This article presents an analysis of guitarist Kenny Burrell’s solo on “Dear Old Stockholm” from Paul Chamber’s 1957 recording Bass On Top. Beginning with a biography of Burrell up to the year of the recording session, I then explore his guitar sound and technique before examining the solo.
All solos have been transcribed by the author. Please note these are notated at guitar pitch, one octave higher than it sounds.
Burrell was born in Detroit on July 31st 1931 into a musical family. His brother Billy, a professional bass player who stayed in Detroit to raise a family (Harris, 1978, pg6) was his primary influence but guitarists Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore and T-Bone Walker are also cited as impactful players. (Burrell, 1993)
Detroit housed a vibrant jazz scene of which Burrell was a key player. (Brit, 1984, pg27) He was a founding member and president of The New World Music Society (Harris, 2014). Alongside his city mates, he was diligent in assimilating the latest developments in jazz (including bebop, which will be discussed later) through transcription and analysis, making Detroit players capable of sharing the bandstand with New York based players such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis. (Burrell, 2014)
Burrell studied theory and composition at Wayne State University and while a student there recorded with Dizzy Gillespie (1951) and released a single as a leader (“Rose of Tangier” with “Ground Round” released through Fortune, a Detroit label.) Upon graduating, he replaced Herb Ellis in The Oscar Peterson Trio which led him to New York City, where he settled permanently and worked as a studio and Broadway musician, while pursuing his jazz career.
After Alfred Lyons heard him play, Burrell was signed to Blue Note where he released Introducing Kenny Burrell (1956) with Paul Chambers on bass. A year later, he was a side-man on the album from which this solo on “Dear Old Stockholm” appears. Between 1956 and 1958 Chambers and Burrell recorded together 6 times (Cook & Morton, pg184, 1992) including on both their respective Blue Note debuts: Introducing Kenny Burrell (1956) and Whims of Chambers (1957). As they were both involved the Detroit jazz scene, and around the same age (Chambers was born in 1935), we can assume they had played together before these sessions.
Bass On Top
Bass On Top was recorded on July 14, 1957 at the renowned Van Gelder Studio in New Jersey, preceding release in October that year. Four of the album’s tracks (“Yesterdays”; “Chasing’ The Bird”; “The Theme” and “You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To”) were recorded in single takes, with “Confessin’” and “Chamber Mates” and our featured “Dear Old Stockholm” requiring second takes. The tune selection and arrangements bear the prominent influence of Chamber’s then employer Miles Davis. “Dear Old Stockholm” features the exact Stan Getz arrangement as heard on Davis’ ‘Round About Midnight, recorded in June 1956, where it serves as a showcase for Chambers, who is the opening soloist for two choruses, as he is here. (Interestingly, Chambers also plays an essentially identical line in his 2nd solo chorus break in both his Davis and solo version, although it is notably smoother and more swinging in the later version. Chamber is also far better recorded in the Bass On Top take.)
Any analysis of a Kenny Burrell solo must take into account his unique and beautiful guitar tone, as evidenced in this solo. Commentators on Burrell always place emphasis on his this quality, as in this representative example from Will Matthews:
“The thing that captivated me was the sound of [Burrell’s] guitar. It is such a beautiful sound tone.” (Barth, pg300, 2006)
The Jazz Book praises his “tasty, earthy sound” (Berendt, 2009, pg422) and even Pat Metheny, often critical of guitarists, has praised Burrell’s “incredible sound and touch” and believes “the listener is treated to the pleasures of hearing a sound that is detailed, precise and eloquent.” (Metheny, 2000)
Alongside the beauty of this tone, and despite significant developments in recording techniques/guitar amplification and the various fashions regarding the electronic manipulation of guitar tone, Burrell’s electric tone has been markedly consistent since his debut recording. (Alexander, pg74, 1999) This may appear a modest feat, yet compare the startling discrepancies in Wes Montgomery’s recorded tone on Montgomeryland (1958), The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959) and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of West Montgomery (1960) (the latter two recorded at the same studio with the same producer) to Burrell’s Blue Lights (1958), A Night At The Village Vanguard (1959) and Weaver of Dreams (1961), where his tone is fundamentally the same and, while notably earlier, Gunther Schuller considered guitar amplification and guitar recording methods of the time (1939-1942) as “not always entirely controllable” enough to decree any objective discussion of Charlie Christian’s tone void. (Schuller, pg567, 1989)
Indeed, Burrell has even, as far as I am aware, only one recorded example, at least as a solo artist, where he employs electronic effects (excluding generic effects such as reverb and compression, added during the recording process). When asked whenever he makes use of effects pedals, Burrell replies: “I once did a Christmas album where I used a phase shifter for one tune, but it didn’t really work the way I wanted it to.” (Berle, 1985. pg61) This is “Silent Night” from Have Yourself A Soulful Little Christmas (1964) although Burrell is in fact using a “tremolo” (minute, continuous changes in amplitude) effect rather than a phase shifter.
