Archive for the 'Barney Kessel' Category

Wolf Marshall’s New Barney Kessel Transcriptions

February 6, 2010

Nicolai Foss

Many, perhaps most, practicising jazz guitarists are familiar with über-transcriber Wolf Marshall. Thus, Wolf has brought Grant Green, Pat Martino, Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian, George Benson, etc. transcriptions to the jazz guitar community.

A new set of Wolf Marshall transcriptions is a major event, and such an event has recently transpired with Hal Leonard’s release of Barney Kessel: A Step-by-Step Breakdown of His Guitar Styles and Techniques.”

Arguably, the notions of styles (in plural) in the subtitle is a bit exaggerated, for virtually all of the transcriptions are from Kessel’s first three recordings as a leader, Easy Like, Kessel Plays Standards, and To Swing or Not to Swing, whereas the change in Kessel’s playing which began around 1960 with the latest of the Pollwinners albums to an even more bluesy, stomping and loose style isn’t really represented here. In fact, many think that Barney’s first recordings as a leader are also his finest, and Wolf has transcribed classics like “Salute to Charlie Christian” (my personal favorite early Barney number), “Easy Like,” “Indiana,” “Speak Low,” and of course done so with his usual precision and empathy. Great work, Wolf!!

The Kessel Approach to Picking

December 21, 2009

Nicolai Foss

Anyone who has seen a Kessel video (e.g., this fun footage with Barney playing “I Love You” with an unknown rhythm guitarist, probably late in the 1980s) will know that he used a highly unorthodox approach to picking: Rather than resting 1 to 3 fingers on the pickguard while picking or, alternatively, keeping the hand entirely free of the strings (like the Manouche players), Kessel rested the hand on the strings, removing the hand from the strings as the picking approached the bass strings.

I use the same approach myself (I didn’t emulate Barney — there were no videos around in those days — but just picked it up somehow (sorry!)). I don’t know of anyone else who uses it. The only guitar teacher I had, Nicolai Gromin, commented that as long as this unorthodox appraoch worked for me, there was no reason to change to the orthodox, finger-resting approach.

However, I wonder what are the benefits and costs of what we may call the “Kessel Approach.” It seems to me that it makes it possible to pick really fast in a small “neighbourhood” of the fretboard; however, it it not so easy to pick clean and fast when the picking involves large intervallic jumps. (In fact, this seems to me to be the problem that Kessel confronts in fast tempos where he sometimes sounds sloppy). Any opinions?

Jordan Officer and His Kelvinator (?)

August 31, 2009

Nicolai Foss

In an earlier post, I wondered whether any serious contemporary jazz player regularly used one of the cheapo US-produced archtops of the post-war period.

Here is Jordan Officer delivering a nice version of “Playboy Chimes” (Bob Wills?) on what would seem to be a blonde, single-pick-up Kay Barney Kessel with the “Kelvinator” headstock (I wasn’t aware that the Barney Kessel model was made with a single pick-up; hence, I am a bit uncertain re whether this is really the model Officer is playing).

More Officer here, this time with a solid-body. Officer is best known for his work with the Susan Arioli Band; here is the YouTube selection.

Barney Kessel Anecdotes

February 25, 2009

Nicolai Foss

Here is a nice bio of Barney with some personal reminiscences by the author, Larry Grinnel. Ever wondered about Barney’s, uhhmmm, characteristic wardrobe, such as those over-dimensioned bow-ties, yellow shirts, and alternatively matched trousers and jackets (e.g., here and here)? Here is the explanation:

Barney was also known for his outlandish wardrobe. He often got himself “out front” by arranging with his fellow players, such as Charlie Byrd and Herb Ellis with the Great Guitars, agreeing to wear a conservative business suit. When they all met up to do the show, there was Herb and Charlie in the agreed upon suits, while there was Barney in some wild Hawaiian print. The folks in the audience were not about to forget Barney Kessel!

Barney Kessel: A Jazz Legend

December 9, 2008

Nicolai Foss

Maurice Summerfield first came to my attention when as a 16 year old (in 1980) kid, I was getting into Django Reinhardt and, a little later, Tal Farlow. Eager to learn more about the players, I picked up an intriguing volume with the title The Jazz Guitar in my local library. The book consisted mainly of brief bios of the ca. 100 most prolific and famous jazz guitarists as well as pics of beautiful guitars. The preface to that book was penned by Barney Kessel, and it was this preface (and Summerfield’s bio on Barney) that made me seek out Barney’s recordings.

I received my copy of Summerfield’s new Barney Kessel: A Jazz Legend (published Nov. 1 this year) a couple of weeks and read it very quickly. In fact, the book is a quick read because most of its appr. 300 pages are spent on Barney’s discography. There are lots (and I mean lots) of Barney pics, most of which I haven’t seen. Most of the biographical material in the book is reasonably well known (some of it consists of reprints of articles), but together here for the first time, and there were lots of details that were unknown to me, e.g., on Barney’s family, his strong religious beliefs, etc. Of particular interest to readers of this blog is the long chapter on Barney’s “Guitars and Equipment”. At 26 USD this book is (for a guitar book) very reasonably priced and is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in jazz guitar.

More Barney

March 6, 2008

Nicolai Foss

Here is an interview with Les Tomkins that Barney gave in 1969. Barney on Hendrix:

“Do you think the people who have played guitar in more outlandish ways have aided the instrument?

Not at all. No, they haven’t really done anything for the guitar or music. Like, someone once asked me: “What did you think of Jimi Hendrix?” First of all, I don’t discuss guitar players. I don’t think it’s ethical; it’s like asking a jazz critic about another jazz critic. I’d rather not. But it didn’t even have to be Jimi Hendrix it could be anyone. The fact that any man would go out on the stage and set fire to his guitar, or urinate on his guitar there’s nothing in there that makes me admire it; there’s nothing admirable about that. So I can’t get past that to examine the ‘genius’; if that’s my own hang—up, then it is if I’m limited in my outlook. I can’t get past the disrespect shown the instrument, and I can’t imagine someone having enough genius to justify that”.

Memories of Barney Kessel and More

March 6, 2008

Nicolai Foss

Jerry Pippin has established a memorial page for Barney. Very nice. Some interesting interviews and songs.

Julie Is Her Name

October 29, 2007

Nicolai Foss

I just received my copy of Julie Is Her Name from Amazon. The Julie in question is Julie London (real name: Gayle Peck; 1926 – 2000). She was quite big in particularly the 1950s, and making Billboard Most Popular Female Vocalist in 1955, 1956, and 1957. London’s career was no doubt much helped by her very good looks — according to The Independent she was “the most tasteful sex symbol of the time” — but she did have a real unique intimate lounge-style smoky voice.

That voice is heard very effectively on Julie is Her Name. This is Julie, Barney and a bass player, Ray Leatherwoord, covering a series of standards (Julie’s version of “Cry Me a River” was a hit in 1955, was used in The Girl Can’t Help It and has recently been featured in V for Vendetta).

Barney’s accompaniment is just expert. He doesn’t solo, just comps and provides intros. Brent Stuntzner has taken the trouble of transcribing Barney’s chord work (here).

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.