Jazz guitar history is largely dominated by a handful of players. Among those still recording, touring and teaching none are as revered as Kenny Burrell. Burrell has barely slowed his steady output since his first recordings, as a sideman to Dizzy Gillespie in 1951, and as a leader with the Blue Note release Swingin in 1956.
With his latest, Lucky So and So, on the Concord Jazz label, the guitarists catalog is approaching 100 albums. The new album features a few choice jazz standards that Burrell has never before recorded, and reveals him singing lead vocals on four tracks. Between recording dates and a handful of live appearances, Burrell keeps busy as the Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA, where his love for and knowledge of the music of Duke Ellington often comes into sharp focus.
Guitar.com spoke with Kenny Burrell about the role of guitar in jazz today and dug for the masters advice on how he refigures piano and big band music especially Ellingtons for guitar.
Guitar.com: How do you take music arranged for a big band, or arranged for piano, and put it into a solo guitar arrangement? What advice can you give people in that regard?
Kenny Burrell: Well, I love to talk about the big band for example. One of the pieces that I play as a solo piece is Duke Ellingtons Black and Tan Fantasy. Now thats a piece that was arranged for the big band. Certainly, I would not attempt to duplicate the sound of the big band. That's out of the question, but there are times when you want a full sound as opposed to a spare sound. And on the bridge the middle section of Black and Tan Fantasy it was originally an Ellington piano solo, so that was kind of easy to transcribe in terms of the transference of mood. I just played it more or less how I thought a piano would play it. Obviously, I listened to Ellington with the harmonies in mind and with the limitations of the guitar in mind. And that was what I would call an easy transference, in that sense, whereas the beginning of the melody of Black and Tan Fantasy is a very moody, minor thing. Actually, its a B-flat minor, and it flows. It doesn't have very many rests in it. It just kind of flows. The melody is sitting on top of a dark, kind of minor chord thats revolving, and so I tried to make that sustain quality.
By doing that I had to do a combination of something that I've done many times depending on the music. I had to do a combination in my right hand of pick style and finger style playing together to kind of have a melody floating on top of the chords underneath. It's possible, you just have to work it out. Certainly, I can't make chords sound as full as a big band, but I made them sound as full as possible. The lead instrument on that melody is a trumpet, so that was what I played on my high strings and that seemed to work pretty well.
Then in the other part not the bridge but the middle section of the piece theres some improvisation. Then I felt a little more freedom because I feel like thats part of what jazz is the essence of jazz is improvisation. So that gave me an opportunity to do some of my own improvising, however staying with those harmonies. And that was fun and its fun every time I do it because certainly I don't do it the same way each time.
Guitar.com: And how would you transcribe a piano piece for the guitar?
Burrell: Because the piano has so many notes available to it, and you have this two-handed person thats making this music, and you have both bass clef and treble clef that you have to consider, there's almost always a compromise to be made when you're transcribing for the guitar. I think the first rule is to make sure that you have the harmonies correct and that the notes you use are truly identified in a chord. And whatever way you do it, try to sustain or get some semblance of the mood that was there, or the chording of the music thats written for the pianist.
I've done that with some classical pieces. I did a Gershwin tune thats on my Guitar Forms album. I did a Gershwin prelude like that, certainly not using all of the notes that Gershwin used on the original score, but some of them, and I tried to just get a sound thats similar to what comes off the piano recording. And the guitar is a difficult instrument, in the sense, that it has a lot of limitations when you're trying to transcribe from other instruments.
On the other hand, there are a lot of great opportunities when its just the guitar creating for itself. I mean every instrument is unique. The guitar has a unique setup that no other instrument has. So you're limited in a sense. That's not necessarily a problem just playing the instrument, but when it comes to transcribing there are some problems, particularly with piano voicings. My advice is to try to make the chord and see how it sounds. If it doesnt sound similar to what you played on the piano or that you hear, then you have to keep working and get as close as you can to that sound, because even though the notes may be technically the right notes, if it doesn't sound right its not going to work.
Guitar.com: You need the correct voicing.
Burrell: Yeah, you need to just keep trying and sometimes they may not work at all. I've been pretty lucky so far in the pieces that I've tried to do. I did Ellingtons Meditation and it came out pretty good. And like I said, I did the Gershwin thing from the piano. It's not easy, but its fun and its hard work. Or hard work and fun.
