Throughout his prolific 39-year recording career, guitarist Kenny Burrell has recorded albums for most of the great jazz companies, including Blue Note, Prestige, Argo, Verve, Cadet, Fantasy, and Concord. Now, with Guiding Spirit, his first release of the Nineties, Burrell makes his debut on another distinguished jazz label, Contemporary Records.
Consummate musical taste, fluid technique, emotional warmth, clarity of ideas and tone, and refusal to compromise his artistic principles to passing fads are Burrell hallmarks that have made him among the most highly respected of all jazz guitarists. "He is a virtuoso,” Dan Morgenstern points out in his liner notes to Guiding Spirit, "but he never rubs it in, because to him the music comes first, not the ego.”
Although he had previously recorded in the company of such vibes masters as Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, and Terry Gibbs, Guiding Spirit is the first album by Burrell as a leader to feature a vibraphonist. Jay Hoggard, the innovative young vibes player known for his work with the likes of Cecil Taylor, Anthony Davis, and James Newton, brings a distinctive sparkle to Burrell’s music.
"He’s very adventurous in terms of what he’s playing and writing, but at the same time, he understands the history and the heritage and respects it,” the guitarist says of Hoggard. "I really feel that that’s why he’s able to play with so many people and why we get along so well. He respects everything that’s gone on before and is able to do it. At the same time, he’s very modern in his thinking and that I particularly like, because I want to go as far as I can in terms of advancement.”
Rounding out the quartet on Guiding Spirit are bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Yoron . "We brought them into the group because they work so well together,” Burrell explains. "Like Jay, both of them have an appreciation of the past but are certainly young and contemporary musicians.”
In keeping with the guitarist’s respect for tradition, the album includes such standards as "Main Stem” and "In a Sentimental Mood” by Duke Ellington (on whose music and philosophy Burrell has taught a course at UCLA for the past 11 years), "Moment’s Notice” by John Coltrane (with whom he had recorded as early as 1951), "Soul Eyes” by Mal Waldron, and "In Walked Bud” by Thelonious Monk. There’s also a new rendition of Burrell’s own now-classic "Midnight Blue,” as well as Hoggard’s "Guiding Spirit” and ’s "A Gift for You.”
"Calling You,” Bob Telson’s theme from the motion picture Bagdad Cafe, kicks off the album, making its debut in the jazz repertoire. "I happened to see the movie and liked the melody and thought it would be a good thing for this group,” Burrell explains. "It’s not a very popular movie here [in the ], but when we were on tour in Europe last summer, we were playing the tune and everywhere we went, people recognized the tune from the movie.”
Guiding Spirit marks the fifth time Burrell has recorded an album live at New York’s famed Village Vanguard nightclub. Owner Max Gordon, who died three months before the recording was made, had been supportive of the guitarist ever since he booked Burrell’s then-unconventional pianoless trio in 1959. (The best-selling Argo album, Night at the Vanguard, resulted from that engagement.)
"It’s one of my favorite places to play and it’s also one of the favorite places of many jazz musicians,” Burrell says of the club. "The fact that Max was there almost every night made it very special, ‘cause that really said to the audience and to the musicians that he cared. That transferred down to all the employees. It was and still is a good place to play. Max’s widow, Lorraine, is running it now and seems to maintain the tradition.
"The acoustics of the place are very special as well. The Vanguard is built almost like an old-fashioned horn speaker. From the bandstand, which is not especially wide, it starts to spread out on each side. It expands almost like a speaker, so it has naturally good sound.”
Kenny Burrell was born in Detroit on July 31, 1931. His mother, who sang in the Second Baptist Church choir, also played the piano around the house. His father was fond of the banjo and the ukelele. "He was just the kind of guy who could pick up string instruments and do something with ‘em,’ Kenny recalls. "It kinda rubbed off on us.” Besides Kenny, brothers Donald and Billy Burrell also took up the guitar.
Kenny, who credits Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore, and Django Reinhardt as influences, as well as such bluesmen as T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters, played on his first major recording session in Detroit in 1951 with a Dizzy Gillespie combo that included John Coltrane, Milt Jackson, and Percy Heath. Even though the young guitarist was keeping heavy company, including that of such other up-and-coming Detroiters as Tommy Flanagan, Yusef Lateef, Pepper Adams, and Elvin Jones, he remained in Detroit to study at Wayne State University, from which he earned a B.A. in music composition and theory in 1955. He also studied classical guitar with Joseph Fava during that period and continues to employ finger-style technique (often in combination with a pick) in his music.
A six-month tour in 1955 with the Oscar Peterson Trio, in which he temporarily replaced Herb Ellis, helped to set Burrell’s sights on the Big Apple. The following year, he and Flanagan drove to New York City and were promptly drafted into the major league of jazz. Burrell not only became the city’s most in-demand jazz guitarist, recording with his own groups and with Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Thad Jones, Kenny Dorham, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Smith, Gene Ammons, and many others, but played on pop sessions with the likes of Tony Bennett and James Brown and worked in the pit bands of such Broadway shows as Bye Bye Birdie and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. He has also sung on occasion throughout his career and, in 1960, recorded a vocal album for Columbia titled Weaver of Dreams.
Since the mid-Sixties, the guitarist has played jazz exclusively. Though his combos vary in personnel, size, and instrumentation, integrity and invention have constantly guided his music. Guiding Spirit, his Contemporary Records debut, is the latest chapter in Kenny Burrell’s long track record of uncompromising excellence.