Between 1957 and 1960, guitarist Barney Kessel, bassist Ray Brown, and drummer Shelly Manne made four records as the Poll Winners, so named because each had been No. 1 on his instrument through multiple years of the prestigious DownBeat magazine survey. California guitarist Bruce Forman wanted to produce a record that celebrated these legendary players. Reuniting the players themselves is an impossibility, of course, as all three have passed away, so Forman brought together their tools of the trade instead, making an album solely using instruments owned by the original trio. “My dream for a long time has been to reunite instruments used by Barney, Ray, and Shelly, played by their respective protégés,” Forman says. The result, teaming the guitarist with bassist John Clayton and drummer Jeff Hamilton, is called Reunion!
“I had played Barney’s guitar a lot when we were on the road together,” Forman says. “When I’d visit after he had a stroke, his wife would bring it out and I’d play it for him.” After his death, Forman helped Kessel’s wife sell the instrument. “I told the guy who bought it, ‘If you ever decide to let it go, at least give me first crack,’” he recalls.
Ultimately, Forman was able to purchase the instrument, a 1948 Gibson ES-350 cutaway sporting a pickup from a 1938 or ’39 Charlie Christian ES-150. From there, the seeds were sown. He enlisted Clayton, who owned one of the three basses Brown played until he died. Having a line on a Leedy drum kit owned by Manne in the ’60s (you can see it on the cover of his 1967 Daktari album), the guitarist drove to Oregon to pick it up and recruited Hamilton to play it.
As on the original Poll Winners recordings, Forman and crew recorded live in the studio and then chose the best performance. Rather than do only compositions by the original artists, Forman opted to add original tunes, as well as sly references to his hero.
“Barney did that famous introduction to ‘Cry Me a River,’ on a Julie London record,” Forman explains. “Everybody knows it; I’ve seen Jeff Beck playing it on YouTube. I built it into an arrangement of ‘This Is New’ by Kurt Weill as something that comes through at different moments. I also wrote a blues head called ‘Barney’s Tune’ that includes a fast melody in thirds, which was a thing he liked to do.”
Reunion! is not a tribute record in the classic sense; the trio doesn’t play any original arrangements or solos, but rather uses the seminal trio’s instruments in the spirit of the improvisation they championed. “John, Jeff, and I have all played with every one of these musical heroes,” Forman says. “They taught us the skills!”
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