Recorded between 1978 and 1983, this compilation offers an hour and fifteen minutes of the guitarist’s small group sessions, selected from his Muse albums Handcrafted, Groovin’ High, Listen To The Dawn, A La Carte, Live At The Village Vanguard, Ellington A La Carte, and Kenny Burrell in New York. All except «In A Mellow Tone, «St. Thomas» and «Tenderly» are trio sessions; these three classic tunes are performed as guitar / bass duos.
The album title Laid Back describes Burrell’s trademark sound rather well. Identified with the epithet «cool» that stemmed from specific jazz artists and recordings of the early `50s, the guitarist has long been associated with the arbitrary category that includes Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Gerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz, Claude Thornhill, Buddy DeFranco, Mose Allison, Warne Marsh, Lennie Tristano, Gil Evans, Terry Gibbs, Shelly Manne, Shorty Rogers, and Chet Baker. Moreover, Burrell’s career has been tightly interlaced with those of guitarists Wes Montgomery, Barney Kessel, Jim Hall, and Joe Pass. Serving as director of UCLA’s Jazz Studies Program for almost two years now, Kenny Burrell also devotes much of his time to teaching and composing, and yet his performance schedule continues to be of importance. Burrell’s recording debut as a leader was in 1956, but he started working professionally in Detroit more than a decade earlier. Spanning generations of listeners, the guitarist has a broad-based appeal, a blues-based approach, and a profound professionalism with respect to jazz.
From a live session, the rhythmic «Pent Up House» features bassist Larry Gales and drummer Sherman Ferguson driving the rhythm behind soloist Burrell. Similarly, Sonny Rollin’s «St. Thomas» is from a live session in New York with Burrell opting for acoustic guitar while being supported by bassist Rufus Reid. The latter, being a duo session, affords ample time for Reid to share the solo spotlight. «Tenderly,» starting out with Burrell’s lone guitar voice set in a live club environment, picks up bassist Reid after a few minutes and evolves into a moderately fast duo romp. The very same format is employed on «In a Mellow Tone,» also from a live session. Interestingly, you don’t miss the absent drummer at all because the live audience provides a substitute for quiet swirling brushes and delicate cymbal strokes; the background sounds of clinking dishes, hushed conversation, sliding trays, and occasional coughing is distant, but just enough to supply the missing ingredient. «In the Still of the Night» is also from a live session; Ferguson uses bare hands on the drum skins to open the tune. He and Gales then support Burrell with a loping tempo that provides one of the compilation’s highlights.
Kenny Burrell has recorded prolifically. He continues to write and teach at a point in his career when some would simply retire to a slower lifestyle; and he keeps on going with no sign of slowing down. There’s just no way to put the best of Burrell’s works on one volume; however, this set offers some of the guitarist’s excellent duo and trio work.