Barney Kessel is one of those artists who have beautifully blended the mastery of the instrument with their refined musicality. Born on October 17, 1923, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Kessel made a notable mark amongst the greatest jazz guitar players, as he would join Herb Ellis and Charlie Byrd to form the group Great Guitars.
The guitarist was also rated the No. 1 guitarist in Esquire, DownBeat, and Playboy magazine polls between 1947 and 1960. And to date, he remains influential, and an inspiration in the realm of art and music. So, on the occasion of the belated birthday of the master, let’s take a look at his five performances of Kessel that still prove he was one of a kind.
North Sea Jazz Festival, 1982
In this concert, the enormity of the musicianship of the lineup of Barney, Charlie Byrd, and Herb Ellis, who together are called The Great Guitars, is evident. They are accompanied by Joe Byrd on bass and Chuch Redd on drums. The three guitar legends, being brilliant in their own right, when came together, blessed the audience with their virtuosity and professionalism- it was like a jazz guitar heaven.
The three of them were having a conversation by going back and forth with their delicate phrasing throughout the concert. The show started with It’s the talk of the town (Marty Symes, Al J. Nieburg, Jerry Livingston), in which the trio showed their spontaneity in improvisation even in such a quick tempo. Kessel and Ellis also spoke with each other with their melodic lines in Old Folks.
The concert was taped on 17 July 1982 in the Congress Gebouw, The Hague, The Netherlands during the North Sea Jazz Festival and inspired lots of young people to listen to jazz music with their guitar-centric arrangements of several jazz standards.
Here’s That Rainy Day
Let’s listen to this colorful rendition of Jimmy Van Heusen and Johnny Burke’s popular song Here’s That Rainy Day, which was also recorded by Frank Sinatra in 1959. Barney’s skillful phrasing with the usage of chords shimmers in his performance of the popular jazz standard.
With the intro being soft and mellifluous, this version picks up the tempo halfway through the song. This footage which was filmed for television during the mid-1970s shows Barney’s distinct arrangement and style of playing.
The same tune was also recorded by the jazz guitar legend Wes Montgomery on May 7, 1965, for ABC TV broadcast.
Barney Kessel – Autumn Leaves (1979)
If you want to get into jazz guitar or adapt that kind of style in your playing, you might wanna listen to Barney’s arrangement of the popular jazz standard Autumn Leaves (composed by Joseph Kosma in 1945 with the French lyrics by Jacques Prevert and English lyrics by Johnny Mercer). The song had its popularity risen in the 1950s when many pop icons of that time recorded their versions of it, including Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole.
Barney’s rendition of the tune in 1979 has a place of its own in the hearts of jazz guitar lovers all around the world, as he has managed to captivate them with his breathtakingly beautiful improvisations.
Barney’s playing is instantly recognizable in the intro of the song as he manages to lead the melody with chords rather than notes, which is a very difficult thing to do. The guitarist also blends the chord melodies with expressive solo lines in the latter half of the song.
Barney Kessel (guitar) The shadow of your smile
Grasping the substance of a song is what competent musicians incorporate into their renditions for the song, which Barney has triumphantly managed to do in The shadow of your smile by Johnny Mandel, Paul Francis Webster.
The original version is a soft one, and the guitarist carries the theme masterfully into his style of playing. Kessel’s playing in this song has everything that an alluring solo jazz guitar has to offer. His mellow yet hauntingly enchanting chord combinations tell a story in itself.
Barney Kessel – I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face
The way Barney develops melody lines to come to a climax is very engaging, just like he did in CLUB DATE,1988 for the song I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face, providing tension for the moment when the drums and bass kick in.
His heartfelt playing combined with enchanting voicings makes for a very effective contrast when he adds blues runs in the latter half of the song. Kessel is accompanied by the talented Bob Magnusson on bass and Sherman Ferguson on drums for this performance.