Part 1: Jazz Guitar Master
Jazz guitar master Kenny Burrell is a national treasure. He has played as a sideman on countless recordings - many of them classics, from his beginnings with Dizzy Gillespie in 1951 to more recent collaborations with the likes of bass legend Ray Brown and Medeski, Martin & Wood - and has released nearly 100 albums as a leader. Between recording and live dates, Burrell serves as the Director of Jazz Studies at U.C.L.A.
In this informative Musician.com interview, Burrell talks about Lucky So and So, his latest release on the Concord Jazz label; the music of Duke Ellington; accompanying great soloists such as Oscar Peterson and Jimmy Smith; and the differing responsibilities of a sideman and a leader.
Musician.com: With your latest album, Lucky So and So, you've recorded something like 96 albums as a leader - in addition to a vast catalog of recorded work as a sideman with some of the greats of jazz. How does your role differ between being a leader and a sideman?
Kenny Burrell: Well, the leader has the responsibility for the overall decision, the overall project - and we're talking about recording. In other words, I have to pick the tunes, I have to pick the musicians, and I have to direct the arrangements or write the arrangements. And I have to start and stop everybody and give directions.
If you're a good sideman, you're goal is to make the music work, follow the directions of the leader - assuming and hoping that he knows what he's doing. And so the end product is something that everybody will be happy with and not an embarrassment.
So the main thing is the caliber of the people that I like to deal with both as a leader and as a sideman - people who want to make the music work, who want to make it happen. And that's the goal: to make this music work, no matter what the tune, no matter what the tempo, no matter what the mood. Make it work. To join together in a co-operative effort and make this thing happen.
The leader is simply the one who calls the shots. He's the one who says, 'This is what I want to do and this is how I want to do it.' And everyone knows that they're there because they're special; the leader wants them there because they can do the job, musically, that he wants. So that's about it.
Musician.com: When you work as a sideman with a great soloist, such as an Oscar Peterson or someone of his caliber, how do you stay out of the way of that person and yet still satisfy your own musical desires? What do you recommend to players who have sideman gigs?
Burrell: Well, first of all, again, basically you make the music happen. If someone is soloing you do your best to make them sound good or sound better by doing your best as an accompanist. You know accompanying is a great art. So no matter if it's Peterson, whoever - Bill Evans, Red Garland, Herbie Hancock, Eubie Blake, all those people I played with - it doesn't matter. The point is, whatever they want to do, you do your best to help them get there and help them sound good. If it means resting for a beat or bar, if it means filling in for a beat or a bar, if it means playing just a few notes for a beat or bar, or playing a lot of notes - whatever works to make the music sound as best as you can, that's what you do.
Musician.com: Do you find that when you're accompanying a great soloist, like a lot of blues accompanists, you will drop down to playing something sparse, like a two-note figure - a double-stop as opposed to a more fully voiced chord - for the majority of an evening? How do you stay out of the soloist's way?
Burrell: No, I do not because the soloist, if he's the caliber of, for example, Jimmy Smith - who I've made many records with - he's going to do something. He's going to start at a certain point and his solo is going to build to a climax. So I'm supposed to do what I can to help him reach that climax. And it's going to take more than a couple of notes to do that.
Musician.com: So you build a harmony, maybe over the course of a couple of choruses.
Burrell: Right. Sure, and some licks and some riffs and some chords and some patterns that are going to enhance what he's doing. And that's what usually happens. I understand what you mean about the blues, I've played a lot of blues. And Jimmy Smith is one of the people that I play a lot of blues with. And certainly there are a lot of times where I do what you were saying - just a couple of notes - but if I stay there it's not going to help the whole thing move forward with dynamics.
Musician.com: Right. Plus it's probably different between when you're behind a single note instrument like a sax than when you're backing a Hammond organ.
Burrell: Right. Of course. It all depends on the situation. Yeah, sure. If you're playing for a vocalist that's even another situation.
Part 1: Staying Healthy on the Road/The Most Important Food/Vitamin Additives | Part 2: Nutritious Snacks and a Well-stocked Cooler/Curing or Preventing Colds and Hangovers