Kenny Burrell's 75th Birthday Celebration
Kenny Burrell, who made his recording debut back in 1951 with Dizzy Gillespie, has been a major jazz guitarist since arriving in New York in 1956. Along the way he has led 99 albums, helped pioneer the guitar-bass-drums trio, had memorable recordings with John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Stanley Turrentine and countless others (including in the pop, rock and studio worlds), had Duke Ellington call him his favorite guitarist and been a professor at UCLA for the past 28 years.
At UCLA, Professor Burrell’s 75th birthday and musical legacy was celebrated onstage by over 70 musicians. Because so many players were scheduled, many just made brief appearances. Anthony Wilson was the first of many guitarists to appear, playing “Kenny’s Sound” (the first of many Burrell originals) in a trio with organist Joe Bagg and drummer Kareem Riggins. Pianist Tamir Hendelman and his trio performed “Bass Face” before Burrell himself appeared with the Jazz Heritage All-Stars, a group that included trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, trombonist George Bohanon, altoist Jeff Clayton, tenor saxophonist Charles Owens and, on “Do What You Gotta Do,” Hubert Laws on piccolo and flute. Singer Dr. Darryl Taylor sang beautifully in a semi-classical vein on “Listening to the Dawn.” However, Burrell’s three-part suite paying tribute to UN Ambassador Ralph Bunche was dull and the final section had a group of singers, without exaggeration, singing the words “Thank You” at least 50 straight times. That was soon forgotten as Russell Malone came out and played a guitar duet with Burrell on “The Christmas Song” and interacted with drummer Clayton Cameron during “The Little Drummer Boy.” Malone brought out the best in Burrell, really pushing him.
The second half of the show had a couple of numbers from the View Park High School Band and then an endless series of awards and short speeches. Best was seeing the great Louie Bellson warmly greet Burrell, although one wonders why the Postmaster of Los Angeles presented Burrell with a plaque celebrating the late tennis star Arthur Ashe!
Things picked up when Burrell and a quintet with electric pianist Kevin Toney performed “On Wings ff the Spirit.” After playing a beautiful solo guitar version of Duke Ellington’s “The Single Petal of a Rose,” Burrell welcomed Linda Hopkins (who sang “What a Wonderful World,” punctuated by some odd falsetto notes), Bobby Rodriguez’s 22-piece Latin Jazz Ensemble with pianist Lalo Schifrin (romping on “Tin Tin Deo”), no less than six other guitarists (including Ronald Muldrow, Calvin Keys and Anthony Wilson) on a loose but fun blues jam, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra (playing “Romance” from Wilson’s Monterey Festival Suite) and Ernie Andrews, who performed a Duke Ellington medley.
But the finest 10 minutes of the three-and-a-half-hour concert occurred when Pat Metheny came out on stage. He dueted with Burrell on a sensitive version of “A Child Is Born.” It appeared that his brief appearance was over after three minutes but, as the audience yelled for more, Metheny surprised Burrell by launching into “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” The unique version (when will that ever happen again?), which featured the two very different guitarists trading fours and making each other smile, was a spontaneous moment that will be long remembered.