Jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell is living proof that you don’t have to blow the roof off the sucker to make an impression. He tends to choose — and compose — understated tunes that may swing hard, but do so within a tight, almost conservative groove. The typical tone he coaxes out of his hollow-bodied guitar is pearl-like — round, polished, and impeccably struck, with no distortion. Burrell doesn’t burn, he smolders. Coolly.
Other musicians rave about his playing and his taste. B.B. King proclaimed Burrell “overall the greatest guitarist in the world,” Dizzy Gillespie dubbed him “the grand master of jazz guitar,” and even Jimi Hendrix emulated his sound (“Jimi was incredible,” says Burrell. “I appreciate the fact that he admired me”). Burrell’s fingerprints are on some of the most elegant jazz records of all time: the legendary Guitar Forms (1964) and other dates with arranger Gil Evans; his 1958 session with the immortal John Coltrane; and Burrell’s two-part tribute to Duke Ellington, one of Burrell’s biggest influences as well as a close friend. “I met Duke in New York in 1959, and he pulled me into his world,” Burrell remembers. “He knew who I was before he met me — he had his antennas up — and he told me I was one of his favorite musicians. I had read about Duke as a student, and it always astounded me that he was a success doing exactly what he wanted to do. He didn’t allow critics to dissuade him from his dreams.”
Burrell’s own dream of educating musicians came true when he started the Jazz Studies Program at UCLA, which he directs. He notes that today’s students “are into everything,” and that he’s been sampled by hip-hop artists more times than he can count. But his trips outside the ivory tower are rare (“I don’t travel much,” he admits), so Burrell’s four-night gig in a quintet setting (“my West Coast guys”) beginning tomorrow at Yoshi’s (510-238-9200) is something special. Chamber jazz? Hardly. But anyone who takes the time to really listen will be amply rewarded.