The museum honored the livin' calluses out of Kenny Burrell with its Jazz Treasure Award. He responded by loading the patio boards with a big-ass band to co-honor Billy Strayhorn's 100th birthday (Nov. 29) via the kickin' tunes Swee' Pea wrote and arranged for Duke Ellington. The white-haired, white-jacketed Burrell also got proclaimed the Heavyweight Champion of Jazz Guitar about a dozen times, and even if a Champ doesn't outrank a Duke, the two can share a stage -- especially since Duke once called Burrell his favorite six-stringer.
Beginning with the hard swing of Duke Pearson's "Jeannine," the team of musicians Burrell has assembled while head of UCLA's jazz program (many drawn from the faculty) put a Californian stamp on the Ellington legacy, one moment crisp and flavorful like Oliver Nelson, the next moment brawling and dissonant like Charles Mingus.
The Ellington-Strayhorn selections brightened the darkening sky. "Rain Check" jumped. "In a Mellotone" rolled out the blues via a nod to Frank Foster's arrangement for Count Basie, while Burrell himself shout-sang the lyrics with soul aplenty -- at least I think it was Burrell; the jammed crowd obscured the stage. Burrell paid tribute to Paul Gonsalves' legendary 1956 Newport Jazz Festival tour de force by letting several of his own saxists take a run at a few bars in sequence, and they delivered. Jaded observers joke about "Take the 'A' Train," but every bandleader milks the standard precisely because its bossy riffs and distinctive swagger lay the customers down every time, and this rendition was BIG. The most thought-provoking choice was Burrell's carefully chorded solo take on the gloomy, wistful "Blood Count," which Strayhorn wrote when he found out he was dying of esophageal cancer; that one carries special resonance for those of us past middle age.
Burrell displayed his identifiable guitar style on his own woozy blues "Be Yourself" and throughout, attacking the strings with aggressive pluck, effortless fluidity and perfect rhythm while dialing in a range of tones from light to dark. He's 84? Naw. Some of the musicians on hand: Charley Harrison (arranger); Charles Owens, Justo Almario, Randall Willis (saxes); Bobby Rodriguez, Mike Price (trumpets). They played tight yet swung like mad, and that's very, very hard to do, especially in larger units. The audience, spread out from the Chris Burden lamppost-forest assemblage "Urban Light" across the cement court and way to the back of the picnic lawn 200 yards away, yelled their appreciation as the show concluded with "Jazz It Up."
Sorry I was 40 minutes late and didn’t get to hear the opening showcase of a young saxist, but I had to walk half a mile after being turned away from all three overflowing LACMA parking lots. I blame Kenny Burrell, who is just loved too damned much. But I thank the museum for putting on these free shows every summer Friday.
PHOTO BY SU-Z.