12/01/11 By Tom Wilmeth
When Kenny Burrell Came to Town
Memories of a very Kenny Christmas
Sometimes it seems that almost every artist has released a Christmas record—if not an entire album, then at least an individual song: Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Willie Nelson, the Eagles. Who could possibly be next? Bob Dylan, perhaps? No, wait—he already has a Christmas album. (And who could see that coming?)
In jazz, too, Christmas albums are now ubiquitous. But in the 1970s, jazz Christmas albums were still somewhat unusual.
Guitarist Kenny Burrell was one of the few to release such a record. Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas (Verve) was, and remains, a landmark album. Recorded in October 1966 and released a few weeks later, Burrell provided a mix of old and new, sacred and secular. Expected selections like “Away in a Manger” and “Silent Night” are included, but so are nods to gospel, with “Go Where I Send Thee” and especially “Mary’s Little Boy Chile.” A blues closes the record, with Burrell’s take on the Charles Brown hit “Merry Christmas, Baby.”
The album’s original liner notes suggest that Soulful Little Christmas is the first to include Rogers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” as a Christmas selection. Is this accurate or promotional hyperbole? Burrell himself has stated that this The Sound of Music selection was a “year ’round number” which he decided to use on his Christmas album. By the fall of 1966, of course, John Coltrane had put his indelible stamp on this melody in the jazz community, but not in a Yuletide setting. The song had only been around for seven years at the time Burrell recorded the Christmas LP. So: was Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas the first holiday album to use “My Favorite Things” as a Christmas song? Some digging would be in order. But not today.
I was fortunate enough to see Kenny Burrell in a club setting in early December 1981, 30 years ago this month. Minneapolis’ Carlton Supper Club was a place where people like Andy Williams played (in the days before Branson). When it was announced that the Kenny Burrell Trio was booked for a week into this Back Room, we all thought it must be some other Kenny Burrell or that it was a booking error. This place had never featured jazz before and, to my knowledge, never again afterwards. But it did that week.
Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas had been out of print for several years by 1981, something that would not be remedied for another full decade. Clearly not striving to promote an unavailable album, Burrell’s trio nonetheless featured selections from the Christmas album in each of their sets. In fact, Burrell was aware that some were there specifically to hear his Christmas arrangements, for early in the program he indicated that they would indeed be playing material from his Soulful Little Christmas album. The audience was quiet and respectful throughout; he was just letting them know that he was aware of the season.
An hour in, Burrell pulled his acoustic guitar from its case and proceeded to play three unplugged numbers with the gentle backing of bass and drums. He indicated that he was not really known as an acoustic player and didn’t often pull out “the guitar with the big hole” for club dates. But when an audience was as attentive and appreciative as this one, he was glad to get the chance. One number he performed was the title selection from his 1979 release, Moon and Sand.
Returning to his large electric, Burrell led the trio through a short set of holiday fare, beginning with “My Favorite Things.” After this, the following three selections flowed together without band or audience interruption, but I hesitate to call it a medley since these renditions were not at all truncated. Full versions of “White Christmas,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” and “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” were presented as the nostalgic and joyful songs they are. The group acknowledged the applause of the audience as drummer Sherman Ferguson softly started what would become his percussion feature on “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Burrell began to close out the evening with a two-song Ellington tribute, “Love You Madly” and “I’m Just a Lucky So-and-So,” on which he not only took a hot, chord-driven solo but also sang! The trio launched into the closing break theme, Kenny Burrell thanked the audience for coming out, and the evening was over. A generous set, to be sure, especially when remembering that this was his second show of the night. More generosity was still to come, however, as the group returned for a little more Ellington, with “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and a little more Yuletide, with “The Christmas Song.”
As the audience thinned I took a seat at the bar, hoping to be able to speak with Burrell. It wasn’t long before he came out of the dressing room and appeared happy to talk. His manager wanted to get him back to the hotel, but during our short conversation I recall telling Burrell that he was an “important” jazz guitarist. He smiled at this and thanked me, but disagreed. He seemed appreciative for a lasting audience that would allow him to make a living playing music, but to be called “important” seemed to make him uneasy. “Historically important, maybe, as a continuation of a musical heritage,” he said, “but that goes far beyond me as an individual.” I indicated how much I enjoyed the Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas LP, and that I had been in the audience to hear him twice during the past week.
I likely strayed over the fence a little when I told Mr. Burrell that I had searched-out both a stereo and a mono copy of his Christmas album. He looked somewhat vexed at this unexpected compliment (or so I meant it), but had no real comment. As such, I thought it best not to mention that I had recorded that evening’s music on my portable cassette machine. Instead, I asked him when he thought Soulful Little Christmas would again be available.
He hoped it would be back in print soon, but also told me that he had little input over such things. When I showed surprise at this lack of artistic control, Burrell explained that this was normal in the recording industry in general and jazz artists probably had even less control than most. He considered himself lucky because he had experienced some tangible success with one album in particular, which had earned numerous critical accolades as well as made money for the record label. “The success of my Midnight Blue record  opened a lot of doors that remain important for me to this day,” he said. “Lots of fine musicians don’t have the opportunities I’ve had, and I am grateful for the way things have worked out.” It seemed that he really did consider himself “a lucky so and so,” as he had told the audience in song just a few minutes earlier.
I thanked him for his time and his music, and said again how much I enjoyed his Christmas album and the live versions he had offered to appreciative audiences that week. Knowing he was headed to the next town for the next gig, I asked one final question of Mr. Burrell as we parted while his manager again pointed to his watch.
“Being constantly on the road, does it even seem like the Christmas season to you?” I asked.
“It does now,” he smiled.