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Live Review: Salute to Jazz at the Grammy Museum

January 27, 2010 | 12:05 pm

The Recording Academy started ramping up for Sunday’s Grammy Awards on Tuesday night, honoring influential guitarist and educator Kenny Burrell as part of its annual Salute to Jazz.

Held in the Grammy Museum’s cozy performance space, the evening felt like a more scaled-back affair compared with last year’s glitzy celebration of Blue Note Records at Club Nokia, but the fans making up the packed house (which included ever-dapper soul legend Solomon Burke) were no less devout as seats were tough to come by on a cold, damp night.

The Grammys’ tradition of such broad salutes can be a problematic thing at times, particularly in the case of jazz, which seems to have acquired an addiction to such tributes in recent years. But there’s no arguing their choice of honorees in Burrell, a nearly 60-year recording veteran who helped define the sound of jazz guitar in the post-bop era.

After a brisk opening piece by high school prodigies selected from around the country that made up this year’s Grammy Jazz Ensembles, the evening’s performances kicked off with local guitarist Anthony Wilson leading the young band through “Kenny’s Sound,” a selection from Burrell’s 1963 recording with organist Jimmy Smith, "Blue Bash!" Though there was no Hammond B-3 on hand, the large ensemble formed a bright, brassy bed for Wilson, who raced through a variety of liquid-smooth runs with a rounded tone that expertly showed how guitarists of today have built upon Burrell’s sound.

After hosts Tommy Hawkins and Bubba Jackson from local jazz station KKJZ-FM (88.1) worked the room with a genial sort of Hope and Crosby routine, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow presented the stately and elegant Burrell with his honors. The director of jazz studies at UCLA and longtime teacher of its "Ellingtonia" class, the 78-year-old Burrell offered his young backing band career advice through his idol Duke Ellington as he picked up his tobacco-colored guitar for a buoyant take on “Be Yourself.”

Flutist Hubert Laws joined the guitarist for a take on “The Peacemaker,” part of a larger suite Burrell wrote for Nobel Prize winner Ralph Bunche that showcased the guitarist's more orchestral leanings. Effortlessly cool in dark sunglasses, Laws kept Grammy Ensembles director Justin DiCioccio of the Manhattan School of Music on his toes as he wandered through a fluid, contemplative solo at the song's close.

Though the blend of fresh-faced and veteran talent was consistent with the unspoken theme of emphasizing jazz's bright future while celebrating its past, it was hard not to wish that the evening had left more room for the genre's equally engaging present. Grammy-nominated guitarists Julian Lage and Mike Stern surely drew some influence from Burrell, as well as any number of this year's jazz nominees.

Still, it was telling that the evening’s highlight came when Burrell took his young charges off-book for a performance that wasn't on the evening's program. Closing with a spirited run through Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)” as if it were a mission statement, Burrell beamed at the center of the crowded stage as several young players opened up the throttle and lighted up the room with solos full of joy and abandon. As the crowd clapped along, it was an ebullient, irresistible moment where past, present and future came together.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Kenny Burrell performs with members of the Grammy Jazz Ensembles onstage at the Grammy Museum. Credit: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times