Guitar master Kenny Burrell helped define two of jazz’s golden ages, first as a rising star on the Detroit scene after World War II, and then in New York City in the mid-1950s. But at this point he’s spent more of his life in Los Angeles than Motown or the Big Apple. L.A. hasn’t changed his music so much as allowed Burrell to become more fully himself. On stage he often comes across as an affable professor, and in fact he’s been an influential educator at UCLA for decades. His academic responsibilities haven’t slowed his prolific recording career, and with his 108th album, "Special Requests (And Other Favorites)," Burrell adds another gem to his dauntingly consistent discography.
Recorded live at the Hollywood jazz spot Catalina’s last November when Burrell was 81, the album documents the guitarist’s veteran L.A. quintet, featuring piano ace Tom Ranier, bassist Tony Dumas, drummer Clayton Cameron and Justo Almario on tenor saxophone and flute. There are a few surprises here, like Burrell offering rough but appealing vocals on “The Feel of Jazz.” But he mostly sticks to tried-and-true standards, including American Songbook fare such as “Bye Bye Blackbird” and “Make Someone Happy,” and jazz hits like Benny Golson’s persuasively grooving “Killer Joe” and J.J. Johnson’s classic ballad “Lament.”
The conceit of "Special Requests" is that he’s playing tunes selected by his fans, but there’s nothing pandering about the set. With his beautiful touch, impeccable taste and appealing combination of harmonic elegance and bluesy grit, Burrell offers jazz classicism at its best, gracefully bridging almost a century of a rapidly evolving tradition. Part of what makes him such a quietly dramatic player is the way he shapes phrases, sounding relaxed even at his most urgent.
As the first person to teach a university course devoted to the music of Duke Ellington, Burrell invariably includes a selection of Ellingtonia in every performance. Here he offers two delectable ballads, the standard “In A Sentimental Mood,” and the more obscure but equally ravishing “Sunset and the Mockingbird.” Another high point is his pristine rendition of Michel LeGrand’s “The Summer Knows,” the only track featuring acoustic guitar. Working with longtime collaborators, Burrell sounds particularly comfortable, and provides plenty of space for his accompanists. Colombian-born Almario, a highly versatile player who should be far better known, offers some particularly lovely flute work on Freddie Hubbard’s “Little Sunflower.”
Burrell made his recording debut in 1951 as a member of Dizzy Gillespie’s Sextet, and went on to play with many of jazz’s defining figures, from Billie Holiday and Coleman Hawkins to John Coltrane and Bill Evans. Throughout his career he’s played on dozens of essential albums as a both a sideman and a leader. Much like Stan Getz, Burrell never seems to turn in a weak performance. He closes the album with his only original of the evening, “Chitlins Con Carne.” An irresistible blues from his classic 1963 Blue Note album "Midnight Blue," the piece has been covered by everyone from Horace Silver and Big John Patton to Buddy Guy and Stevie Ray Vaughan, but Burrell owns it with his confident swing. In his 80s, the guitarist is as soulful as ever, and "Special Requests" makes it clear he’s still got plenty to give.