Friday, September 22

Boppin’ with Burrell


Renowned musician inspires and motivates students as UCLA's director of jazz studies

A&E


Kenny Burrell has played with pretty much everyone who’s
anyone in jazz. Whether laying down the guitar support behind a
John Coltrane rampage or stretching out in a solo while
collaborating with Jimmy Smith, his experience and discography are
immense. Virtually no important jazz musician of the ’50s and
’60s could escape recording with Burrell. For the past
decade, UCLA students have also had an opportunity to follow in the
footsteps of Coltrane and Smith by getting a chance to work with
Burrell.

His distinctive brand of guitar playing throughout his career
has given him renowned invitations into the studios of so many
greats and ultimately made him director of jazz studies at UCLA.
Burrell will mark yet another achievement in his renowned career on
Saturday, when he celebrates his 75th birthday at Royce Hall with a
concert during which he will record his 100th album.

As the chief of the jazz program, Burrell takes on
administrative responsibilities, but more important are his
interactions with students. Involved with many of the
department-sponsored jazz groups on campus, Burrell coaches
rehearsals, bringing his considerable talents to the table and
affording students a chance to glean something from his
knowledge.

Noah Garabedian, a fourth-year jazz studies student, has played
both in big bands and smaller combos coached by Burrell. Garabedian
believes one of the most important things Burrell brings to
rehearsal is his legendary ear, as well as an attitude that
stresses musical communication in general.

“Sometimes we play and it seems like he’s not
listening, and then all of a sudden he’ll perk up, stop the
group, and say, “˜That’s supposed to be major, not
minor,’” Garabedian said. “He really stresses the
importance of listening hard to everything that’s going on
around you and communicating about it.”

Burrell’s focus on listening is also linked to his other
attitudes about teaching. Informed by a musical understanding and
flexibility, his teaching can reflect his view that jazz is
sometimes best left to speak for itself. Affording students
valuable group leadership experience and the chance to head a
group, Burrell sometimes steps back and cedes authority to a
student’s vision.

“I think it’s important that Kenny is open to
student input. In rehearsals, he’s flexible enough to have
students bring in their own compositions and have a chance to lead
them. He understands that there’s no one way, and there might
always be some way of doing things he’s not aware of,”
said Max Kaplan, a third-year composition student.

As valuable as this kind of flexibility is ““ especially
within a music world in which it pays to take initiative ““ it
is made all more remarkable by Burrell’s status. Duke
Ellington famously referred to Burrell as his favorite guitarist,
but such praise does not seem to have gone to Burrell’s head.
At least, that’s how second-year jazz studies student Peter
Hargreaves feels.

“I own some of his recordings from the ’60s ““
he’s a really gentle person, and it’s cool he can be
this laid-back for being so famous,” Hargreaves said.

As inspirational as Burrell’s flexibility, his students
attest, is his dedication to his own sound. Holding on to a
distinctive thread of ideas that are deeply his, Burrell has
retained his musical vision throughout his career. His ability to
discover himself and confidently project that discovery onto
countless records can encourage students to attempt the same with
their own sounds and careers.

“His playing is very sweet and soulful. It is genuinely
his own sound and style, and sounds truthful. It’s cool to
hear someone who found his sound and carved a place for himself
with it,” Garabedian said.

To some, what’s more important is the link that Burrell
provides to the history of the jazz tradition. For Kaplan,
understanding the cultural connection between current ideas in jazz
and those from the time of Burrell’s earlier career allows
him understand the differences between then and now in ways not
possible from listening to recordings alone.

“He’ll tell you stories about his career ““ he
knows so much about the music scene of the ’50s and
’60s. It’s about more than just the performance, and
he’s a huge prize to UCLA in that he shows so much about the
cultural aspects of jazz,” Kaplan said.

Although students take different lessons from Burrell, one thing
all can agree on is his genuine spirit, in both his music-making
and his attitude toward students. Students sense a positive force
in working with Burrell and find his attitudes encouraging.

“You can hear just from his playing that he’s a kind
person,” Garabedian said.

Garabedian, who will take part in Burrell’s 75th birthday
celebration, is one of the students who has had a chance to play
with Burrell. As a bassist, Garabedian is sensitive to a certain
confidence in Burrell’s character that shines through his
playing and benefits the ensemble.

More importantly for Garabedian, however, is Burrell’s
history as a musician and the bassists with whom he has played.
Taking the role of some of his idols, who have been featured on
much of the legend’s discography, Garabedian was able to
experiment with some of the same musical ideas as his
inspirations.

“He has played with so many of my heroes,”
Garabedian said. “I tried to keep the spirit of some of my
favorite bass players and adapt to (Burrell’s)
style.”

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