Last Saturday, I had the privilege of taking a small part in Kenny Burrell's 75th birthday concert, a tribute and fundraising event for the Friends of Jazz at UCLA, which was something of a marathon affair but certainly not lacking in talent. The lineup included (in various permutations) Burrell himself, Russell Malone, Pat Metheny, Anthony Wilson, Gerald Wilson and his orchestra, Mike Melvoin, Barbara Morrison, Ronald Muldrow, Calvin Keys, Linda Hopkins, Tamir Hendelman, Hubert Laws, Jeff Clayton, Charley Harrison and the UCLA Jazz Ensemble among others.
Instead a full recap, here are just a few highlights from a personal perspective:
- Burrell and Metheny played a few tunes together, and the latter even broke out the guitar synth. I had no idea what to expect initially, but their distinct voices were actually complementary on tunes like "A Child Is Born" and "Santa Claus Is Coming to Town." (Burrell, by the way, was onstage for the majority of the night.)
- Kindred guitar spirits Russell Malone and Burrell had plenty of blues and chops between the two of them. After a duet performance of "A Christmas Song," Burrell's drummer Clayton Cameron (a master of the brushes but using sticks for this performance) joined them for a rousing performance of "Little Drummer Boy" and a version of "Chitlins con Carne," giving the A-sections a trippy, swaggering swing-funk feel.
- I had a chance to talk to a few of Burrell's fellow UCLA faculty members, including guitarist Anthony Wilson, pianist Tamir Hendelman, trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and bassist Roberto Miranda. Backstage, I asked arranger/composer/conductor/guitarist Charley Harrison how he came to know Burrell (Harrison is originally from Chicago and is still the director of the Chicago Jazz Orchestra as well as the UCLA Jazz Orchestra). He said that though he’d met him before, his relationship with Burrell truly began when they encountered each other at an Ellington-related conference. He modestly suggested that was probably the point where Burrell "started to look at him in a more serious light."
- Mike Melvoin was featured along with Rodriguez, Hubert Laws, Charles Owens and others under the billing of the Jazz Heritage All-Stars. Melvoin's arrangement of Burrell's "Lyresto" (from Kenny Burrell and John Coltrane) was well-conceived and well-received.
- I was lucky enough to shake hands with Louie Bellson and eavesdrop on a conversation between Gerald Wilson and my boss, KJazz music director, Scott Willis. Wilson mentioned he's been commissioned to write the theme for the 50th Monterey Jazz Festival taking place in 2007. He also reminisced about his early years with Benny Carter, Jimmie Lunceford and Count Basie. Like Burrell, Wilson is a living encyclopedia of his era in jazz history; he teaches what must be the largest (and coolest) jazz history class in the world –- over 400 students.
- Arranger/composer/conductor/pianist Lalo Schifrin played piano with a student band under the direction of Bobby Rodriguez, performing a version of "Tin Tin Deo." That tune was on the first recording to feature Burrell during his time with Dizzy Gillespie’s band at nineteen years old. My boss mentioned having a conversation with Schifrin backstage where the pianist said, surprisingly, he'd never played "Tin Tin Deo" during his time with Dizzy's band in the '60s.
- The Gerald Wilson Orchestra contained the usual top-shelf players and old friends, including George Bohanon, Garnett Brown, Kamasi Washington and Snooky Young. Burrell and Ernie Andrews were featured in an Ellington medley ("Take the 'A' Train," "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Satin Doll" among others).
Backstage was like a party, musicians coming and going constantly, catching up with each other, reminiscing. It was as much a reunion as a birthday/tribute concert. Burrell's actual birthday is July 31st, but as Roberto Miranda mentioned to me, "He's been celebrating it all year!" It was fitting that he should be surrounded by so many friends for the occasion.
If the recording of this concert is released, it will be Burrell's 100th album as a leader. I hope that means it'll be time for another party.
Video evidence of Burrell's taste and grace:
"A Child Is Born" (with Bill Evans)
"All Blues" (with Bob Magnusson and Sherman Ferguson)
"Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" (solo)
Daily Bruin (UCLA, Nov. 2006)
Playback (ASCAP, Nov. 2006)