Kenny Burrell - guitar; Richard Wyands - piano; Larry Ridley - bass; Oliver Jackson - drums
For the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival in New York City, George Wein put on a series of concerts at the legendary Apollo Theater in Harlem. With help from the Harlem Cultural Center, the Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York State Council on the Arts, and a few corporate sponsors, Wein showcased great jazz artists for three nights in the historic venue where Ella Fitzgerald won her first talent contest as an aspiring 17-year-old singer in 1934, before joining Chick Webb's band and where James Brown had recorded his classic Live at the Apollo in 1962. Tickets prices were set at $2 for this event, with three bands appearing on the bill each night. But as Wein noted in his autobiography, Myself Among Others: A Life in Music: "We barely sold any tickets. It took this discouraging experience to teach me that the artists who could fill Carnegie Hall were no necessarily marquee attractions in Harlem. Aretha would have sold out. But our jazz artists floundered."
Nevertheless, there was plenty of world-class jazz to be had in those three days, including this concert by the Kenny Burrell trio. An inveterate swinger with a silky tone, a penchant for the blues, and a masterful touch on ballads, guitarist Burrell is accompanied on this Apollo gig by pianist Richard Wyands, bassist Larry Ridley, and drummer Oliver Jackson. They open on an earthy note with "Do What You Gotta Do," a catchy number from Burrell's 1971 CTI album God Bless the Child, which is cast in the mold of Bobby Timmons' soul jazz anthem "Moanin'." The guitarist delivers several choruses of typically authoritative single note lines and rich chordal melodies over the shuffle-swing undertow while Wyands comps soulfully behind him. An underrated hard bop pianist, Wyands stretches out here on an outstanding solo before the band engages in some slick trading of eights with drummer Jackson. Ridley, a reliably grooving bassist who recorded on several important Blue Note albums during the 1960s, also delivers a potent solo on this groover to kick of the set.
Next up is a delicate reading of the gorgeous ballad "God Bless the Child," long associated with singer Billie Holiday (she supplied the poignant lyrics to the Arthur Herzog Jr. tune, which was originally recorded in 1941). Burrell opens with tasty unaccompanied guitar before he's joined by pianist Wyands. The rhythm tandem then folds into the fabric of this gentle piece as Burrell erupts with bluesy abandon over the changes, testifying on his guitar with gospel-tinged fervor. Burrell closes out his brief set with a funky rendition of Nat Adderley's soul jazz classic, "Work Song," which has the guitarist digging in with bent-string urgency on the familiar theme and nonchalantly double-timing over the infectious groove. Midway through, the band drops out and Burrell launches into some stunning single-note fusillades that showcase his speed and impressive facility on the instrument. Pianist Wyands also contributes a sparkling solo on this soul-jazz anthem, while bassist Ridley and drummer Jackson also get in a few licks of their own.
One of the most respected exponents of straight-ahead jazz guitar, Burrell came out of Detroit with a modern approach to his instrument that was grounded in the revolutionary vocabulary of Charlie Christian while incorporating some of the rhythmic and harmonic innovations of bebop and rich chordal voicings inspired by Duke Ellington. Born on July 31, 1931, he took up guitar at age 12 and soon began emulating such six-string heroes as Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, and Oscar Moore. Some of his earliest gigs were with fellower Detroiters like pianist Tommy Flanagan, saxophonists Pepper Adams and Yusef Lateef, and drummer Elvin Jones.
Burrell made his recording debut in 1951, on a Dizzy Gillespie session that also featured tenor saxophonist John Coltrane, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and bassist Percy Heath. Upon graduating in 1955, with a degree in music composition from Wayne State University, he went out on the road with piano great Oscar Peter and then in 1956, moved to New York City, where he began performing with the likes of singers Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, and Lena Horne, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and organist Jimmy Smith. He made his recording debut as a leader on the 1956 Blue Note session Introducing Kenny Burrell. He recorded frequently for Blue Note through the '50 and '60s, and his understated style also graced many other Blue Note recordings during that period by such artists as Stanley Turrentine, Jimmy Smith, Ike Quebec, Sonny Clark, and Big John Patton. His own 1963 Blue Note album Midnight Blue, his 1965 Verve album Guitar Forms with arrangements by Gil Evans and 1968's Blues: The Common Ground are all today considered classics by guitar aficionados.
In 1986, Burrell teamed up with younger rising star guitarists Bobby Broom and Rodney Jones on the Blue Note album, Generation. They followed up in 1988 with the Live at the Village Vanguard recording, Pieces of Blue and the Blues. Burrell made a string of stellar recordings through the '90s for Concord Jazz. His most recent release is 2010's Be Yourself: Live at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola on the High Note label. (Milkowski)