Kenny Burrell’s contributions to jazz in Los Angeles -- and jazz everywhere, for that matter -- have been so extensive that his 75th birthday provided an irresistible opportunity to honor his impressive career. And what better place to do it than UCLA’s Royce Hall, on the campus where the Jazz Studies Program he has directed for a decade has produced a continuing flow of fine young players.
It was, as master of ceremonies Tommy Hawkins announced at the beginning of the night, “a really big show,” with enough talent to fill a weekend worth of programming time.
But it started modestly, with a pair of engaging performances by the Anthony Wilson Trio and the Tamir Hendelman Trio. A hard bop-driven number from the Jazz Heritage All-Stars followed, featuring a string of spunky solos from trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, tenor saxophonist Charles Owens, trombonist George Bohanon, flutist Hubert Laws and pianist Mike Melvoin.
All that was just a prelude, however, to the arrival onstage of the honoree himself. And it was appropriate that the initial selections -- immediately revealing the breadth of Burrell’s creative scope -- included a group of songs (sung by Daryll Taylor and Michele Weir’s Jazz Vocal Student Ensemble) from Burrell’s just released CD, “The Ralph J. Bunche Suite.”
From that point, he was onstage for virtually the entire program, playing with one guest after another, ranging easily across styles reaching from blues and pop to bebop and big band.
One high point was a stunning guitar duet with Russell Malone, juxtaposing their unique individual styles -- Burrell’s laid-back cool with Malone’s heated blues-driven lines -- in a memorable reading of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song.” Staying in the holiday spirit, they were joined by drummer Clayton Cameron in an equally persuasive jazz rendering of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The program’s second half opened with another of the evening’s unforgettable moments -- an energizing appearance by the View Park High School Band, directed by Fernando Pullum, playing a pair of Burrell pieces with an enthusiasm and sheer joy that transcended the occasional flubbed note.
But the music then ground to a halt to allow for a much-deserved (but far too long) series of accolades for Burrell. Fortunately, there were more musical surprises: the spirited singing of the vivacious, 81-year-old Linda Hopkins and another all-star duet, this time between Burrell and Pat Metheny, in which yet again two seemingly disparate styles found a hard swinging linkage.
Shifting gears and musical textures, the Gerald Wilson Orchestra -- led by another of Los Angeles’ jazz treasures -- backed Burrell in a lovely version of Wilson’s “Romance.”
When singer Ernie Andrews dug into Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” and my watch read midnight, it was apparent that Burrell’s 75th, like most awards shows, had become captivated by its own enthusiasm. But that’s OK. Burrell deserved every accolade. One only wishes that they had been offered over the course of a weekend, allowing even more players to honor this fine and worthy jazz legend.