Born into a family of musicians in 1931, his versatility, disciplined approach, matched by exquisite phrasing, gave him the ability to convey differing moods like few other guitarists. He was a consummate sideman who was admired by all who worked with him and when he stepped out into the spotlight his understated, yet passionate, technique forced one to listen intently
He began playing guitar at the age of 12, frequenting the jazz clubs of his native Detroit while still in high school. By the time he was seventeen he was already an appreciated jazz artist in his hometown and after his graduation from university in 1955 he moved to New York City in 1956 and recorded with Billie Holiday for the album that became ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ on Clef and later on Verve. A few months later he recorded again with Lady Day in ‘Her Orchestra’ that included Roy Eldridge, Coleman Hawkins and Chico Hamilton at Carnegie Hall.
Unusually, Burrell made his first appearance for Blue Note as a leader on the appropriately titled Introducing Kenny Burrell in 1956 – unusually, because most musicians played the role of a sideman before getting the opportunity to lead their own session. At that time he was still only 24 years old, having made his recording debut with Dizzy Gillespie’s band when still a teenager. Before his Blue Note debut he toured with Oscar Peterson’s trio – such was his talent.
His sessions were so numerous that just by concentrating on those for Verve artists he recorded with Illinois Jacquet in 1958, the following year with Blossom Dearie and in 1961 with Gary McFarland. It was in 1963 that Burrell got seriously busy with Verve sessions recording with Claus Ogerman and the Wynton Kelly Quartet, Johnny Hodges, Kai Winding and then with Jimmy Smith as part of his orchestra before a July session where he received co-billing with the organist on the album that was called ‘Blue Bash’. He even had a minor hit on the Billboard chart with ‘What’d I Say’. Before the year was out there were sessions as part of the Gil Evans Orchestra and with Stan Getz.
1964 was equally as busy with sessions for many of the same people as the previous year and it culminated in his own album, ‘Guitar Forms’ backed by the Gil Evans Orchestra. Among his 1965 sessions were several for the Jimmy Smith album, ‘Organ Grinder Swing’ and others for Astrud Gilberto. In 1966 he began work on the album that became ‘A Generation Ago Today’ which he finished in 1967 the year he recorded, ‘Blues -The Common Ground’. He recorded ‘Night Song’ in 1968 before he cut the wonderful ‘Asphalt Canyon Sweet’ in 1969, which perfectly illustrates just how good Kenny Burrell is, as a guitarist.
Besides those already mentioned he worked with John Coltrane, Gene Ammons, Bill Evans, Yusef Lateef, Sonny Rollins and Stanley Turrentine among a who’s who of late twentieth century jazz greats. Yet by the early 1970s, his interests turned more to the world of academia, yet he still continued to record and may well have worked on over two hundred albums. Kenny is the founder and director of the Jazz Studies Program at UCLA as well as President Emeritus of the Jazz Heritage Foundation.
If you want the perfect album to show the world that jazz and the blues are much more than ‘kissing cousins’, then ‘Midnight Blue’ is it. When B. B. King said, ‘Jazz is the big brother of the blues. If a guy’s playing blues he’s in high school. When he starts playing jazz it’s like going on to college,’ it’s tempting to think he might have had this album in mind. From the very first track, it’s clear why this album was so popular when it was released and has remained so ever since. It oozes early 1960s sophistication, like the soundtrack to a movie about love gone sour in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Nice!
It’s been called ‘as elegant a record as the label ever released’, and it’s impossible to disagree. From the opening of ‘Chittlins Con Carne’, highlighting Turrentine’s distant horn and Burrell’s answering guitar it is moodiness personified. With the exception of ‘Mule’, composed by Holley (Mule was his nickname) and the Andy Razaf and Don Redman standard, ‘Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You’, all the tunes are Burrell originals. The most personal and intimate is his solo guitar rendition of ‘Soul Lament’. Turrentine plays sweetly throughout, never dominating, always complementing. This was Holley and English’s first, and just about only, date for Blue Note.