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November 2008

Kenny Burrell
The Ralph J. Bunche Suite

It’s impossible not to sense a certain tension running through Kenny Burrell’s orchestral tribute to the late Nobel Laureate Ralph J. Bunche. Shifts in consonance and dissonance surface throughout, the former evoking Bunche’s nature and deeds, the later suggesting the challenges he faced as an African-American leader and peace activist.

By developing these and others contrasts—in mood, texture, meter, tempo and dynamics—Burrell displays his gifts for composing and arranging in a series of colorful settings. With considerable help from co-arranger and conductor Charley Harrison, the guitarist has crafted an homage that honors Bunche in ways subtle, striking and, needless to say, swinging.

Taped during the suite’s premiere at UCLA, the performance opens on a solemn note, Burrell playing a few sparse notes on an electric archtop guitar against a backdrop that soon blossoms with the rich harmonies generated by the UCLA Student Orchestra and several special guests. Switching to acoustic guitar, Burrell is then softly paired with flutist Hubert Laws during “The Peacemaker,” a particularly lyrical and affecting movement. The sections that follow conjure a variety of moods. “The Struggle for Peace, Justice and Freedom,” which features Kamasi Washington’s incantatory tenor sax, is passionate and engaging by turns, while “Soulful Connections” lives up to its billing with blues-schooled assurance and finesse.

Not everything works. The spoken-word passages and some of the lyrics string together platitudes, presenting Bunche as someone who moved “towards solutions with a loving point of view.” Yet the music always offers compensation, especially during the sections that showcase Burrell’s masterly touch and the contributions made by trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, soprano-saxophonist/bass clarinetist Charles Owens and pianist Llew Matthews. As for the tap and modern dance elements, they work surprisingly well, with Chester Whitmore and the Central Avenue Dancers stylishly complementing the score. Excellent sound quality and the addition of rehearsal footage, at times neatly intercut with the performance, are additional plusses. Proceeds from the sales of the DVD benefit the UCLA’s Burrell Scholarship funds.

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