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Kenny Burrell: From Detroit With Love

The guitarist helped bring people together, as this exclusive excerpt from a new book on Detroit jazz shows

Kenny Burrell in 1959
Kenny Burrell at the Five Spot, New York, the night that the On View at the Five Spot album was recorded, Aug. 25, 1959 (photo: Francis Wolff/Mosaic Images LLC)

Kenny Burrell had been mulling a concept record focused on the blues for about a year before entering engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, on January 8, 1963. At 31, the Detroit-born guitarist envisioned an LP that would sustain a moody, after-hours expression with relaxed tempos and an intensity that simmered rather than boiled. Burrell wrote all the music, save the Don Redman chestnut “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You.” The guitarist channels the spirit of the Black Bottom neighborhood of his youth, where the blues encompassed not just one idiom but many, each with a different avatar— Basie, Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Lee Hooker, T-Bone Walker. Burrell even sketched a potential cover design. It featured the title Midnight Blue rendered in block letters with the word “Blue” colored blue and taking up most of the cover. Blue Note owner/producer Alfred Lion liked it enough to give to his ace graphic designer Reid Miles to complete the final cover based on Burrell’s idea.

Midnight Blue, a nexus of soul-jazz and hard bop, ranks as one of Burrell’s greatest masterpieces. The music offers solace and rejuvenation. The sympathetic cast includes tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, Detroit bassist Major Holley, drummer Bill English, and percussionist Ray Barretto. The 12-bar blues “Chitlins Con Carne” slithers out of the box with an insinuating bass vamp and a Latin beat adorned with conga drums; Burrell and Turrentine play the theme in unison, but the guitarist drops in a repeated chordal riff between phrases that deepens the groove. Burrell structures his solo with similar call-and-response phrasing, assuming the role of both preacher and congregation. “Soul Lament,” a beguiling solo guitar piece in E minor without improvisation, unfolds as a wistful elegy; Burrell conjured the piece on the spot in the studio.

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Mark Stryker

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press), named Jazz Book of the Year in the 2019 JazzTimes Critics’ Poll. Inducted into the Michigan Journalism Hall of Fame in 2020, Stryker covered jazz, classical music, and visual arts for the Detroit Free Press from 1995 to 2016. He also grew up working as a jazz alto saxophonist.