Kenny Burrell Quartet Plays North Park Theatre

by Kenneth Herman, San Diego Arts (
June 26, 2008

The concert at the Birch North Park Theatre was advertised as the Kenny Burrell Quartet, but it was more like a jazz summit. Balancing pianist Mike Wofford with guitarist Burrell and backing them with bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Duncan Moore uncorked a magnum of vintage jazz whose mere prospect filled the house with avid jazz devotees. After two years of presenting the La Jolla Music Society's jazz series in this recently restored jewel box of a hall, jazz has found a comfortable niche here.

The Quartet's program included a few bankable staples, notably from the Duke Ellington era, Burrell's own compositions, and tunes from obscure lights of the jazz deminmonde. Regardless of origin, every number appeared in sophisticated attire, smartly tailored with a knowing touch. In an brisk, up-tempo reinvention, the quartet left the langorous, Southern swoon of Gershwin's "Summertime" behind and gave it short-phrased urban urgency. Wofford's crisp chordal riffs peppered with Stravinsky-like dissonance, as well as the ensemble's knowing interpolation of "It Aint Necessarily So," made it clear that their "Summertime" wasn't stranded in Catfish Row. Like Sportin' Life, it had left for New York and landed in the Village, where it stayed on to imbibe the happy dust of be-bop.

Ellington's "In A Sentimental Mood" on the other hand remained a sepia-hued reverie, with Burrell's easy-going, rococo guitar ornamentation riding comfortably over Wofford's densely voiced but understated progressions. The sentiment was all in Ellington's score, not the interpretation, which brought out the Duke's spiritual quotient even in a decidedly secular piece. Trumpeter Freddie Hubbard's standard "Blue Sunflower" unfolded quietly with Burrell's Impressionist, feathered chords hinting at the theme, which he then revealed coyly before the rest of the group came in to push the piece forward with a relaxed Latin beat.

Thelonious Monk's bustling be-bop "Rhythm-A-Ning" showed the Quartet's prowess in high gear, with Wofford and Burrell skittering through their changes in a less disjointed fashion than typical Monk style, but then they are interpreters, not imitators. Moore's descriptive solo showed how a skilled drummer makes melody our of unpitched instruments, a treat for listerners' ears when so many drummers reduce their star turn to a cacophonous blur.

"Listen to the Dawn," a slow ballad Burrell wrote for the famed Boys Choir of Harlem, proved reverent and evocative even without the sweet-voiced choristers. In his harmonic progressions and textures, Burrell shows his debt to Ellington, but if you're going to pick up influences, you might as well choose the best. Respected as an Ellington authority--Burrell imparts the tradition to the next generation of performers in the jazz studies program at UCLA--the master teacher offered an introspective montage of several of the Duke's works on solo acoustic guitar that led into the Quartet's invocation of "Mood Indigo." Magnusson's solos in this piece--as in others--tended to be short and sweet, lyrical episodes in the baritonal range of the bass.

When Burrell hesitated over his choice of an encore, someone from the audience suggested he make up something on the spot. If that was a challenge, Burrell reacted with the sangfroid of being asked the time of day while waiting for the light to change. He then sounded out a simple theme of descending tones that returned to the tonic in alternation, and his cohorts picked it up without a second thought. A snappy extemporization appeared before our eyes and ears. But the best was still to come: what might have been a routine revival of Billy Strayhorn's "Take the 'A' Train" found Burrell engaging in a joyful syncopated scat solo. It wasn't quite Ella, but his delight in his own vocal foray was infectious. It was his benediction to a stellar evening.