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Any list of the best jazz guitarists of all time—and you can find several such selections—will likely feature Lenny Breau, the late Canadian musician whose genius hugely exceeds his popularity among jazz fans. That is unfortunate but true. An unconventional finger-style player, Breau died early, at age 43 in 1984, and although there is a large enough discography featuring him, many jazz aficionados aren’t as familiar with his music as they probably ought to be.
My introduction to Breau was via his first known recording of a jazz album. Titled TheHallmark Sessions, it was recorded in Toronto in 1961 but was not released till 2003, 42 years later. Breau was 20 when he recorded the album and for the most part, his fellow musicians were two equally young men who would later become quite famous as rock musicians—the drummer Levon Helm (then 21) and bassist Rick Danko (then just 18). Helm and Danko, who were already playing with the American/Canadian singer Ronnie Hawkins, would go on to become part of The Band, playing first with Bob Dylan and then establishing themselves as one of rock music’s most influential ensembles.
The Hallmark Sessions is spare—for the most part, it is Breau’s finger-picking, accompanied by the rhythm section that Helm and Danko provide. But it shows how effortlessly elegant the young jazz guitarist already was—whether he played some of the better- known jazz standards such as I’ll Remember April, or flamenco-style compositions such as Brazilian Love Song, or even some country and western tunes such as Cannonball Rag or Lenny’sWestern Blues. Breau’s style is clean, clear, oozing with talent. It’s difficult not to fall for The Hallmark Sessions when you first listen to it.
Breau went on to make many albums before his premature death and while all his albums are excellent, the one I would recommend is a live one, The Velvet Touch Of Lenny Breau: Live!, from 1969. It showcases his rare ability to play melodies, chords and even basslines simultaneously—and so eerily that it can seem there are two guitarists playing at the same time. As an introduction to his music, the album, which features genres as varied as jazz, blues, pop and even influences of Indian music, is ideal.
Equally fascinating is Breau’s life story. Born to Francophone parents who had a country and western (C&W) travelling band, Breau started early, initially playing with his parents’ ensemble. But he veered towards jazz. There is a famous story about why he left that band and started out on his own. At one performance with his parents’ band, he improvised, introducing jazz-style guitar-playing in his solos. His father, a C&W purist, was so enraged that he slapped him.
That marked the end of Breau’s C&W career. And the beginning of his illustrious journey into jazz.
Anecdotes about Breau abound. The Hallmark Sessions recordings were preceded by a 2-hour rehearsal at Hawkins’ home in 1961, where Breau met Helm and Danko, then young upcoming musicians who were accompanying Hawkins. And the recording was made shortly after. The tapes remained with one of Breau’s early managers, hidden behind some wine-racks for more than four decades before they were released to wide acclaim. Unearthed in the early 2000s, the analogue reel master tapes were digitally re-mastered to produce the album as we know it now. It deserves a place in any serious jazz lover’s collection.
Breau’s talents were so extraordinary that from the very beginning they wowed not only audiences but critics and other musicians, including jazz greats. There is a story about Breau and his encounter with John Coltrane, the master saxophonist. It was the early 1960s and Breau had gone to listen to Coltrane and his band at the famous New York venue, Birdland Jazz Club. Breau, who always carried his acoustic guitar with him, approached Coltrane between sets and asked whether he could play with his band. Coltrane, who didn’t know him at all, agreed and Breau sat in with his guitar plugged into one of the speakers. What followed was a 2-hour session during which Coltrane was so impressed that on several tunes he let Breau take the lead. Unfortunately, there is no recording of that performance.
There is another rare Breau album, though. Titled Lenny Breau Trio and released in 1979, it features Breau with drummer Claude Ranger and bassist and keyboardist Don Thompson. It’s a short LP on which Breau plays originals but also tunes by Bob Dylan (Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright) and Coltrane (Mister Night). Breau’s talent is obvious —his ability to take elements from country and western music and fuse it with jazz with exceptional fluidity sets him apart from other jazz guitarists.
Breau’s unique finger-picking style of playing jazz tunes has influenced many guitarists over the years and it’s a pity that he died early—his body was found in a swimming pool. But he remains one of jazz’s most inventive improvisers, one who didn’t gain the recognition he deserved during his lifetime.
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