Kenny Burrell, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and others

Kenny Burrell: 80 Years Young

UCLA's Royce Hall


Better than…working on my birthday.

On Saturday night guitarist and UCLA jazz studies director Kenny Burrell celebrated his 80th birthday alongside his colleagues, his students and some legends at Royce Hall. The concert, which lasted over five hours, saw Burrell working as an emcee, composer, bandleader, soundman, stagehand and, occasionally, guitarist.

The evening opened with a brief set by Burrell's “Jazz Heritage All Stars,” a group that included UCLA staffers, including bassist Roberto Miranda, and trombonist George Bohannon, pianist Llew Matthews. The band worked their way through a couple of tight workouts before relinquishing the stage to a frail Lalo Schifrin, who scuttled through a handful of disorienting licks on the piano before being joined by Burrell for a run through their former employer Dizzy Gillespie's “Con Alma.” Flashes of Schifrin's Argentinean stride and drummer Clayton Cameron's youthful brushwork redeemed what had been a rather shaky set.

After a few muffled compliments, Schifrin made way for UCLA's vocal ensemble – a 19 piece choir and a very timid rhythm section comprised of a few gangly student instrumentalists. Burrell, ever the master, commanded the group as they sang his lyrics of “helping the little children,” providing a brief glimpse of the program's works in progress.

As the choir exited, Burrell enlightened the crowd for ten minutes as the overworked stagehands set up for what would be the highlight of the night. Looking like the Roots crew celebrating Mos Def's 80th birthday, B.B. King and his eight piece band of tuxedoed, eye-patched professionals hit the stage looking to entertain.

Although seated — and six years older than Burrell — King who made the evening actually feel like a party. The thrill was there with a boisterous set of crowd pleasers that had the audience giving a standing ovation before King played his first note. Following their solid set, Burrell joined the band for a couple of blues jams, providing a rare opportunity to see two of the most economical guitarists of their genres trade licks.

As if that wasn't enough, Stevie Wonder strode out, unannounced, harmonica in hand, to wish Burrell a happy birthday and enjoy his time on stage as one of the young guns. Naturally Dee Dee Bridgewater had to be a part of the celebration and joined them to improvise some blues lyrics behind the masters' guitars and Wonder's bending chromatics. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity that had the crowd on their feet repeatedly. Unfortunately, then came the intermission.

Following the 55 (!) minute intermission, Burrell returned to fulfill a few of his dreams. With a full jazz orchestra and the UCLA Philharmonia crowding the stage, there were nearly 200 people at Burrell's disposal, many of them stone-faced classical students up way past their bedtime.

The final two hours consisted of newly commissioned pieces both relevant and completely irrelevant to Burrell's birthday. Bridgewater traded some soulful riffs with Burrell on “Soulero” while the man of the honor had nothing to do with Neal Stulberg's “Pax Humana.” It was a strange and exhausting set made worse by the fact that the house lights remained on for the second half, making it glaringly obvious how many people had left after the fourth hour and how those who remained were unable to respectfully sleep in peace.

Prior to the show there had been rumblings in the audience about the duration of Burrell's 75th birthday celebration. For his 80th, between the over-programming (the concert should have been spread out over a weekend) and the absurd amount of set-up time required for each new performer, the show went two hours later than scheduled and left many audience members in a daze.

But Burrell still sounds as good as ever. His elegant tone and his ability to not waste a note sounds as great as when he debuted sixty years ago. His boundless enthusiasm and willingness to run everywhere for everyone made me wish I could be at least half as active when I enter my 80th year.

Personal Bias: I stayed awake through all of Kenny Burrell's Ellingtonia classes.

The Crowd: Split evenly between those planning their own 80th birthday party and their 18th.

Random Notebook Dump: Only an 80-year-old man would start a jazz show at 7 at night.

LA Weekly