Celebrating a jazz guitar legend

By Chris Cooper

Up for review this week is a live set of inspiring music from an incredibly influential musician in his genre: a burning birthday celebration from one of jazz guitar’s brightest and most enduring lights, the inimitable Kenny Burrell, flanked here by a host of remarkable musicians from the cream of the jazz crop.

“Viva Tirado” comes in, well, swinging of course, setting the stage for Burrell’s burbling, bopping runs amidst a backdrop of impeccably arranged horns from the Gerald Wilson Orchestra. Fleet fingered as can be (despite the fact that he’s just short of octogenarian status) Burrell wrenches Wes Montgomery-esque octaves from his archtop with ease, darting in, out and through the orchestra like mercury on glass. Burrell has been a jazz icon for so long that, like contemporary Jim Hall, his influence on the guitar’s vocabulary isn’t so much just heard any longer as it is felt — in every sweet-toned and immaculately swung note.

Following with a mischievous take on “Stormy Monday Blues/Blues For The Count,” featuring Burrell on vocals, you’re also reminded that jazz is supposed to be a fun music — it’s not all complicated chords and “wrong” notes. Half singing, half speaking the vocals, Burrell’s burnished, gently gritty voice is really just another version of his guitar’s tone, equal parts brandy, blues and bop. Dig the ear-twisting reharmonization by the orchestra under the second verse, and be sure to pick yourself up off the floor and readjust your glasses after the ridiculously swinging outro knocks you on your ass. Here again you hear Burrell pay tribute to fellow guitar deity Montgomery in his smoky phrasing and sly rhythmic interplay with the band.

On Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” the guitarist spins beautifully angular harmonies during the intro before sliding into the main melody with startling warmth and sensitivity. This last section of the album serves as a kind of respite from the wailing horn section, with Burrell crafting his lines in a trio setting with bassist Roberto Miranda and drummer Clayton Cameron, both of whom are given opportunities to shine on their own solos. “Lament” features flutist Hubert Laws taking mesmerizing solo that defines the term “pin drop moment,” with nary a squeak from an audience obviously entranced by the dynamic interplay of these two master musicians.

A meditative take on “All Blues” is further enhanced by Burrell’s exquisite chord melody work and understated soloing, with a little humor tossed in by an enthusiastic and quite vocal toddler in the audience. This is a “live” recording, remember? By the time they hit the simmering “A Night In Tunisia” organist extraordinaire Joey DeFrancesco has joined the fray, and the solos from Herman Riley and Jeff Clayton elicit whoops and hollers from both the band and audience, let alone a gravity defying cadenza from flutist Laws. Burrell’s hilariously improvised “introduce the band” vocals on the album closer, “Take The ‘A’ Train” easily encapsulates the vibe of this whole concert: a celebration of one of America’s most fascinating art forms by a group of its finest musicians, having a great time and playing off one Am I biased? Did I spend maybe too much time with Burrell’s now classic Blue Note recordings Blue Lights, Vols. 1-2 back in the day? Of course. But 75th Birthday Bash Live! is a stunning and joyous listening experience in its own right, whether you know Burrell’s music or not, dare I say whether you consider yourself a jazz fan or not. It’s as well one of the best live jazz albums to come down the line in a long, long time. Highly recommended.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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