May 12, 2017

Kessel, The Original Wrecking Crew

Kessel Jazz Mill_k

The recent documentary film The Wrecking Crew chronicles the musicians of the 1960s and ’70s who appeared on literally thousands of pop and rock recordings, contributing not only the musical backing, but also countless musical hooks and licks that make the music of that era so memorable. While the film focused on the musicians still alive at the time of filming, many of the musicians that were part of this elite group were only mentioned in passing during the end credits.

Arguably, chief among the go-to session players not discussed in the film was guitar legend Barney Kessel. A session player of extraordinary ability and range, Kessel appeared on records from Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, to Phil Spector and Sam Cooke, and seemingly everyone else who recorded during the LP era.

Kessel’s guitar was used primarily on records recorded in L.A. — including the Monkees and The Beach Boys — and is heard on just about every other LA-based hit you’d care to name from the ’60s. He was regarded as possibly the best session guitarist of his time by basically every record producer of the era.

Kessel’s jazz credentials are equally impressive; from his early sessions with Oscar Peterson and Charlie Parker, to backing Ella Fitzgerald, Julie London, Billie Holiday, and seemingly every jazz instrumentalist in the 1950s and early ’60s. In between all of this, somehow he managed to record a number of highly regarded jazz LPs under his own name.

Originally from Muskogee, Oklahoma, Kessel spent several of his early years in big bands, including Benny Goodman, Charlie Barnet and Artie Shaw before being recruited by Charlie Parker to play and record with his band in 1946 and ’47. By the early 1950s, Kessel was Oscar Peterson’s guitarist, appearing on Peterson’s Composer’s Songbook LPs as well as touring with Peterson and the “Jazz at the Philharmonic” shows. Settling in Los Angeles around that time, Kessel began recording LPs under his own name for the L.A. based Contemporary label.

Kessel also managed to occasionally play club dates around the country, including a small club in Phoenix, Arizona. Live at the Jazz Mill 1954 (Modern Harmonics MH-8007) finds the guitarist playing with the club’s house trio, which included future “Wrecking Crew” pianist Pete Jolly.

In such situations where the visiting artist plays with groups that are unfamiliar to him and have limited rehearsal time, the program will usually consist of standards and other compositions that were widely known among musicians. This set follows that tradition.

Starting the program is George Gershwin’s “Strike Up the Band.” Originally a march written for the 1927 Broadway show of the same name, the tune gradually became a favorite among jazz musicians. Here Kessel’s rousing solos move along with a jaunty pace, while keeping the tune’s Broadway roots fully on display.

The Arthur Freed / Burton Lane standard “How About You?” bounces along more conventionally with a particularly nice solo by Pete Jolly. With its clean melodic line, the tune has become a staple among jazz musicians, particularly guitarists, including Kenny Burrell, Tal Farlow and Jimmy Raney.

Benny Goodman’s “Seven Come Eleven” was originally written with and for electric guitar pioneer Charlie Christian. In the years since it was first recorded, the tune has become standard for basically every jazz musician since the 1930s.

Within a year of this club date, Barney Kessel would be firmly ensconced in the Los Angles studio scene, spending the next seven years recording his own albums for Contemporary Records, while playing on an increasing number of studio dates – notably as an integral part of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” style. As proven at the Jazz Mill in 1954, Barney Kessel could create massive amounts of sound all by himself.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at )

One Comment

  1. Poll Winners Three – Barney Kessel, Ray Brown and Shelly Mann – One of the greatest of the great LPs.

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