They trooped out in droves to Royce Hall Saturday night — over 70 musicians in all — to honor Kenny Burrell, the founding director of UCLA’s Jazz Studies program who also happens to be one of the world’s great jazz guitarists. Perhaps they tried to do too much, for the scattershot program commemorating Burrell’s 75th birthday (July 31) stretched out for four hours (counting intermission), with lots of talk intervening. But with this range of talent on hand, there couldn’t help but be several musical gems.
Just how much Burrell has done over decades of playing, recording and teaching could be sensed by the time frame of this massive tribute, which stretched from his first recording with Dizzy Gillespie, “Birks Works,” in 1951 all the way to his latest, a newly released UCLA-sponsored CD of his polystyled composition “The Ralph J. Bunche Suite.” This album is his 99th according to one count, and if a recording from this concert is released as proposed, that would make an even 100.
There would have to be a whole lot of editing, though. With emcee Tommy Hawkins dominating the floor, there were introductions, presentations and hosannas galore; at one stretch, there was 25 minutes of talk without a note of music. One group after another of several sizes took their turns, often for just one number, with sometimes awkward gaps of setup time to fill in between.
Burrell was onstage for almost all of it, looking professorial and playing electric and acoustic guitars in a plethora of formats ranging from student ensembles to the most accomplished collections of pros. His deep admiration for Duke Ellington was explored on a lovely solo rendition of “Single Petal of a Rose” and a medley of standard Ellingtonia with larger-than-life vocals from Ernie Andrews. His Latin side got some play as Bobby Rodriguez led a student big band in “Tin Tin Deo,” with Lalo Schifrin on piano. The most bizarre group was a seven-man electric guitar ensemble plugging away at the boogaloo with mixed success.
Two magic moments occurred when guitarist Russell Malone locked horns with Burrell over “The Christmas Song,” with notes dripping like gold, and then got into an extremely soulful exchange on “The Little Drummer Boy.” The distinctive pearl-like touch of guitarist Pat Metheny roused Burrell to real eloquence on “A Child Is Born,” and they struck up a hard-swinging, most-likely impromptu take on, of all things, “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”
This should not be surprising for fans of one of the best holiday albums ever made, Burrell’s own “Have Yourself a Soulful Little Christmas.” But then, it’s not often that Christmas warhorses prove to be the best parts of a jazz concert.