What is the story with jazz musicians? In
their world, history does suggest an almost operatic correlation
between tragedy and artistic genius. Scott LaFaro, Woody Shaw
and Lee Morgan come to mind as tragic jazz figures, their lives
cut short in musical prime. There are many more. If musical genius
is a contributing factor to the equation, jazz lovers, sadly,
must add another musician to the list. In Lenny Breau, the musical
world lost its only exponent of a particular, and unique, style
of guitar playing. Breau was murdered in Los Angeles in 1984,
a victim of strangulation. Could one imagine a more ignominious
end to a life?
Breau was the product of a showbiz upbringing. His
parents had a traveling country and western show in which the
young Lenny took an increasingly active part. Technically, he
was schooled in country and classical style, and later, developed
his formidable and unique jazz skills. Using a seven string guitar,
Breau developed, what is known in guitarspeak as, "The Lenny
Breau Method". His technique incorporates a melodic line
and complex harmonic voicings, played simultaneously. Interestingly,
its genesis came when Breau heard Les Paul on a record and wanted
to emulate his style. He was blithely unaware that, on this record,
Paul was multi-tracked!
During his teenage years, Breau befriended rock guitarist,
Randy Bachman, founder of The Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive.
Lenny took the slightly younger Bachman under his musical wing,
and, through teaching, became a defining influence on him. Bachman,
by way of his Guitarchives record label, has returned those early
musical favours by finding, and releasing, this wonderful two
album set. Recently, Bachman came across many of Breau's recorded
dates and is hopeful to release them on Guitarchives. Some of
the artist royalties from this particular recording will go to
Breau's children. A lovely gesture.
The repertoire on Live at Bourbon St. is a
mixture of standards and originals. Breau's very tasteful way
with all the tracks intrigued me. He plays the head simply, but,
oh, so musically. This is followed by some of the most inventive
solos you are likely to hear. I felt I was hearing something new,
yet stylistically, the music unfolded in a natural way. To experience
this unique style, listen to the very first track on disc one.
There Is No Greater Love tells the tale immediately. A
smattering of applause, then, launch time. Throughout, my thoughts
and feelings continued to be directed by a particularly natural
talent placed completely in its element.
All seventeen tracks contain exceptionally musical
ideas that sustain real interest, however, a few do stand out:
Cole Porter's What is This Thing Called Love, Rodgers/Hart's
My Funny Valentine, and the great, My Foolish Heart,
by Washington/Young, are renditions modeled with brilliance. My
favourite track, Green Dolphin Street, swings elegantly,
Breau's delicate tone mixing with the sounds of the small, but
It is during these charts that Breau's many influences
come front and center. Will the enveloping influence of Bill Evans
ever stop? I hope not. Here, and elsewhere, Evans' giant shadow
looms. And a happy partnership it is. The opening of My Foolish
Heart is a specific nod in the piano genius' direction. Other
influences noted include Django Reinhardt and Chet Atkins. Breau's
biography, from the Guitarchives homepage (http://www.cyberstore.ca/guitarchives/index.html),
mentions Coltrane and flamenco virtuoso Sabicas as important influences.
Combined, they make quite an interesting cross section and are
representative of Breau's catholic taste.
The sound on the recording is intimate and detailed.
Clinking glasses and crockery are heard clearly as waitresses
mill around the few patrons in the club. The origin of this recording
is a sound check of new equipment. It was our great fortune that
local Toronto jazz radio host, Ted O'Reilly, tested his radio
stations' new digital recorder at this particular gig. For the
test, O'Reilly wanted to use a small group, set intimately. Breau
and Young agreed to be the guinea pigs. Payment for the session?
A copy of the tape! That the artistic quality is so uniformly
good in an ad hoc session, speaks volumes for the sustained quality
of Breau and Young's musical ideas. The sound of Breau's seven
string instrument is picked up cleanly, with finger shifts unobtrusive.
Young's Bass instrument sounds rich and full, his solos colourful,
while complimenting Breau's brilliance perfectly.
With recorded evidence such as Live at Bourbon
St., there is no doubt that Lenny Breau was a singular talent.
His way is so unique that a written description of his art remains
difficult. Lenny's colleague, the great Chet Atkins, describes
it poetically, yet succinctly," ...if Chopin had played
the guitar, he would have sounded like Lenny Breau".
Perfectly put, Chet. Thus, no more needs be said. Just listen.
Copyright©Anthony Kershaw, 1998