I discovered Julie Is Her Name while I was in my early 20s. Originally released in 1955, it features the incredible guitar work of Barney Kessel—with Ray Leatherwood on bass—and I fell in love with the stripped-down and dreamy production, the sultry vocal performances, and the cinematic guitar playing.
A good example of Kessel’s tour de force is the track “Cry Me a River,” where his intro is a lovely mini-composition that leads into Ms. London’s breathy vocals. To me, it’s right up there with the great intro hooks of all time—as if “Secret Agent Man” was interpreted by Chopin—because it tells you what the song is about even before the vocal begins.
Another standout is “Laura,” which was written for the 1944 film of the same name, where a detective falls in love with the “dead” woman whose murder he is investigating. Here, Kessel plays otherworldly, dissonant note clusters that invoke the Johnny Mercer lyrics of the song. The effect is like hearing a music box in a haunted house.
On Julie Is Her Name, Kessel taught me an essential lesson about artistry. Let me explain it this way: Whenever I host a clinic, I ask, “What is the song ‘Stella By Starlight’ about?” Usually, folks don’t know, so I tell them it’s from the movie The Uninvited, about a supernatural romance. My point is that musicians should investigate the origins and lyrics of a song before playing it, as this is the difference between being an artist, or a guitarist on autopilot. Think about it—some jazz guitarists know 500 songs in every key, but, unfortunately, all of the songs sound similar. Kessel’s playing on Julie Is Her Name, on the other hand, is by an artist with a complete understanding of the source material. Every note he plays is perfectly supportive, yet fiery, and he gives each song the appropriate thematic treatment. There are also hooks galore. This is virtuosity at its best.