Kenny Burrell – grand master of the jazz guitar

By Russ:

I first became aware of this phenomenal jazz guitarist in 1960 when I bought Jimmy Smith’s album called Midnight Special. Kenny Burrell on guitar was as smooth as butter, juxtaposed to the edgy playing of Smith’s B3 Hammond organ and Stanley Turrentine’s big tenor sax sound (one of my idols).

Ever since then, whenever I hear mention of Burrell, I go, “Oh yeah!“. He is a true original and legend of jazz guitar who has played with virtually every master of jazz.



Kenny Burrell

Just about every serious player of jazz guitar has been influenced by this man in some way. Kenny possesses a unique style, and grace if you will, that defines the essence of jazz guitar. His playing easily brings to life the stellar arrangements of his great predecessors, from Duke Ellington to Billy Strayhorn. He has a way of conveying the cool that is jazz. If there was to ever be a true definition of “smooth jazz,” Burrell would undoubtedly be a defining factor.


If you listen to 10 different electric guitar players, each will likely have a different sound, even when playing the same common instrument. This difference would be related to the way they set the controls, the way they pick/strum, the amount of attack, and so on. Taking this one step further, let them play their own instrument with its unique setup and with their own amplifier and now you are really getting into where quality of their gear and performance come to bear.

Gibson ES-175


Burrell has used Gibson guitars for the majority of his career. Early on it was the ES-175 (with the Charlie Christian bar pickup) as well as the L-7 and L-5 models.

But the guitar he is most associated with is the Gibson Super 400. He also had a signature model built by Heritage that is essentially a Super 400 model.

Most of his 1950s recordings were done with his Fender Deluxe amp. (Also known as the Tweed Deluxe or 5E3.) This amp has distinctly musical overdrive and compression characteristics and emphasizes mid range frequencies.

He would later favour the Fender Twin Reverb. The scooped mids of the blackface Fenders contrast with the Tweed amps, and Burrell states his tone preferences in this quote: “I like a fat warm sound, so I set the treble lower, the bass medium, and I pump up the middle.”

Playing wise, Kenny Burrell was influenced to some extent by electric blues men like T-Bone Walker and BB King, and also by the more linear approach of Charlie Christian.

The 1950s saw the advent of what would be known as Hard Bop (arguably a reaction to West Coast Cool Jazz) as well as Soul Jazz. Burrell was a central figure in this music and his playing reflects that.

Detroit spawned a whole generation of musicians who would define the genre(s). Kenny Burrell concurrently absorbed and influenced this language as it was being created. He was there. Fiery pentatonic runs, subtle vibrato, block chord passages, lyrical glissando and pull-offs were all delivered in an assured and fertile rhythmic vocabulary with a gorgeously round tone.


  • Kenny Burrell is the greatest guitarist in the world and he’s my favorite” – B.B. King
  • Burrell is the grand jazz master of guitar” – Dizzy Gillespie
  • That’s the sound I’m lookin’ for” – Jimmy Hendrix
  • There’s no finer guitar player. There may be somebody else who is as good, but you can’t play finer guitar than Kenny Burrell” – George Benson




Saturday Night Blues / with Stanley Turrentine on tenor sax

1990 Kenny Burrell – Michael Jackson tribute



Burrell’s playing is in the bop style, but is more conservative than that of some of his colleagues, for he favours simple, often singable, melodic lines rather than flights of virtuosity. His tone is particularly mellow.


Autumn In New York

Take The A Train

Fly Me To The Moon

Rose Room

Kenneth EarlKennyBurrell (born July 31, 1931) in Detroit, Michigan. Both his parents were talented instrumentalists. His father played banjo, mandolin, and ukulele; his two older brothers, Billy and Donald, became guitarists.

At an early age, Burrell’s mother, who was a pianist and singer, insisted that the young man receive piano lessons. Despite his mother’s urging, Burrell found playing the piano an unpromising venture.

Soon afterward Burrell turned his attention to the saxophone, an instrument that, unfortunately, his parents could not afford. His financial constraints led him to acquire a guitar instead at the age of 12.

Under the instruction of his brother, Burrell learned fret board basics. But it wasn’t until his introduction to the recordings of Charlie Christian that Burrell began to take a serious interest in the guitar. The amplified sounds of Christian’s smooth horn-like phrasing inspired Burrell to devote himself to the study of his instrument.

