Longtime Angeleno Kenny Burrell, who turned 80 this summer, has been recording as a jazz guitarist for six decades; he's long been one of the masters of the instrument and is now one of the last links to jazz's heroic age.
He speaks in an Arts & Books profile about his roots in Detroit, the meaning of the blues, his birthday concert at UCLA's Royce Hall, his years at the university and his hopes for the future.
Burrell was shaped by hearing a number of important guitariststhe blazingly innovative Charlie Christian, the lush, chordal Oscar Moorewhile very young, but also by the blues scene in his hometown and elsewhere; he often heard T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker while growing up.
But somehow, he says, I was not influenced very much by guitar players." His other main inspirations"Parker, Miles, Lester Young"were all horn players, and Burrell often plays a single-line, horn-like
He discusses his philosophy of music in the profile, his dedication to balancing head and heart and his reputation for disciplined improvisations. When I first became aware of music and began listening to recordings, everything was three, four, five minutesmax. And I learned, great artists can say a lot in that time. I've got through a lot of generations of music. But I come from a generation for which performaces were not overly long."
His latest album, Tenderly," is a concert for solo guitar recorded in Pasadena's Boston Court. It includes standards like Autumn Leaves," a medley of songs associated with Billie Holiday, and a montage by Burrell's hero, Duke Ellington. This is reflective, lyrical music, a long way from the soulful '60s Burrell of Chitlins Con Carne," but powerful in its own way. And even today, 60 years after he began recording with Dizzy Gillespie, music remains mysterious to Burrell. It goes into that part of us that's the spirit. That's what will speak to people really loud. That's a combination of knowledge and feeling. And there's a deeper thing that we don't understandthat pulls our own knowledge and feelings together. If you're lucky you can express that."