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Lenny Breau: Swingin’ on a Seven-String

Raised by a pair of country entertainers, and ultimately seduced by Tal Farlow’s cool, the late virtuoso guitarist Lenny Breau was a little bit country and little bit Jazzbo Jones-or actually, he was a lot of both. Country tunes regularly infested Breau discs as early as his 1969 debut, but it wasn’t until two years before his mysterious death in 1984 that the guitarist tackled a full-on jazz-meets-country session, proving that the simple chord changes of a Hank Williams or Bill Monroe tune lent themselves splendidly to improvisation.

Primarily employing a seven-string classical guitar, Breau created an ambiguous fusion of jazz and country on Swingin’, nimbly ducking in and out of pedal-steel guitarist Buddy Emmons’ syrupy, starlit melodies while coasting along with drummer Kenny Malone’s and bassist Jim Ferguson’s straightahead swing propulsion. Hardly anyone heard these tracks when first released on New York City’s doomed Tudor label as When Lightn’ Strikes-a title that rightly describes the mood and manner of the quartet’s feverish takes on Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” and Hanley and MacDonald’s “Back in Indiana” but doesn’t hint that half of these tracks are sleepy duos between Breau and Ferguson. The pair push each other toward brilliant musical epiphanies during Horton and Peck’s “Please Release Me” and Dickey Lee’s “She Thinks I Still Care,” and in these duets Breau’s mastery of an impressionistic Bill Evans style has him pulling ideas and emotion from country music that a pure honky-tonker could never realize.

Originally Published