By Devon Wendell
When Kenny Burrell took the stage for the start of a four-night stint at Catalina Bar & Grill Thursday night, he also brought along a lineage of musical ghosts that echoed through his every note and choice of material. Nearing his 78th birthday, Kenny and his quartet (Mike Melvoin, piano; Ralph Penland, drums; Tony Dumas, bass; and Tivon Pennicott, tenor sax) came out swinging with the sense of historical purpose that has driven Burrell’s long recording legacy and his tenure as head of jazz studies at UCLA.
As in Burrell’s teaching, Ellington was the focus for much of the set, starting with the initial number, “Main Stem.” From the first note, Kenny’s uniquely lyrical, understated, after-hours guitar style was a soulful reminder that the blues is truly the center of all jazz. Penland’s drumming stayed in the pocket, while Burrell and the amazing 24-year old Georgia native Pennicott created melodic lines as a returning point for each soloist.
For the standard “Tenderly,” Burrell started off solo, with his amazing sense of tonal dynamics, chordal voicing, and space that has influenced guitarists in all musical genres for over half a century. As the band came in at just the right moment, Melvoin’s subtle piano fit perfectly under Pennicott’s adventurous solo flights. The saxophonist’s “pecking” was reminiscent of a young Sonny Rollins, journeying effortlessly through the upper register – unlike many tenorists today twice his age.
A highlight of the evening was the group’s tribute to Michael Jackson, who had passed away only hours before the show. Mike Melvoin told the audience how he had worked with Jackson and noted what a consummate artist he was. Burrell added that, “Michael was a musician like us,” and proceeded to lead the band in a minor key, gospel, grits and gravy flavored version of “Billy Jean.” This was one of the more cohesive pieces of the night, with Pennicott and Burrell playing Jackson’s vocal lines, supported by the very loose and funky backup by Penland’s Louis Hayes-like drumming.
The Kurt Weill standard “Speak Low” gave Burrell a chance to show off his mastery of arpeggios and Wes Montgomery-inspired octaves, while proving that if he were a vocalist, he’d be one of the world’s greatest singers. He dedicated his composition “Bass Face” (from the album Lucky So And So) to Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson. Though bassist Tony Dumas strayed far from Brown’s style and went a bit overboard at times, Burrell’s funky syncopated lines, doubled up by Pennicott, made this an exciting tribute to old comrades.
Burrell and company took off into bop-land with his classic “Mark One” (from the 1964 album Soul Call) with Penland’s Tony Williams-like enthusiasm pushing Pennicott’s virtuosity to ever greater heights. Surprisingly, however, the band’s version of the Duke classic “In A Sentimental Mood” ventured too far from the melodic structure of the piece, even though Burrell’s ability to comp Ellington’s piano changes effortlessly on guitar made up for some over indulgences.
Tackling Thelonious Monk is always a difficult task and involves bold choices. But Burrell, Pennicott, Penland, and Dumas dove right into those risky waters with “Rhythm-A-Ning.” Melvoin’s piano playing wisely avoided going into overt “Monkisms”; instead, he chose to continue his gentle, mostly tonal style – imagining Monk from a George Shearing perspective. Burrell, meanwhile, once again proved the value of a single note in the right place while keeping everything centered. Charlie Parker’s venerable “Now’s The Time” closed the set, with Kenny lovingly introducing each band member as they soloed. Here, as everywhere else in this memorable evening, Kenny’s love of, and endless dedication to, jazz emanated from the music, calling to mind the magic of jazz voices past and present.
Kenny Burrell and his quartet will be performing at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday, June 28th.