While there is no definitive information, Burrell’s active schedule as a studio player beginning around 1956 (Berle, pg59, 1981) – the same year as his first session as a leader – may have versed, or required him to become versed, in recording technique, equipping him to ensure the fidelity of his recorded sound.
Tuck Andress suggests a technical reason for Burrell’s unique tone in an article on plectrum technique where he describes Burrell’s deployment of “circle picking”, a:
“fascinating, bizarre variation on the standard [picking] style…movement is accomplished by flexing the first joint of the thumb (nearest the tip), with the index finger extending at its second joint…[a]t the moment of crossing the string, the pick is moving in its own plane, which creates a sound different from all the other styles…” (Andress, 1992)
Concurrent with the resulting timbre, Andress believes this technique “explains some of Kenny Burrell’s unusual, trademark phrasing”, and it may also influence his relaxed, swinging rhythmic feel as evidenced throughout this solo and as a noted hallmark of his style. (Tesser, 2000, pg647).
Observing video footage on Youtube, we see this picking technique is coupled with a long-fingered fretting hand which frets lightly and makes abundant use of hammer-ons, pull-offs and slides. Burrell privately studied classical guitar (Morgenstern, pg27, 1966) during university, playing well enough to perform recitals, and this is reflected in his fluent use of all four fretting hand fingers and his low thumb position, which was not standard practise among jazz guitarists of the era. Compare this with Wes Montgomery’s – equally musically valid – technique of using mostly fingers one, two and three with a high thumb when playing single lines. (When playing chords and octaves Montgomery’s thumb position would move lower and all four fingers would be employed, however.)
Interestingly, Burrell tends to “empty” (release the pressure on a fretted note) his fingers to a substantial distance above the fretboard, which is discouraged in classical guitar technique. (Tennat, pg11, 1995).
Despite citing T-Bone Walker as an influence, string bending is absent from this solo and generally, from Burrell’s entire recorded output as a leader. Bending did feature in his studio session work, however, where he used a guitar fitted with light strings when this technique was required but, even with this set up, he found the technique taxing on his hands, where may account for its absent in his leader sessions (Berle, pg61, 1981).
No single tool can be employed in jazz analysis, and there exists no agreed-upon aesthetic by which to grade jazz performances (Gioia, pg70, 1988). The following analysis makes use of the model popularised, but not invented, by Gunther Schuller (Schuller, pg86, 1986) whereby jazz is analysed through the lens of Western European art music. Schuller has received criticism for this model, which can often be in danger of reducing an improvised, communally created, fundamentally aural experience down to dots on a page (Waters, pgX, 2011).
The vocabulary and methods utilised by Schuller have, however, been assimilated by modern jazz musicians. Observe, for example, the multiple references to the “developing of ideas” in Ben Ratliff’s “The Jazz Ears” (2008) where jazz musicians are interviewed whilst listening to music. As jazz musicians are now primarily trained in the classroom as opposed to the bandstand (Ake, 2010, pg102-120) the methods by which they practise, listen to and discuss music has changed. In 1958, Schuller’s jazz analysis was cutting edge enough (Hentoff, McCarthy, pV, 1959) that Sonny Rollins was rendered self-conscious by reading Schuller’s dissection of one of his solos, as he had been unaware of what he was doing. (Gioia, pg283, 2011), Now, however, a jazz student will be introduced to the idea of thematic development as a theoretical concept early in their studies and will be conscious of employing it, at least when practising. Burrell (himself a holder of a degree in music theory) has discussed transcribing and analysing recordings (Burrell, 2016), therefore viewing this performance through such a lens is appropriate. Space does not permit a more detailed discussion of these issues.
Transcribed examples, of course, serve as no substitute for listening to the performance and should be used in tandem with the recording.
“Dear Old Stockholm”
Following Chamber two chorus solo, Burrell tastefully, and seemingly effortlessly, improvises a single chorus solo employing extensive motivic development and making use of bebop and pentatonic-scale vocabulary. The solo ends with Burrell double-timing and here shows some signs of technical strain, with some inarticulate and rushed notes. The full transcription is presented in the Appendix (pg. 13).
