Kenny Burrell’s Blue Modal Magic

Learn how to recreate the hardswinging, blues-infused sounds of legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.
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Learn how to recreate the hardswinging, blues-infused sounds of legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell.


Whether you're a newcomer beginning your jazz exploration or an old pro seeking new inspiration, I highly recommend you treat your ears to the hardswinging, blues-infused sounds of legendary jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell. Burrell caught the attention of the jazz world in the early ‘50s, first as a sideman for Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, and Benny Goodman, then later as a leader on dozens of dates for Blue Note records. Equally open to the influence of boppers such as Charlie Christian and bluesmen such as Muddy Waters, Burrell skillfully weaves harmonically complex lines and soul-satisfying blues with uncommon grace and fluidity. Throughout his prolific career Burrell regularly explored modal compositions as a means of infusing cool blues moves into jazzier terrain.

At 86, Burrell is still going strong, mentoring a new generation of cats as a both a professor and Director of Jazz Studies at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. Let’s see if we too can cop a few cool tricks from the master.

Ex. 1 is loosely based on Burrell’s interpretation of the Duke Pearson tune “Jeannine” but stands on its own as a G Dorian (G, A, Bb, C, D, E, F) modal vamp. It highlights three signatures of Burrell’s style; the juxtaposition of short, two- and three-note chord stabs against single-note lines, the use of call-and-response phrasing, and the incorporation of blue notes such as the b5, Db, in bar 2. Some of the chord grips shown are rootless voicings, the root note being either implied by context or ostensibly provided by the bass.


Ex. 2 is another line that elegantly intermingles the G Dorian mode with the G blues scale (G, Bb, C, Db, D, F). Dig the syncopated modal climb in bars 1 and 2 that resolves with a bluesy phrase that’s then transposed down an octave across bars 3 and 4.

Our next two examples recall Burrell’s version of the Miles Davis classic “All Blues,” a tune that’s based on a traditional blues form and incorporates Mixolydian scales, set to 3/4 jazz-waltz feel. Ex. 3 is a tasty G Mixolydian phrase that sits nicely over the I7 chord. Dig how Burrell uses thematic development of the triplet phrases then alternates them with responses from double-stops throughout. For the line’s resolution, the guitarist borrows from the G blues scale, slyly incorporating the diminished, or “flatted,” fifth (Db) and minor third (Bb) in bar 6.


The Bbmaj7/C chord grip that starts off Ex. 4 effectively acts as the tune’s IV chord and sets our ears up for the lilting C Mixolydian (C, D, E, F, G, A, Bb) line that resolves to the rootless G9 voicing in bar 4. On the fretboard, C Mixolydian may also be looked at as G Dorian, since both modes come from the same parent major scale, F major (F, G, A, Bb, C, D, E), and we’re playing primarily in third position. The re-introduction in bars 5-8 of notes from the G blues scale again leads effortlessly to a tasteful resolution to some honky-tonk piano-style double-stops and the delineation of a G7 tonality.


Although he works mostly in the jazz idiom, Burrell’s brilliant mixture of blues and modal melodicism was influential on the music of jam bands such as the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead, and is an inspiration to musicians of all styles.