LP Review: Kenny Burrell Guitar Forms

Kenny Burrell Guitar Forms
(Speakers Corner/Verve V6-8612. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

Now celebrating their 20th anniversary, Speakers Corner Records in Germany have been consistently producing some of the finest vinyl records available anywhere. Working from the original master tapes, using all analog equipment, they reissue classic recordings in meticulous pressings on heavy vinyl. Where possible they even employ the original sound engineers who created the record in the first place. Their LPs are manufactured in the famed Pallas plant at Diepholz and the sound quality is unsurpassed. Initially Speakers Corner devoted its output to classical music, but luckily for us they soon expanded to include jazz in their catalogue.

Among their reissues are a large tranche of famed albums on Verve, which brings us to Guitar Forms, nominally a Kenny Burrell LP although personally I’d be tempted file it under the name of its masterful arranger, Gil Evans. Recorded in late 1964 and early 1965, Guitar Forms has never quite had the cachet of timeless Evans albums like his collaborations with Miles Davis, Miles Ahead and Sketches of Spain. And, in fairness, only five of the nine tracks on Guitar Forms feature the full glory of Evans’ orchestral backings. Three others are quintet cuts with Burrell supported by Roger Kellaway on piano, Joe Benjamin on bass, the great Grady Tate on drums and Willie Rodriguez on congas. The ninth track is a pure solo by Burrell, an excerpt from his guitar transcription of Gershwin’s Prelude #2 for Piano.

The way Lotus Land begins you might be forgiven for thinking that it’s another solo guitar piece. But Burrell’s meditative, flamenco-flavoured strumming and bluesy plucking is gradually shadowed by ominous bass, slinky, insinuating tambourines and measured, menacing snare drum as the composition grows and snowballs in a way reminiscent of Sketches of Spain. Soon Burrell’s guitar is writhing as if trying to escape from a cluster of flutes before the cool hand of the saxes is laid across the feverish sound. (And it’s a very cool hand, with Richie Kamuca, Steve Lacy and Lee Konitz in the sax section.) This is vintage Gil Evans writing, right up there with Time of the Barracudas or El Toreador. Its intensity is such that it’s almost a relief to proceed to the airy mellowness of Terrace Theme, a quintet track with Burrell’s fat tone set in counterpoint to Rodriguez’s spare congas and Kellaway’s throwaway piano frills — and one begins to understand the original concept of the album, the thesis and antithesis of big band numbers.

A beguiling Latin percussion sound also leads us into Moon and Sand, but this is another orchestral track and the drummers now are Charlie Persip and Elvin Jones. Burrell is perhaps at his most beautiful on this number set against a backdrop of trombones, always a key instrument for Evans and played here by Jimmy Cleveland and Jimmy Knepper. Moon and Sand ends all too soon and you might be tempted to declare it the highlight of the album, but there are still rewarding surprises in store.

A big band version of Greensleeves not only steers clear of the cornball, it ultimately achieves the dark astringency of Evans’ versions of Kurt Weill compositions like Bilbao Song and The Barbara Song. And the orchestra’s Last Night When We Were Young ends in a slow-motion impressionist snowfall of chords which takes us right back to Gil Evans’ first work with Claude Thornhill.

Guitar Forms is a milestone of 1960s jazz. It’s not only a fine showcase for its guitar star, it is a kind of career summary for Gil Evans. And it’s never sounded more gorgeous that it does here: wide, deep and three dimensional with instruments precisely placed in space. If you want to get acquainted with Gil Evans or Kenny Burrell this vinyl incarnation represents the state of the art — unless you can get access to the original master tapes.

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