By Bruce Britt
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The Kenny Burrell sound is cool and sensual — the perfect stay-indoors soundtrack for a rainy night. So it seemed delectably appropriate Tuesday evening that the high priest of jazz guitar himself should perform a bluesy set at the GRAMMY Salute to Jazz event at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. Live. With some help from distinguished guests including flutist Hubert Laws, guitarist Anthony Wilson and the GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles, Burrell supplied enough soulful style to levitate the Museum off its high-tech foundation.
Burrell was on hand Tuesday to receive recognition from The Recording Academy for his wide-ranging accomplishments in music. Okay, so "wide-ranging" is a bit of an understatement. Burrell not only pioneered the guitar trio back in the '50s, he's performed and recorded with the regal likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, John Coltrane, James Brown, Aretha Franklin, and more. The guitarist is also founder and director of the jazz studies program at UCLA, so that's "Professor Burrell" to you and me.
For a confessed guitar geek like myself, it's tough to meet a six-string genius like Burrell without whipping out the prayer rug. Before the event, an Academy escort led me to a room where the professor was seated, looking intellectual in specs and a crisp blue suit. Burrell described the GRAMMY tribute as a "high, high honor" that reminded him of a lesson his mother imparted: "Do good work and the rewards will come."
With its intimate 225-seat capacity and pristine acoustics, the GRAMMY Museum Sound Stage allowed everyone a ringside seat, including soul music legend Solomon Burke who was spied among the well-wishers.
KJAZZ radio personalities Tommy Hawkins and Bubba Jackson — introduced as "the Frick and Frack of jazz" — shared hosting duties, demonstrating a comic contentiousness that recalled the postwar antics of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
The event was punctuated by some poignantly reflective moments. Introducing Burrell, Recording Academy President/CEO Neil Portnow intimated that he himself is a former student of the legendary guitarist. Burrell reminisced about his very first high-profile gig, a Detroit club stint with Gillespie. "Dizzy made us laugh so much that we didn't have time to get nervous," Burrell recalled.
Then came the music.
Laws performed Burrell's original ballad "The Peacemaker" with all the spirituality and fluttering tenderness the song's title calls for. Young lion Wilson led the GRAMMY Jazz Ensembles through a hard-swinging version of Burrell's signature-like tune "Kenny's Sound." Accompanied by the Ensembles, Burrell delivered a marvelously bluesy "Be Yourself," followed by a wistful reading of "Dear Ella," the title tune from the GRAMMY-winning 1997 album by vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater. The virtuoso closed out the night with a punchy, fast-paced version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing)."
After the event, Burrell was besieged by fans. Summoning my nerve, I sheepishly asked the master guitarist if he would autograph a cherished souvenir — the CD booklet to his classic 1963 album Midnight Blue.
He did. To quote notorious 1800s politician George Washington Plunkitt: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."
(To view photos from GRAMMY Salute To Jazz and other GRAMMY Week events, click here.)