Mr. Burrell has also distinguished himself in the realm of academia. For the past twenty-five years he has been affiliated with UCLA, teaching the guitar and a course of his own devising called Ellingtonia, the first university course on Duke Ellington. He is also about to begin his seventh year as the director of the school’s jazz studies program. Little wonder, then, that the summer of 2003 finds Kenny Burrell busy with the release of a new CD, Blue Muse on Concord Records, and a performance schedule that includes a weeklong engagement at Catalina’s Bar and Grill in Hollywood from July 8-13th.
We recently caught up with Kenny at his office in UCLA for the following conversation.
JazzReview: I’ve been listening to the new album a lot; I really like it.
Kenny Burrell: Thank you. I’m glad you’re enjoying the album
JazzReview: I wanted to talk a little bit about the concept of the album. It’s a collection of songs that, while they aren’t all necessarily blues per se, they all have kind of a blue tinge to them. How did you come upon that theme for this CD?
Kenny Burrell: Well, my albums usually have a theme, but it’s something that evolves naturally. When I was getting ready to go and record, I thought about what songs I wanted to do, and the songs I started to think about had a little blue tinge to them. This is the 96th CD that I’ve put out under my name, and other moods have come to me at other times. This time, the first song I had in mind to record was "Blue Muse." That song and some of the others had, not necessarily a ‘blues’ feeling, not all sober or romantic or what you will, but still a kind of blue feeling.
I kind of like to be consistent throughout an album, to sustain a mood. In that light, we recorded "My Friend Ray," a tribute to the great bassist Ray Brown. It’s a loving, almost sad homage to a friend who had just died. I also recorded a song for the late guitar player John Collins, who was one of mentors, called "On Wings of the Spirit." It doesn’t necessarily sound sad, but that’s the meaning behind the song. It’s a tribute to one of my heroes.
Another of the songs that I planned to record was "Blue Bossa." And it happened that my friend Larry Jackstein called to tell me that he’d written lyrics for it, so we recorded it as "It’s No Time to Be Blue." This idea of blue kept popping up, these inspirations. You know, it’s part of who I am and what I believe, that there are these spiritual forces around us that guide us and influence us. Now, if you go to classical mythology, that’s called a Muse. It’s the muses that do that, provide inspiration. So there you are-Blue Muse.
There’s definitely a Blue Muse in my life, you know. I love the blues, I love the color blue, it just seems to recur throughout my life. One of the songs we recorded, one of my four vocals on the album was " ‘Round Midnight" midnight blue, as you know. And it’s one of my favorite songs. So it just evolved in a natural way, just came together. It worked as a larger piece, a total piece with the overall effect of all the tunes. A synergy came out of putting these things together, and the other musicians involved were very helpful in bringing things out in their ensemble playing and in their soloing.
JazzReview: I wanted to mention them next. You have a really great band on this album, some of the best players in Southern California. But I don’t know if our readers outside of the area are as familiar with, say, (bassist) Roberto Miranda or (pianist) Gerald Wiggins as they perhaps ought to be.
Kenny Burrell: Well, these are guys that I work with a lot. The drummer, Sherman Ferguson-I’ve been working with him for over twenty years now. (Pianist) Tom Ranier and I have a long association together. A lot of these musicians don’t travel outside of Southern California that often and that’s why they may not be as well known. Herman Riley, of course, is one of the great saxophone players. And Gerald Wiggins, we just think of him as an institution around here, he’s been playing so well for so long.
I don’t pick the musicians I work with based on their names, or things like that. I choose who I work with based on their musicianship and if they share a common goal of making the music work. These are really great musicians and I’m pleased with what they brought to the recording.
JazzReview: As you mentioned, there are four vocal numbers on the current album. You’ve been adding vocals to a few tracks on your last few CDs. Tell us about how that has come about.
Kenny Burrell: Well, singing is something that I’ve always done, ever since I was a teenager. I’ve always loved it. I find that words add another dimension to songs, give them more meaning. You know, I’ve been busy as a guitar player, that’s what I’ve been expected to do, that’s what I’ve done. But I’ve always sung a couple of songs in my performances, just threw them in.
Around 1960, I was offered a chance to record a vocal album for a major record label, and I was happy to have that opportunity. The problem was that the A&R people there had more of a pop-oriented thing in mind than I did. So we tried a compromise, but the way it worked out it wasn’t great for them, it wasn’t great for me. It left a bad taste in my mouth. I decided that if I couldn’t do what I wanted to do, then I didn’t want to do it. And if the opportunity ever came again, I would have to be in control of the situation.
A few years ago I had a commission to write an extended work for the Boy’s Choir of Harlem, in which I wrote all the music and words. In the piece, there was one part where I sang with the Choir. Concord released a recording of it and--to me and to the company--it was a success. John Burk, the Vice President of Concord, was very encouraging. He told me, "Kenny, you know, we like your artistry, your composing, your singing ." With that in mind, I thought I’d take a chance on singing. So I sang one song on my next album, and I got a nice reward for it. The song was something I wrote for Ella Fitzgerald called "Dear Ella," and Dee Dee Bridgewater went on to record it and it won a Grammy. So I sang another four songs on my last album, and of course, there are four on this one as well.
JazzReview: One last thing I’d like to touch on is the Ellington class and the Jazz program at UCLA. Did the program grow out of the class, or how did it develop? Maybe you could just give us a little overview of what you’re doing there.
Kenny Burrell: Well, I started teaching here 25 years ago. I started my course "Ellingtonia," which was the first regular course on Duke Ellington in the United States, and I still teach it. The Jazz program isn’t a result of that exactly, but when UCLA decided six years ago that they wanted to start the program, they contacted me to help set it up. There was the connection there from the Ellington course, and they knew that I could help them with my reputation in the jazz world and the music business. We have a great faculty. And it’s not just me who says that; to quote Herbie Hancock, "UCLA has the best jazz faculty in the country."