Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell
Photo Credit: Tim Owens
Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell has played guitar with some of jazzís giants, from Dizzie Gillespie, Quincy Jones and John Coltrane, to Jimmy Smith and Benny Goodman. Burrellís skills are obviously highly sought after by musicians and audiences alike, as the resounding applause from the audience in the Kennedy Centerís Terrace Theater demonstrates. He kicks off the show with a stellar rendition of Duke Pearsonís "Jeanine".

Burrell says he came from a musical family, and his older brothers brought home recordings of people like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Benny Goodman and the Mills Brothers. He has carried these influences all the way to the present day, as the audience soon learns.

Currently, Burrell teaches a course at UCLA focusing on the great Duke Ellington. The course uses Ellingtonís life and work as a reference point from which to learn about jazz and its importance with respect to African American cultural and socio-economic issues. During the show, Burrell and Billy Taylorís trio play a medley of Ellington tunes.

Burrell played piano as a child, performing once for an audience at the school auditorium. But he says it wasnít until age thirteen that he "really got the bug to play music." His brother Billy already played guitar, so Burrell wanted to play something different. He was into sax players like Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins, and was inspired to play saxophone himself.

Interestingly, during the war it was a lot more expensive to get a saxophone because metals were necessary for the war effort. Burrell notes that "guitars were very inexpensive because that was before all of the electronics." He says he "settled" for the guitar, but later became was quite pleased with the choice when he first heard Charlie Christian playing an electric guitar. The amplification allowed the guitarist to come to the forefront of the band and play solos. During the show, Burrell knocks out a fantastic rendition of Christianís "Southlands" at Dr. Taylorís request.

In addition to Christian, Burrell cites Oscar Moore, an original member of the Nat King Cole trio, as an important influence. Moore revolutionized full chord harmonization in jazz guitar, as well as using clusters and flat nines. This stood in contrast to the single note soloing styles of earlier guitarists like Christian. Now well-recognized, these concepts were not only breakthroughs for jazz, but also for modern music in general. Burrell demonstrates some of these techniques for the audience.

A member of the audience asks Burrell whether particular musical styles directly influence his playing. According to Burrell, he has always listened to all kinds of music. However, he doesnít make an effort to translate specific influences through his own work, but plays whatever flows naturally from his heart.

As Dr. Taylor notes, Burrell is an excellent composer as well. He performs his own very soothing "Listen to the Dawn", and also plays along to Dr. Taylorís bluesy composition, "Soul Sister".