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Lenny Breau: Master Class

If the consensus is that Lenny Breau was recorded inconsistently and not enough, then the paucity of video footage of the late guitar virtuoso seems almost criminal. In any case, Breau fanatics must take what they can get: This 47-minute program, recorded in 1982 at a master class at the University of Southern California, is technologically akin to the dusty VHS documents of Christmas past that clutter your basement. Nonetheless, it’s probably the last known footage of Breau taken before his death and the latest Rosetta Stone for the guitarist’s cult.

In the charismatically bashful demeanor he was known for, Breau spends his near-hour with the students playing tunes, taking questions and demo-ing techniques, just as he’d done over the decades for anyone who’d ask. The performances show how Breau played with stunning virtuosity wherever and whenever: The atmosphere here couldn’t be more off the cuff, and Breau debuts his custom-built, brand-new (and unfamiliar) Kirk Sand seven-string guitar. (Sand is also the cameraman, and he’s wise enough not to play director. The few static shots used throughout work just fine.)

“Stella by Starlight” is rendered as a solo arrangement that’s cached with Breau’s trademark artificial harmonics, giving every chord and arpeggio a sparkling glockenspiel timbre. On “The Nearness of You,” he dazzles with another familiar bit; comping using blunt, Freddie Green-style chords while laying the single-note melody overtop. His simulation of McCoy Tyner’s rumbling left hand is persuasive on the pianist’s progressive “Vision,” and with Flamenco-inflected legato phrasing the piece reeks of fusion. A lush reading of “You Needed Me”-which Breau describes as “a country melody with jazz harmony”-proves the guitarist could interpret lyrically and without exhibiting his outrageous chops at every turn.

“Freight Train,” the folk-blues standard Breau recorded for his 1968 RCA debut, is temporally and harmonically overhauled in ways dreadnought fingerpickers would never have dreamed. Before bopping chirpily through two standards medleys to close the hour, Bill Evans’ “Funny Man” is anticipated by an explanation of how to transpose the pianist’s rootless voicings for guitar (Breau did this better than anyone before or since). He’s happy to offer this instruction, along with coaching on how to achieve his percolating harmonics, but the idea of a Breau master class seems remote. Even as he tries to deconstruct, his mastery and imagination overwhelm: Taking guitar tips from Lenny Breau was sort of like asking Monet for art lessons.

Originally Published