Kenny Burrell has appeared on nearly 600 jazz record dates between 1950 and 2008, which is an eyebrow raiser. One of the busiest session guitarists of the '50s, 60s and '70s, many of his jazz dates were sideman jobs. Burrell was a favorite of leaders for his chameleon-like ability to be groovy, soulful, bluesy, swinging or lounge, depending on what was needed and the mood at hand.
But given Burrell's prolific role as a rhythmic force on other artists' albums, it's rare that you get to hear him up close and away from the thrush of other instruments. Soul Call, recorded in April 1964 for Prestige, is one of those rare occurrences. His playing is so clear and undisturbed by other instruments that you feel as though just the two of you are out for a lunch.
On Soul Call, Burrell is joined by pianist Will Davis, bassist Martin Rivera, drummer Bill English and conga player Ray Barretto [pictured]. The album was recorded just after Burrell appeared on Jimmy Heath's On the Trail and right before Jimmy Smith's The Cat. Soul Call is special because you wind up with a full understanding of what Burrell could do and why he's so special.
Stripped of saxophones, trumpets and other frontline instruments, Burrell's guitar is front and center. What you learn is that Burrell had a powerful conversational style that was different from many of his peers. Grant Green [pictured] also had this same ability to talk through the guitar without ever raising his voice.
Burrell here is soft and supple, switching back and forth between blues and standards. On the blues, he shows off a range of impressive skills, from the up-tempo Mark 1 by Will Davis to the loping title track, a Burrell original. On standards like I'm a Lucky So and So and Here's That Rainy Day, Burrell teases out every bit of melodic joy and rolls the essence around and around with a rolling pin of thick chord voicings. Dig the chord run-down at the end of the latter.
Intensive one moment and intropective the next, Burrell could be highly dynamic. He also is plenty tasteful, never overplaying or strumming a chord that isn't meaningful. Every idea on this album had meaning, and he often let the top string ring like a bell for lingering effect.
What's eveident as well is that Burrell early in the '60s had an instinctive sense of soul. His picking could be reflective and at other times Mad Hatter. Regardless of the single-note lines he ran, Burrell always enjoyed enhancing those ideas with a full-house of chords that had a deliciously metallic sound.
Burrell was able to sound as delicate as a piccolo or as mighty as a pickup truck. On Soul Call, you hear all of Burrell's many sides entwined in a single, robust statement. By the end of the album, you're sure to wind up with a very different impression of him.
JazzWax tracks: Kenny Burrell's Soul Call (Prestige) is available as a download at iTunes and here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Kenny Burrell's Kenny's Theme from Soul Call. Dig his swinging soul...