Live Jazz: Kenny Burrell 80 Years Young at Royce Hall

By Don Heckman

It was all about Kenny Burrell Saturday night at UCLA’s Royce Hall.  Burrell the guitarist, Burrell the founder of the University’s jazz studies program, Burrell the teacher, Burrell the all around good guy.  More than three months after the actual date – July 31 – the UCLA Live event celebrated his 80th birthday with a gathering of musical participants from both inside and outside of Westwood.

Kenny Burrell

And with good reason.  Burrell’s far-reaching career reaches from high visibility as a major jazz artist to a vital role in the creation of U.C.L.A.’s Jazz Studies program – an influential pathfinder in the expanding world of jazz education.

The program resembled, in several respects, the Royce Hall 2006 salute to Burrell on his 75th birthday. Like the earlier tribute, Saturday’s program blended appearances by major artists with performances from a variety of student ensembles.  And, also like the 2006 show – it ran at marathon length, largely causing the otherwise engaging program to come to a grinding halt when yet another of his many present and past associates made his way to the microphone to offer praise for Burrell.

The speech-making aside, it was the music itself that offered the best tribute to Burrell, as an artist and as an educator.  An opening set by the Jazz Heritage All-Stars – an aggregation of familiar Southland jazz luminaries – offered a view of the solid, straight-ahead sort of jazz that Burrell was instrumental in helping to create.  And when B.B. King and his band arrived on stage and the blues took over, the exchanges between King and Burrell were classic displays of the blues roots of the jazz art.

D.D. Bridgewater, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King and Kenny Burrell

At that point, what was shaping up to be the high point of the show went up another level with the surprise arrival of Stevie Wonder on stage.  And the all-star glow brightened even more when Dee Dee Bridgewater – scheduled to appear later – dashed out to share the fun in a jam session format with Burrell, King and Wonder.  It was a remarkable musical moment – one for the memory books.

Lalo Schifrin also performed with a trio, offering a longish view of his busily rhapsodic jazz perspectives. And Michelle Weir led the Tribute Vocal Ensemble – as she did in the 2006 show – in a performance of music based on Burrell compositions.

Other highlights included the introduction of the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Unlimited, a stellar ensemble of prime Southland players described by Burrell as an important new musical entity with a continuing role in the growing U.C.L.A. jazz program.  The program wrapped with a performance by the UCLA Philharmonia of composer Paul Chihara’s Pax Humana, a tribute to Burrell, and the combined Philharmonia and L.A. Jazz Orchestra Unlimited rendering of Suite For Peace, a collaborative work featuring segments by Burrell, John Clayton, Charley Harrison and others.

It was, in other words, a night that successfully celebrated the continuing creativity of Kenny Burrell – as artist and educator — with the sort of wide ranging, imaginative musical views that have characterized his own work over the years.

Photos by Reed Hutchinson courtesy of UCLA Live.

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