Barney Kessel, who died on Thursday aged 80, was one of the finest exponents of the electric guitar in jazz; his remarkable combination of artistry and craftsmanship made him the most sought-after studio guitarist in Hollywood, but he always contrived to keep his jazz connections in good repair, producing a stream of masterly recordings over almost half a century.
Kessel acknowledged his debt to Charlie Christian, the founding genius of the instrument, and was his most distinguished disciple. The stylistic influence was clear in everything Kessel played, but he was able to build his own broad and flexible vocabulary on this foundation over the course of several decades, whereas Christian died young and still developing.
Barney Kessel was born at Muskogee, Oklahoma, on October 17 1923. He took up the guitar at the age of 12, teaching himself to play by copying guitarists he heard on the radio and records. He made rapid progress, and within two years was playing regularly with a local band, its only white member. It was during this period that he first played with Christian, an encounter which he later referred to as a life-transforming experience. At the age of 18, Kessel left Muskogee for Los Angeles, intent on making his career in music.
After a brief period of casual gigs, eked out by washing dishes, he joined the band led by Chico Marx, later graduating to the bands of Hal McIntyre, Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw. In 1944 he took part in the short film Jammin' The Blues, starring the tenor saxophonist Lester Young, the first serious attempt to present jazz on screen. Once again, he was the only white musician present. The convention of the time decreed that the two races should not be portrayed working together on equal terms, so Kessel appears throughout in deep shadow or silhouette.
The year 1947 saw the start of Kessel's rise to prominence. In February he played under the leadership of Charlie Parker, in a recording session which produced the Parker classic Relaxin' At Camarillo. Towards the end of that year he recorded his own composition, Swedish Pastry, with the clarinettist Stan Hasselgard. He also gained the Esquire Silver Award, the first of many such honours.
His reputation continued to grow over the next few years, particularly after 1952, when he joined the Oscar Peterson Trio for a long tour that took in 14 countries. By the time he left the trio the following year he was on the way to becoming the most admired guitarist in modern jazz.
Throughout the 1950s he maintained a phenomenal output, both in jazz and high-level studio work. Perhaps the best-known example of the latter is his exquisite accompaniment on Julie London's 1955 hit record, Cry Me A River.
His jazz recordings of the period, mainly for the Contemporary label, confirmed his position as a soloist of great poise and imagination. These included the albums To Swing Or Not To Swing (1955); Let's Cook (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959). In all of these, the directness and clarity of his improvised lines mark Kessel out from the accomplished young players who looked upon him as their mentor.
The 1960s saw Kessel even more involved with studio work: I Spy, The Man From UNCLE, The Odd Couple - it seems that there was scarcely a popular television series without his guitar in the background, and it is even to be heard on the soundtracks of four Elvis Presley movies. His jazz output declined somewhat under this workload, but he found time to devise and write a number of guitar manuals.
One of his most ardent admirers was the young Phil Spector. Kessel offered him free guitar lessons, and after advising his protege that becoming a producer would be vastly more lucrative than guitar-playing, he gave his services as first call guitarist on virtually all of Spector's Wall of Sound sessions, including You've Lost That Loving Feeling and River Deep Mountain High.
Kessel also jammed with Buffalo Springfield, played the Danelectro bass on Sonny & Cher's The Beat Goes On and worked with the Beach Boys, bringing the theramin instrument to Brian Wilson's attention for Pet Sounds and later Good Vibrations.
In 1969 Kessel temporarily gave up studio work and moved to London. He performed throughout Britain and Europe for 14 months. Although he moved back to California in late 1970, he continued to make regular visits to Europe thereafter.
In 1973 he recorded a particularly fine album at the Montreux Festival with Stephane Grappelli and a band of leading British players. The following year he joined two other guitarists, Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, for a concert tour in Australia. The idea proved so popular that it became a semi-permanent institution, touring the world regularly under the title The Great Guitars.
Kessel continued to tour and record under his own name, in 1981 making Solo, his only unaccompanied album. A work of polished simplicity and candid sincerity, it conveys perfectly the essence of Kessel's musical character.
In 1992 Kessel suffered the stroke which put an end to his playing career. He recovered sufficiently to do a little teaching. He was married three times, and had two sons by his second wife.
This story appears courtesy of All About Jazz Publicity.
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