May 27, 2024

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Barney Kessel was one of the founding fathers of that increasingly substantial tradition: Video

17.10. – Happy Birthday !!! The guitar may be the iconic instrument of rock’n’roll, but for the first five decades of jazz it generally trailed behind the charismatic stature of saxophones and trumpets, and the erudition of pianos.

During the 1970s, with rock and some aspects of jazz moving closer together, it won a more significant place – and a line began that led from John McLaughlin and Pat Metheny, via John Scofield, to musicians like Charlie Hunter today. Barney Kessel, who has died aged 80, was one of the founding fathers of that increasingly substantial tradition.

Kessel’s career began in the 1940s, when electric amplification of the guitar was barely a decade old. From the early 1900s, he was recognised as one of the world’s foremost bebop guitar improvisers, and continued to perform into the 1990s until halted by a stroke, by which time he was a legendary figure.

Like many of his contemporaries – including Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Jimmy Raney and Herb Ellis – Kessel’s guiding spirit was the first genius of bop-based playing on the electric guitar, Charlie Christian, a prodigy who had worked with the Benny Goodman Orchestra and then joined those after-hours pioneers, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke among them, at Minton’s Playhouse in New York.

The Christian style, when it emerged with Goodman in 1939, was not only a completely new approach to guitar playing, but represented a boldness of harmonic vision, and a rhythmic audacity that challenged the routinised swing phrasing of every ensemble he played in. Christian’s lines did not sound like a guitar player’s; they were more like the poetry and wit of a Lester Young saxophone improvisation.

Kessel was a promising guitarist in his home town of Muskogee, Oklahoma – and the only white player in a black swing group – when he met and jammed with Christian, who was passing through on tour. The experience changed the young Kessel’s life; he left for Los Angeles the following year to follow in his hero’s footsteps.

At first, he took jobs as a dishwasher, then secured a prestigious gig in the Ben Pollack orchestra accompanying Chico Marx’s stage shows. Kessel’s combination of choppy, propulsive chordwork and stimulating fills, and his swinging, improvised lines, quickly made him a popular addition to a number of successful swing bands of the mid-1940s, including Charlie Barnet’s, Benny Goodman’s and Artie Shaw’s.

Then came a breakthrough. In 1947, Kessel performed on a legendary session with Charlie Parker for the Dial label, notably on the debut of the classic bop blues, Relaxin’ At Camarillo, which Parker was reputed to have written in a cab on the way to the studio. Kessel sounds a little stiff and brittle for the mercurial flow that Parker and his partners generated, but the 23-year-old confirmed how assured and at ease he already was, despite the complexity of the music and Parker’s unpredictable presence.

Five years later, Kessel became an international jazz figure when he joined Oscar Peterson and the bass star Ray Brown for a world tour with Norman Granz’s jazz At The Philharmonic. His style was now reaching maturity, with a blend of Christian’s long lines and rhythmic shifts, spontaneous chordal riffing and a powerful injection of country blues phrasing from that Oklahoma childhood. He had also absorbed some of the elegantly legato manner of the West Coast “cool school” players.

Coupled with his musical erudition and adaptability, the Kessel chemistry was ideally suited to both the jazz life and the studio session, and it was the latter that largely claimed him through the 1950s and 1960s, notably for high-profile television shows such as Steve Allen’s. But he was also in demand on prestigious recording sessions, taking part in the later Verve recordings Norman Granz organised for Billie Holiday, and working with Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O’Day. In 1955, he played on Julie London’s famous version of Cry Me A River.

During this period, Kessel also cut a succession of sharp and swinging records for the Contemporary label under his own leadership. He consistently won the guitar category in jazz polls, and his trio work with Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne in the Poll Winners’ trio was impeccable.

If his later recordings were influenced by his studio-pro experiences (tunes from the rock musical Hair for the 1968 Aquarius session, for instance), he would still always sound crisply distinctive on up-tempo pieces, and patiently tender in his subtle unfolding of chords on slow ones.

In the late 1960s, Kessel took to touring again, visiting Europe with the Newport Festival package in 1967 and 1968, performing in Guitar Workshop with Jim Hall, George Benson, Larry Coryell and Elmer Snowden, and settling in London for a year in 1969. Back in America, he worked on the soundtrack to four Elvis Presley movies, formed The Great Guitars trio with Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd, and became increasingly involved in guitar teaching, to which he returned after slowly recovering from the stroke he suffered on a Great Guitars tour in 1992.

He is survived by his wife Phyllis, and by two sons from an earlier marriage.

Barney Kessel, musician, born October 17 1923; died May 6 2004.

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