Barney the Hardbopper

August 24, 2007

Nicolai Foss

In my post below on hardbop I listed Grant Green, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery and George Benson as the quintessential hardbop guitarists. I am certainly not the first one to do so; this is pretty much conventional wisdom. However, I forgot one: Barney Kessel!

To claim that Barney belongs to the hardbopping crowd surely is not conventional wisdom; he is usually thought of (correctly) as an early bebopper. In fact, he (along with Herb Ellis) has sometimes been talked about as somebody who is somehow in between swing and bebop, supposedly meaning that he never fully absorbed the bebop language (which I think is wrong).

Specifically, the claim here is that some of Kessel’s 1960s albums lie clearly within the hardbop approach. The first indication of the style in his playing may be the last of the Pollwinners’ abums, Exploring the Scene, where his playing on, e.g., Ray Bryant’s “Little Susie” is so bluesy and hard-driving that Bobby Timmons or Lee Morgan seem like softies in comparison. His 1961 album, “Workin’ Out” (even the title sounds hard-boppish) also exemplifies the approach with even more earthy and bluesy performances.

In general, there was a more stomping, funky and harder dimension to Kessel’s playing in the 1960s than to his 1950s playing. While it is tempting to attribute this to the influence of rock (and Kessel’s studio work), it may well be that was primarily a matter of the influence from the hard bop movement.

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