Guitar.com: As you transcribe these pieces do you prefer to match the chord voicings of the original artist or do you allow yourself some freedom to re-arrange?
Burrell: I try to match what they did, particularly if its a piece that is classical or if its a piece that has been played the same way repeatedly. For example, another piece that I transcribed for guitar is Lotus Blossom, which is on my album Lotus Blossom. Now that piece has hardly any improvisation on it. There are some slight variations in rhythm, but basically its played the same way each time as Ellington did it. It's a Billy Strayhorn composition that Ellington played, and he played it basically the same way and with the same kind of voicing every time. That one I didnt mess with too much because I felt that it was something so beautiful as it is. I didn't want to change it. I guess Ellington felt that there was no place for improvisation in that piece.
But back to your question: I tried to be as close as I could to that piece, but there are other things that I might have changed. Like, for example, a tune called If You Could See Me Now, which, there's no set arrangement on that piece by piano, orchestra, or anything. It's just that there are some beautiful harmonies that we play the same thing with Round Midnight. You know there's beautiful harmonies that we play that are written already and everyone comes up with their own voicings. But when its something that I would call classic, like Lotus Blossom, or Meditation, or Black and Tan Fantasy, those are classic jazz pieces. In terms of the real sense of what the word classic means, I try not to venture too far away from it.
Guitar.com: When you're working on a piece that has been arranged by, let's say Billy Strayhorn (Duke Ellingtons arranger), as opposed to another arranger, do you see a lot of difference in their styles? And how do you account for those differences?
Burrell: Oh, that's a whole other question. Of course, that's not having very much to do with the guitar at all. I just think that Strayhorn and Ellington have a lot of inner voicings and things that many people didnt use, so that's one of the things that made their music so rich.
Guitar.com: Was their voice leading more sophisticated?
Burrell: No, I wouldn't use the term sophisticated. It's more intricate, and many times it wasn't so obvious either, but it's there. The more you look the more you hear, and the more you listen the more you hear. So, regardless of how complex the chords are or how simple the main theme is, I try to get a sound thats similar to whats going on there.
Guitar.com: How would you update an old standard so that it would sound fresh, maybe Satin Doll or Dont Get Around Much Anymore, is there anything in particular that you would do with those classics?
Burrell: Well, I don't think of it in terms of update. My approach to jazz and music is what I feel, and sometimes I may even go the other way. My whole thing is, What can I do for this piece thats going to make it sound good to me and make me feel good about doing it? Basically, thats based on my philosophy or my attitude about music, and it doesn't matter how old it is. I can take a piece from the 20s, which Black and Tan Fantasy is, and I'll just play it the way I feel it. So I guess in a sense thats updating it because its doing it like I feel it. I don't feel like people who lived in the 20s. I'm just saying that I would automatically use some voicings that are considered modern by certain standards because thats just part of what I'm hearing and what I'm feeling.
Guitar.com: Have you seen an evolution of playing styles, from jazz guitarists in particular, over the years?
Burrell: Of course and so have you. It certainly has happened. Of course, there's been an evolution. I guess things will continue to evolve. Whether they last or not remains to be seen. You know I think anything thats gonna last is connected to the main stem, to the tree. If its not connected, it usually does't last because it doesnt have much depth to it. However its connected it has to have all of that background underneath it, just like the branch on a tree. And thats what has happened to jazz and to the guitar in jazz, its grown like a tree. And every now and then someone will come along and make a flash and it doesn't work because theyre not connected. Music is a process. It has progressed and it has evolved. And its a language based on a great true history.
Guitar.com: Do you feel that the guitar is struggling for credibility in straight-ahead jazz circles?
Burrell: I don't personally feel that way. I don't personally feel that way at all. I think its holding its own. I think that its never been like the number one instrument in jazz. Never. Usually, the number one instruments have been saxophones or trumpets.
Guitar.com: And yet its the number one instrument in rock.
Burrell: Yeah, so. That doesn't mean anything. Yeah, because basically its accessible and some of the music is easier to play. It's portable. And I think its more popular today than ever in jazz. If you look at the 30s, 40s, and 50s, you have more guitarists now with records out and playing jazz concerts than ever before. I feel guitar hasnt lost its credibility in jazz at all. Some jazz people may feel theres too much guitar going on in other kinds of music, but I don't think in jazz. I think the people that make it in jazz really earn their way and they can play. I did.