Some Swing, Some Cool: Barney Kessel - "Music To Listen To Barney Kessel By"

Barney Kessel • Music To Listen To Barney Kessel By • 1956 • Contemporary C3521
Recorded August 6, October 15 & December 4 at Contemporary Records Studio, Los Angeles 

The Selections:

The Players:

Barney Kessel - Guitar
Ted Nash - Flute
George W. Smith - Clarinet
Justin Gordon - Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
Howard Terry - Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Basoon
Junie Cobb - Oboe, English Horn
Jimmy Rowles - Piano
Claude Williamson - Piano (replaces Rowles on "Love Is For The Very Young", "Mountain Greenery", "Indian Summer" and "Laura"
Red Mitchell - Bass
Shelly Manne - Drums

On "Makin' Whoopie", "Gone With The Wind", "I Love You" and "Fascinating Rhythm":
Barney Kessel - Guitar
Buddy Collette - Flute, Alto Flute, Clarinet
George W. Smith - Clarinet
Justin Gordon - Clarinet, Bass Clarinet
Howard Terry - Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Basoon
Junie Cobb - Oboe, English Horn
Andre Previn - Piano
Buddy Clark - Bass
Shelly Manne - Drums

The Tracks:

A1. Cheerful Little Earful
A2. Makin' Whoopie
A3. My Reverie
A4. Blues For A Playboy
A5. Love Is For The Very Young
A6. Carioca
B1. Mountain Greenery
B2. Indian Summer
B3. Gone With The Wind
B4. Laura
B5. I Love You
B6. Fascinating Rhythm

The Record:

Barney Kessel will always be best known in the jazz world for his run of albums on Contemporary from 1955 to 1960, all of which are excellent examples of modern jazz at it's finest. Kessel was no newcomer to the scene, however, when he started to record with Lester Koenig's label. In the 1940s he was noted as being one of the first accomplished post-Charlie Christian jazz guitarists, and in 1944 he was a part of the classic early jazz film Jammin' The Blues featuring Lester Young [watch below] and recorded with Charlie Parker during the Relaxin' At Camarillo recordings on Dial Records. Those are certainly head turning entries on any jazz player's resume.

Jammin' The Blues was selected for preservation in National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being culturally, historically, or aesthetically signficant.

Kessel's Contemporary recordings show off the melodic chordal style that he was known for, particularly when it came to the trio setting. He made a number of records with Ray Brown and Shelly Manne, with a group rightly billed as the "Poll Winners" due to their top rankings in the prestigious polls that the jazz publications would run back in those days; as of 1956 Kessel was ranked as the No. 1 rated guitarist in Metronome, Down Beat, Playboy and Theme magazines).

Music To Listen To Barney Kessel By finds the guitarist as part of a larger ensemble, playing shorter tracks that fall somewhere between a cool jazz and swing jazz sound. And, man, can Kessel swing with the best of them. He doesn't waste any notes, and is clearly just as comfortable in this group setting as he is playing with a trio.

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that Kessel did all the arranging of the tracks on this album. The large group was comprised of five woodwinds and a rhythm section, so the arrangements necessary to make an album this good was no small feat. The group was not full of names that have stayed familiar through the decades, but there are a few - Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell and Andre Previn - that certainly are familiar to even the most amateur jazz afficianado. The album certainly swings, but there is more to it than just that. As Andre Previn says in the liner notes, "[Kessel] swings like every member of a rhythm section wishes he could, he has a staggering amount of technique, a healthy respect for the traditional, a ceaseless curiosity for the experimental, and an admirable and lovely harmonic sense. In other words, he is a real jazz artist, a commodity rare and not expendable in today's jazz field."

Listen to the opener "Cheerful Little Earful", a Gershwin number that Kessel turns into a relaxed swinging affair, but one that is far from a generic run-through. The initial soloists - Ted Nash's upbeat flute and Jimmie Rowles soulful piano lines - lead perfectly into Kessel doing his thing before the tune's theme reappears at the end. Compare that with "Blues For A Playboy", a track that certainly swings but is much more rooted in a bluesy sound that looks ahead to the hard bop sound that would soon be the choice of many musicians as the 1950s progressed. The presence of the clarinet solos may remind listeners of the bygone swing era, but just check out Kessel's forward-thinking playing and Red Mitchell's inventive bass solo. Those two aspects of the track certainly support Previn's claim that Kessel was ready to move out of the simple entertainment value of swing jazz and push the envelope by incorporating elements that move the music into the modern jazz context.

The Vinyl:

This particular pressing has all the earmarks of an original pressing - the yellow label, the deep groove indentations, the stamped matrix code - but the weight of the vinyl has me wondering if it is truly a first pressing. If it was a yellow label 1960s reissue, it would have the small boxed "CR" at the top of the label, and if it was a later 1970s reissue would it still have the stamped codes in the vinyl trail-off? Oh well, no biggie either way, it plays well and it sounds loud and full of depth. There is some obvious groove wear, causing some distortion, especially at increased volumes, but sometimes that is just the way the vintage vinyl game works itself out. For the $8 I paid for the album, I don't see much point in complaining; not that anyone would listen anyway.

Those stamped matrix codes in the vinyl trail-off are in the usual cryptic Contemporary manner, with "LKL - 12 - 111 - D1" on side one and "LKL - 12 - 112 - D1" on side two. There is also a very small and faint stamped "H" on both sides, possibly indicating the pressing plant where the vinyl was produced.

The cover image is a classic from the 1950s, with the two (presumably) beautiful women dancing on the beach in their suits while listening to Barney on their giant old fashioned phonograph. As for the title of the record, it is a great takeoff on the many LPs popping up that professed to give you a soundtrack to your various daily activities (although hopefully being murdered is not one of those).

I first became familiar with Kessel through the excellent Hampton Hawes album Four! from 1958 on Contemporary, and have always sought out his recordings from this era since then. They are a nice bridge between the bop and swing era to the more modern hard bop period, a time when jazz musicians were not afraid to take the music where they wanted it to go. Whether it be in the more well known trio setting or the larger group ensemble that graces Music To Listen To Barney Kessel By, any and all of Kessel's Contemporary recordings are highly recommended to the jazz lover that may have passed them by.

A Final Note Of Interest: Everybody Wants Barney:

The "Barney Kessel Model" Guitar Was Made By Gibson From 1961 - 1972.

According to Wikipedia, "Kessel was a "first-call" guitarist at Columbia Pictures during the 1960s, and became one of the most in-demand session guitarists in America." Even more impressive than those factoids is that Kessel was an important part of the session musicians known as "The Wrecking Crew", a group that played on hundreds of famous rock n' roll songs, including massive hits like "California Dreamin'" by The Mamas & The Papas, "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" by The Righteous Brothers and "I Got You Babe" by Sonny & Cher. A documentary on the The Wrecking Crew was recently released [watch the trailer below], which has been getting rave reviews, and seems worth the watch for any fans of 1960s popular music (which unfortunately was no longer Jazz).  

Finally, another indication of not only how respected Kessel was as a musician, but also how popular he got, was the arrival of his own Gibson model of guitar. The "Barney Kessel Model" came in two varieties - a "regular" and "custom" version - and stayed in production from 1961 until 1972. The guitar was designed as a higher end artist-signature jazz instrument, and as such commanded a higher price than many other models available at the time. Even today they regularly fetch over $4,000, as they are (no surprise) noted for their excellent quality and warm tone. I sure would love to get my hands on one, although for the time being I suppose I will be content listening to the Kessel's music on some quality vintage vinyl. I can live with that.