Based on a traditional Swedish folk song, “Dear Old Stockholm” is essentially four harmonic areas: a minor II-V-I in D and a major II-V-I in F and two vamps, one over a C dominant tonality and another over a Dm(maj7) chord:
To simplify discussion, I am treating Kenny’s performance of the head as the “definitive” melody, even though it differs from both the traditional Swedish folk song and the leadsheet found in The Real Book (2004, pg102). It should also be noted that while Hank Jones comps the minor II-V in Bar 4 and 16 of the solo, Chambers does not and continues to outline a Dm chord. Similarly, Chambers outlines a short II-V in Bar 35 and a Dm in Bar 36, but as Burrell’s line indicates a long II-V, I have notated the chords as such. Although featuring improvisation, the content of the melody is generally consistent.
Before the solos, Burrell states the melody three times:
Chambers alludes to and develops the melody throughout his solo and, perhaps inspired by this, Burrell does the same. (Following Burrell, Hank Jones make thematic use of the melody in his solo also. This serves to unite the solos and the melody, creating a thematically consistent piece of work of which Gunther Schuller would applaud. (Schuller, pg86, 1986)).
During the solo, whenever an F chord or the preceding II-V appears, Burrell plays a 5-3-2-1 (in the key of F), this motive clearly derived from the 5-3-2 sequence in the 4th bar of each melody statement above. While here it appears on the I, and does so again in Bar 29 of the solo, it is used over the preceding II-V during the solo and once in Bar 26, where Burrell anticipates the chord change to F.
The example in Bar 16, which occurs in the same place in the form, is the same thing transposed up a tone and makes use of the ♮6 sound over the Dm. Bar 33 misses 2.
Further thematic continuity is achieved through repetition. Notice his repeated use and development of the following motive (3-♭9-♭7-♮7-R), always used over the V chord, (In Bar 14 this is played over Dm(maj7) but here the chord is treated as a A/D moving to Dm to imply a V-I cadence.)
The example in Bar 10 is an incomplete iteration of the phrase, which creates tension heading into the Im(maj7) vamp in Bar 11. The line is a bebop cliché and can be heard in Bar 13 Charlie Parker’s solo in “The Yardbird Suite” (1946), amongst others, but Burrell’s repeated use of the phrase binds the solo together. The addition of the 4th before the 3rd again echoes the melody. Bars 39 and 41 feature the line with the 3rd displaced by an octave. These bars also feature dual use of the ♭7 and ♮7 via the bebop scale:
The example in Bar 30 above connects to the example in Bar 33 above via a development of the melody:
During the Dm(maj7) vamps, Burrell employs the melodic minor scale with emphasis on the♮13:
A surprising moment comes in Bar 21 & 22 when Burrell begins a descending D Harmonic Minor line before employing a blues lick over A7 ending on the 13th of the chord or M3 of the key. This note choice is striking given that the progression is heading Dm. While there is an F♯ in the melody, what we hear here is the employment of a classic blues lick rather than thematic development.
Burrell reveals more of his blues influence by using the minor pentatonic scale whenever the chord is on I:
The 9th (in brackets) features here as a passing note in an otherwise exclusively minor pentatonic line. Richard Barret has stated: “Even hardened “jazz” players like Kenny Burrell…use modified pentatonic scales as the basis for much of their soloing…” (Barret, pg14, 2017.) While Burrell does employ the minor pentatonic this is by no means the basis of his soloing strategy, as this analysis has shown This assessment is perhaps based on listening to Burrell’s most popular album Midnight Blue (1963) where a number of solos are based around the minor pentatonic.
Interestingly, given he is both a university lecturer and the holder of a degree in music theory, Burrell avoids discussion of either his mechanical approach to the guitar or his theoretically conception of improvisation in interviews. For example, when asked about scales:
“[One has] to reach a level where the methods – and we’re talking about scales as being kind of a method to do something – are only means to ends. They shouldn’t control you. Be aware of them so that if they, or some part of them, makes musical sense at the right artistic time, then you use them. But this isn’t something you calculate; it’s something that either happens artistically at the proper time, or it doesn’t…if you become preoccupied with them and think that you’re going to throw this scale in there because you know it will work, to me that’s not the high level of artistry we all strive for.” (Berle, pg64, 1981)
While examining specific devices applied by Burrell and noting the thematic cohesion of his solo I have made no assessment on whether Burrell has consciously employed any of these devices but, given the above quotation, we can assume his process is now unconscious, nourished through years of study and practise. This does not invalidate our analysis. As we have noted, Burrell himself transcribed and analysed recordings and a student of jazz today may perform similar dissections to better understand Burrell’s approach and guide their own practise. Ultimately, such analysis can only empower a listener in deepening their immersion in this masterful improvisation, in the process gaining insight into the unique artistry of Kenny Burrell. As Metheny notes:
“He is a player that I can zoom in and study in detail and find a million things to love, or I can just sit back and enjoy the overall positive effect…” (Pat Metheny, 2000)
Complete Solo Transcription
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