orchestra featured the usual big band/jazz orchestra instrumentation augmented by English horns, French horns, a bass clarinet, a tuba, flutes, a bassoon and an oboe.

It would be quite possible for an album with such musical reach to sound disjointed or for the orchestra to overpower the gentle sounds of Burrell's guitar. There are relatively few classical music concertos written for the guitar for the same reason that the guitar has never become an essential instrument in jazz big bands/ orchestras – the difficulty of the instrument being heard, even when electrified, limits its role. But after his brilliant work of integrating a similar orchestral sound with the often soft, muted sound of Davis' trumpet and flugelhorn, Evans was now an acknowledged master of the nuances of arranging such a combination. He did this through utilizing unique tonal variations and varying the dynamics of sound between sections of the orchestra and even within those sections. 

So just like the muted, ethereal sounds of Davis' horns, the guitar of Burrell does not compete with but integrates into the swirling sounds of the orchestra.

Credit Rudy van Gelder for his usual fine job of creating an authentic soundstage - spotlighting Burrell when he solos over the orchestra and controlling the relative dynamics of instruments through microphone placement and his sound board's dials and sliders.

Of the nine selections that made it to the album, one was a solo rendition of an excerpt from George Gershwin's, Prelude #2, three were small group blues-oriented pieces by the quintet of Burrell, Roger Kellaway, Joe Benjamin, Grady Tate and Willie Rodriguez. The remaining five pieces were all arranged by Evans for the small group and orchestra.

Perhaps Evans' best work on the album is a remarkable arrangement of a classical piece, Lotus Land, written in 1905 by the British composer Cyril Scott (1879-1970).

Scott has been referred to by some as the “English Debussy" as well as “The Father of Modern British Music.” Interestingly, the piece has quite an Eastern feel to it. Scott, who was a true polymath, had studied Eastern philosophy and the piece has been described as containing “Orientalist musical techniques common to modernist composers representing the exotic East.”

Lotus Land is defined in Webster's as “An idyllic place of contentment and ease.” Scott’s own piano renditions of the piece indicates that perhaps it was written as musical impressionism. Though Lotus Land, as Evans views it, is not as idyllic a place as Scott might have viewed it. As the nine-minute plus piece moves from Burrell's soothing predominantly single note opening lines and the orchestra joins in, Benjamin on bass and Tate on drums lay down a rather militaristic beat which does seem to propel the stately melody line forward into the swirling orchestral parts.

Music writers and critics who have studied the Evans/Burrell treatment of the piece have perceived similarities to Evans' arrangements for Miles Davis on the Sketches of Spain album - primarily heard through the English horn/guitar interaction. The similarities are confirmed by Burrell:

Well, I kind of had that background in mind when I thought about doing that song, because I very much liked what he had done with Miles Davis…My approach to the piece was certainly different than one might think because it was by an English composer, about an oriental place and it’s very interesting how it all came together, but that’s what I was feeling as I heard it. (Moore)

Another strong piece with a Spanish flavor is Burrell's composition “Loie”, written for his then wife, Delores. The song first appeared on Ike Quebec's 1962 album Bossa Nova Soul with Burrell on guitar. 

On this version, forward momentum is supplied by Grady Tate’s ostinato beat. It features a series of short solos by Burrell punctuated by one of Davis' favorite devices of a tutti where the full orchestra provides a jarring contrast to the serenity of Burrell's guitar, with a series of blasts of color followed by another short calming solo from Burrell. 

The interplay of Andy Fitzgerald’s English horn with Burrell's guitar has, as we hear on “Lotus Land,” a Concerto de Aranjuez feel.

Whereas Burrell composed “Loie” in the early 1960s, “Greensleeves” has a history dating back to 1580. A version of it has been played on almost every instrument ever invented and presumably on a few that have become extinct. Yet Gil Evans found a way to freshen the arrangement that persuaded the 1966 Grammy panel to nominate the old war horse (the song…not Evans) for the Grammy Award in the category of “Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist or Instrumentalist.” 

Burrell truly showed his esoteric taste in music by including Alec Wilder's “Moon and Sand” on the album – a song written in 1941 when he and co-writer Mort Palitz were “noodling" on violin and piano respectively with Wilder writing down the melody line and lyricist William Engvick adding the words. The song had been introduced by Xavier Cugat and his Waldorf Astoria Orchestra. The piece was rather obscure until the 1960s. Until then, if it was performed at all, it was probably in the context of dance or cabaret music and was generally neglected by jazz musicians. 

The inclusion on Guitar Forms again shows both Evans' and Burrell's ability to see very deeply into a composition and extract something unique. In part, because of the song’s exposure on Guitar Forms, versions of the song began appearing on albums by both jazz singers and pianists.


 In 1964-65 when Burrell decided that he needed to make a powerful musical statement, there were major changes happening in the music world that ultimately had a negative impact on the recording opportunities and distribution of jazz records. The revitalization of rock and roll was underway with theBritish Invasion” led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Albums by the top rock groups could sell more units in a week than even well received jazz albums could during the record’s entire life cycle. The major labels began to pare down their jazz divisions and might only be interested in jazz to the extent that they could find a crossover hit along the lines of Lee Morgan's The Sidewinder.  The small independent jazz labels were being acquired by larger companies for their back catalogs and in many cases, they became reissue-only labels.

Against this backdrop in 1965, Burrell had a very small window of opportunity to make his signature jazz album. Verve Records, under head producer Creed Taylor, was still committed to making quality jazz records but was moving toward a more slick, commercial type of jazz such as the fusion of light jazz with bossa nova. By 1967, Taylor had left Verve and formed CTI Records. From 1964 on, Verve’s parent company MGM, turned its attention to signing rock artists. 

Meanwhile, Evans was phasing out his work in arranging albums for other artists (Miles Davis excluded) to concentrate on his own orchestral recordings. However, for a short while, the stars were in alignment for Burrell and a very narrow window of opportunity allowed Guitar Forms to be made.

At the 1966 Grammy Awards, Guitar Forms was nominated for the “Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance – Large Group or Soloist with Large Group,” for “Best Album Cover – Photography,” and Gil Evans was nominated for “Best Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist or Instrumentalist” for “Greensleeves.”

In summary, Burrell offers this postscript:

I just looked at the music and did my best to play it right. But, in this case, it (Guitar Forms) was tailor made for certain kinds of guitar playing. It wasn’t just straight ahead jazz with a theme, improvisation and band background or band soli, these were pieces that were pretty well integrated with the guitar and the orchestra combined. 

Not every jazz artist is provided the support and guidance to allow them to produce a “signature” album. Even when a record producer provides an artist with the opportunity, such as Creed Taylor did with Burrell, corporate executives may impose budgetary constraints, or request changes in personnel and/or repertoire in order to commercialize the product to penetrate multiple market segments and bring in more profits. 

Even if a session has the full support at all levels of the company and the session is deemed successful, there is no guarantee that the tapes won't be shelved. Reasons include such occurrences as the company recording too much “product" from an artist and can’t release it all. Occasionally, it was simply that a session tape and notes were literally misplaced and lost to time, often to be discovered in the master tape vault decades later – Blue Note Records, when owned by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff, being a prime example of both scenarios occurring. 

We are all very fortunate that Guitar Forms managed to negotiate all of these possible obstacles to produce what is perhaps the best guitar with orchestra jazz album ever recorded.”

*To some ears, there seems to have been a bit of musical cross-pollinated between Burrell and Flanagan. Ironically, I once heard Burrell be referred to as the “Tommy Flanagan of the Guitar” and on another occasion, Flanagan as the “Kenny Burrell of the piano”.

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