By 1948 Burrell had become a respected member of the thriving Detroit jazz community. His musicianship also impressed nationally known bandleaders Dizzy Gillespie and Illinois Jaquet, both of whom asked him to join their bands on the road. But Burrell’s parents discouraged him from leaving Detroit until he had completed his musical education at Wayne State University.

During his stint at the university, Burrell founded the New World Music Society, a private musicians collective that included local greats Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, and Pepper Adams.

A significant boost to Burrell’s career came in 1951, at age 20 when he made his recording debut as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet, on Dizzy’s Detroit-based Dee Gee label. This was followed by the “Rose of Tangier/Ground Round” single being recorded under his own name at Fortune Records in Detroit.

Before earning his bachelor’s degree in music from Wayne State, Burrell spent a year and a half studying composition and theory with Louis Cabara and classical guitar with Joe Fava. These lessons helped him develop a formal finger style technique. Burrell’s devotion to jazz, however, overshadowed his interest in classical forms. “I always wanted to change the notes,” explained Burrell in Jazz Journal International. “Improvisation is the essence of jazz and I have to play the way I feel.

After graduating from college in 1955 with a B.A. in Music Composition, Burrell spent six months on the road with the Oscar Peterson Trio.

Then, a year later (1956), determined to pursue greater career opportunities, Burrell left for New York with Tommy Flannagan. They immediately became two of the most sought-after sidemen in town, performing in gigs with such luminaries as singers Tony Bennett and Lena Horne, playing in Broadway pit orchestras, and recording with an array of legendary musicians including Coltrane, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, organist Jimmy Smith, vocalist Billie Holiday, and many others.

1956 – Kenny’s Debut Debut Album

Introducing Kenny Burrell was Burrell’s debut album released on the Blue Note label. He recorded this work as a leader.

  • Kenny Burrell – guitar (tracks 1-5 & 7)
  • Tommy Flanagan – piano (tracks 1-5 & 7)
  • Paul Chambers – bass (tracks 1-5 & 7)
  • Kenny Clarke – drums
  • Candido – conga (tracks 1 & 3-7)
Kenny Burrell track 2 – Fugue In Blues

He soon began performing and recording with many famous artists: Billie Holiday, Jimmy Smith, Gene Ammons, and Kenny Dorham, among others; and established his reputation as an outstanding guitarist.

1957 Prestige Album

  • Kenny Burrell – guitar
  • Cecil Payne – baritone saxophone (tracks 1-3 & 5)
  • Tommy Flanagan – piano
  • Doug Watkins – bass
  • Elvin Jones – drums

Kenny Burrell track 1 – Don’t Cry Baby


From 1957 to 1959, Burrell occupied the former chair of Charlie Christian in Benny Goodman’s band.


Kenny Burrell at the Five Spot (1959)

Album with drummer Art Blakey: On View At The Five Spot Cafe

  • Kenny Burrell – guitar
  • Art Blakey – drums
  • Tina Brooks – tenor saxophone (tracks 1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Bobby Timmons – piano (1, 2, 3, 4)
  • Roland Hanna – piano (5, 6, 7, 8)
  • Ben Tucker – bass

Kenny Burrell with Art Blakey – Lady Be Good


A Night at the Vanguard (also released as Man at Work) is a live album by guitarist Kenny Burrell recorded in 1959 at the Village Vanguard and originally released on the Argo label



Burrell recorded two albums with Jimmy Smith

  • Jimmy Smith – organ
  • Stanley Turrentine – tenor saxophone
  • Kenny Burrell – guitar
  • Donald Bailey – drums

Kenny Burrell with Stanley Turrentine and Jimmy SmithJumpin’ The Blues


  • Jimmy Smith – organ
  • Kenny Burrell – guitar
  • Stanley Turrentine – tenor saxophone
  • Donald Bailey – drums

Kenny Burrell with Jimmy SmithBack At The Chicken Shack


Kenny Burrell SINGS – Weaver Of Dreams

  • KENNY BURRELL : guitar, vocals
  • JOE BENJAMIN : bass
  • BILL ENGLISH : drums
  • TOMMY FLANAGAN : piano
  • BOBBY JASPAR : tenor sax


    1. I’LL BUY YOU A STAR [0:00]
    2. WEAVER OF DREAMS [2:07]
    3. THE MORE I SEE YOU [4:31]
    4. I’M JUST LUCKY SO AND SO [7:21]
    5. A FINE ROMANCE [10:13]
    7. THE BLUES IS AWFUL MEAN [15:13]
    8. THAT OLD FEELING [17:47]
    9. IF I HAD YOU [21:11]
    1. HOOTCHIE-KOO [23:15]


One of Burrell’s best-known works for the Blue Note label featuring saxophonist Stanley Turrentine – Midnight Blue

Jazz Improv Magazine lists this album among its top five recommended recordings for Burrell, indicating that “If you need to know ‘the Blue Note sound’, here it is”.

