It was the ultimate birthday present. As guitar master Kenny Burrell contemplated turning 75 last year, he got word that two of the West Coast’s premiere jazz presenters had come together to throw him the birthday bash of a lifetime. In Oakland, Yoshi’s artistic director Peter Williams booked Burrell’s quintet for a five-night run with Hammond B3 maestro Joey DeFrancesco and flute virtuoso Hubert Laws as special guests, a gig culminating with a historic meeting between Burrell and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra on the guitarist’s actual birthday, July 31. Down the coast in Santa Cruz, Monterey Jazz Festival director Tim Jackson had conspired to bring Burrell and Wilson together the following night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center by applying for an NEA grant, a particularly apt source of support considering that both men have been named NEA Jazz Masters, the nation’s highest jazz honor.
The celebration proved to be far more than the sum of the illustrious parts. The resulting album, 75th Birthday Bash Live!, documents a musical feast in two courses, with the first half featuring Burrell and Wilson’s superlative Southern California-based ensemble, while the second captures the guitarist in series of intimate, small group encounters.
“I certainly felt delighted, privileged, fortunate, and last but not least inspired by all those wonderful people and musicians,” says Burrell from his office at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he’s run the jazz program for the past decade. “75 is a special birthday anyway, but to have an amazing group like that, it couldn’t have been better. And the audience was spectacular. It was sold out, with lines around the block. It just made me feel so good, that they respected and loved the music.”
The double-barreled event proved to be an irresistible lure for Blue Note Records, and Birthday Bash reunites Burrell with the label that first presented him to the jazz world some 50 years ago with the classic 1956 album Introducing Kenny Burrell. By the time he encountered Wilson in the Bay Area, the guitarist had recorded nearly 100 albums as a leader, and hundreds more as a sideman with a dazzling array of jazz’s greatest artists, including Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Smith and Bill Evans. A supremely elegant improviser with a crisp, bluesy attack, Burrell has defined mainstream modern jazz guitar for several generations, influencing everyone from the lamented heroes Wes Montgomery and Grant Green to active masters like Russell Malone and Pat Metheny.
What’s fascinating about Burrell’s birthday celebration, beyond the beautifully played music, is the way that the proceedings touch on so many facets of his illustrious career. Though it wasn’t planned that way, each piece and participant highlights a significant chapter of Burrell’s musical life. Joey DeFrancesco, for instance, is featured with Burrell on a gorgeous duo version of “I’ll Close My Eyes,” a tune dedicated to Jimmy Smith, with whom the guitarist originally recorded the sinuous ballad on the beloved 1965 Verve album Organ Grinder Swing. Burrell performed on many of Smith’s classic albums for Blue Note and Verve from mid-50s through the mid-60s, sessions that defined the organ/guitar combo sound in jazz. Burrell and DeFrancesco’s shared love of the late organ genius is what originally brought them together two years ago at the Hollywood Bowl for a tribute to Smith.
In much the same way, Hubert Laws’ luminous flute work on J.J. Johnson’s ravishing standard “Lament” hearkens back to the years he and Burrell spent as part of Creed Taylor’s all-star stable at CTI. The rest of the small group cast is mostly drawn from Burrell’s UCLA jazz faculty, including the huge-toned bassist Roberto Miranda, drummer Clayton Cameron and saxophonist Herman Riley (who also spent many years playing with Jimmy Smith). Burrell displays his harmonic sophistication on two guitar, bass and drums trio pieces, weaving his way through Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” which features Cameron’s supremely agile brush work, while offering a concise, lyrical reading of Miles Davis’s “All Blues.”
Burrell’s connection with the brilliant arranger, composer and bandleader Gerald Wilson, who is still a vital creative force at 88, runs through their Motown roots. Burrell was born and raised in Detroit, and is part of a star-studded generation of Motor City jazz musicians. While Wilson was born in Shelby, Miss., he settled with his family in Detroit as a teenager, and cut his teeth as a trumpeter in the Plantation Music Orchestra. He ended up leaving town in the late 1930s as a member of Jimmie Lunceford’s hugely popular swing band.
Though the two men didn’t meet until many years after they had left Detroit, they were listening to each other’s records, and knew they shared Motown mojo. “Kenny was already on top when I first heard him play,” Wilson says. “He was one of the greatest I had ever heard, an innovator in bebop and beyond.”
Settling in Los Angeles in the midst of World War II, Wilson soon formed his own big band, a group that he’s led intermittently ever since. In the 1960s, when the orchestra showcased a brilliant cast of improvisers such as tenor saxophonists Harold Land and Teddy Edwards, guitarist Joe Pass, and vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, Wilson recorded a series of classic albums for Pacific Jazz featuring many of his original compositions. The group is still one of jazz’s finest orchestras, boasting a cast of world class veterans such as trombonist Garnett Brown, baritone saxophonist Jack Nimitz, and most astonishingly the 88-year-old trumpeter Snooky Young, who’s still playing pungent plunger mute solos more than 60 years after he first shared a bandstand with Wilson. With his long white hair flying and his arms churning, Wilson cuts a striking figure as he conducts his band. When it comes to defying Father Time, he’s the most audacious rebel.
“I think he’s a perfect role model for musicians, to be that creative and healthy and vital at his age,” Burrell says of Wilson. “As we say in our parlance, I want to grow up and be like you. He acts like he’s 40 years old and I love that.”
Burrell has had countless opportunities to watch Wilson in action, as they have been on faculty together at UCLA for more than 20 years. Burrell taught the first college course dedicated to the music of Duke Ellington in the United States. When Burrell was promoted by the university to run its ambitious new jazz program in 1996, Wilson was one of the first musicians he hired. Another point of connection is that both men shared close relationships with Duke Ellington. Burrell only performed with Ellington once, but they maintained a warm friendship and the guitarist demonstrated his affection with his classic Ellington Is Forever albums for Fantasy. Wilson worked closely with Ellington on various projects spanning three decades, most famously on Ellington’s score for Otto Preminger’s 1959 film Anatomy of a Murder. So it’s hardly surprising that half of Burrell’s set with Wilson’s orchestra features Ellingtonia.
“Gerald suggested we should pull out some Ellington stuff,” Burrell says. “The first thing he suggested was ‘Sophisticated Lady’, and I had never done that song featuring myself. If you’re going to do Ellington, you don’t stop with one piece. Then I wanted to do some of Gerald’s music. The piece I was toying around with was his Theme For Monterey album, and we did a different treatment of his beautiful piece ‘Romance.’” Burrell also made sure to cover Wilson’s stirring theme “Viva Tirado,” a piece that has been recorded almost two dozen times, including El Chicano’s Top 40 hit in 1970, and a hip hop rendition by Latino rapper Kid Frost. The album also features Burrell’s soulful singing as he belts out a hard-charging version of T-Bone Walker’s protean blues “Stormy Monday” that segues seamlessly into Wilson’s tip of the hat to Count Basie. While that medley was carefully constructed, Burrell hadn’t planned to sing Billy Strayhorn’s immortal theme “Take the ‘A’ Train” as a closer, but after several requests, he called the tune and ended up singing an impromptu salute to his bandmates. It was the perfect end to an old-school jazz party, and Burrell is emphatic about thanking all who were involved in bringing it about.
“I appreciate very much the hospitality given to myself and all the artists by both the clubs,” Burrell says. “They went of their way to make it a success, and it was an incredible evening. I was thrilled to play with that wonderful orchestra. The musicianship was first rate, and the spirit of cooperation I got from them really spurred me on. Just being with Gerald there, with his spirit and whole demeanor on stage, he’s such a joy to behold. We’re going to do more things together.”