Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Barney Kessel: The Edge of Soloing

In all honesty, this is a cheap attempt to import some favorites from Dailymotion into the Google system. The favorites are of Barney Kessel, and although there is no correlation to this post and any milestone in his life, I feel he's worth a mention of just what jazz is, what it can be, and what it isn't. In other words, there is so much more to learn from Barney Kessel than guitar.

First, he shows us what jazz is not. There are more myths about jazz than there are bits of real knowledge. The first myth is what we see in movies, the perfect stranger walking up to the bandstand, turning to the big band, giving the minimal instruction, and bang, an Ernie Wilkins arrangement comes out of nowhere. That myth has morphed into the Lone Ranger Jazz Musician, familiar with every tune and can play it in every key. There are some whose ears and mind have such gifted DNA, but for many players, and possibly most players, they find a group of songs that they feel best expresses who they are, songs that are the doorways to the soul, and they play those again and again, trying to find newness each time they play. This was certainly true of Barney Kessel, as their is plenty of footage of him playing his core tunes, such as Basie's Blues, Shadow of Your Smile, what is sometimes called Black Orpheus.

There is also the myth about unbridled creativity, starting from the first note. Not true. Once again, jazz musicians practice, some of them practice their licks over and over. Eventually, a good musician will, usually through mistakes, find new notes, ways to make a simple blues scale or major scale sound just the way they want--and these become known as signature licks, their musical identity. Barney Kessel certainly had those--and from what I've heard, folks never saw him without a guitar in his hand, that is, he was constantly practicing. I believe he knew more about harmony than any other guitarist who ever lived. The trick is finding the creativity, the newness, within the musical world the musician has created.

Many players never get there after creating their universe. That's because to get there one has to step off the edge of their universe, and that takes courage. That takes a lot of courage. But that is what Barney Kessel did every time he soloed, he stepped to the edge of his universe, and then stepped over the edge. There are many times during his solos that the listener, the viewer, the audience member isn't sure Barney is going to finish the phrase in time, find the chord he's looking for. There is genuine suspense in his playing. But he makes it. There is an apocryphal story about him, and then I spoke to someone who claims to have seen it, where Barney is playing and his high E string breaks, he doesn't stop, he (for him) simply reharmonizes the tunes and continues without his high E. But then the B string breaks, and once again he reharmonizes and continues. That, folks, is impossible, but he did it. Whether true or not, it says that he was a fearless player who sought newness on his own. And so when, in the case of the breaking strings, the newness is thrust upon him--it was business as usual. Here are some videos.