  • Kenny Burrell – guitar
  • Stanley Turrentine – tenor saxophone (except #3-4, 6, 9)
  • Major Holley – bass (except #3)
  • Bill English – drums (except #3)
  • Ray Barretto – conga (except #3, 6)

Midnight Blue

Chitlins Con Carne

Saturday Night Blues

Soul Lament / written by Kenny Burrell


He recorded with saxophonist Phil Woods / Poor Butterfly

Also with Phil Woods / If I Had You


1971 – Kenny Burrell – Do What You Gotta Do


In 1978, he began teaching a course at UCLA called “Ellingtonia,” examining the life and accomplishments of Duke Ellington. Although the two never collaborated directly, Ellington called Burrell his “favorite guitarist”, and Burrell has recorded a number of tributes to and interpretations of Ellington’s works.

He has played as a sideman on many major artist’s albums, recording in many styles under such leaders as John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Stan Getz, Billie Holiday, Milt Jackson, Quincy Jones, Thad Jones, Yusef Lateef, Hubert Laws, Herbie Mann, Sonny Rollins, Lalo Schifrin, Jimmy Smith, and Stanley Turrentine.

Burrell performs most frequently in a trio with a double bass player and a drummer. However he has also worked as an unaccompanied soloist, and in larger groups, such as the nine-piece Philip Morris Superband, with which he toured internationally in 1985-86.

1986 Jazz Guitar Band

Kenny Burrell and the Jazz Guitar Band, played at the Village Vanguard in New York City with a three-guitar lineup that could have resulted in overkill but it worked like a charm.

With a player as perennially tasteful as Kenny Burrell in charge, The Jazz Guitar Band’s interplay was definitely on the polite side, but it also provided Burrell and his fellow guitarists, Bobby Broom and Rodney Jones, with enough challenges to keep things moving. The rhythm section of Dave Jackson, bass, and Victor Lewis, drums, provided momentum as well.

The differences in touch, tone, and temperament were intriguing. The three guitarists were all ”warm” players, and all of them built solos by balancing single-note lines and rich chord inversions.

Generally, Broom played more chromatically, and with a sharper, more metallic tone than Jones. Burrell, the seasoned master of the bunch, had the best of both worlds in his playing. His chords were richer, his sound more luminous, yet his tone had an edge that cut through attractively when things began to get too pretty. When the players switched to acoustic guitars, Broom revealed a ravishing, full tone. The acoustic instrument brought Jones’ melodic invention to the fore, and emphasized Burrell’s silvery delicacy.

Here they are playing the title track from the 1st of two Blue Note album “Generation

Kenny has also made recordings on banjo, including Hot and Bothered as a sideman with Mercer Ellington. In addition to performing and recording he has been active as a teacher; he began leading seminars at colleges in 1971, and has taught courses in the music of Duke Ellington at universities around Los Angeles, where he settled in 1972.

GRAMMY Salute to Jazz honored Kenny Burrell at the GRAMMY Museum at L.A. LIVE on Tuesday, January 26, 2010.

Educator at UCLA

Since 1996, Kenny Burrell has served as Educator and Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music.

Kenny Burrell – UCLA Department of Ethnomusicology

Kenny Burrell Untold – Lessons Learned

Burrell has won several jazz polls in Japan and the United Kingdom as well as in the United States. Burrell wrote, arranged, and performed on the 1998 Grammy Award-winning album Dear Ella by Dee Dee Bridgewater, received the 2004 Jazz Educator of the Year Award from Down Beat, and was named a 2005 NEA Jazz Master.

Now for something different…

Here is a compilation of more than 4 hours listening time.  Some of these tracks have Kenny vocals.


7 thoughts on “Kenny Burrell – grand master of the jazz guitar”

  1. Once again, thank you guys, a lot of listening here for me. He was one of my most fave guitar players, a master. I like the fact that he emphasized melody, and his choice of amplifiers, well, the fender deluxe, black face is my fave too, will find it very hard to part with, the twin I had was a great amp but was not the black faced one, it’s gone. I also liked the black faced super reverb, sorry to see it gone.


  2. Kenny Burrell is my favorite jazz guitarist. Of course nobody else could have done as good a job of writing about the man and his music as you Russ. What a fine job!


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