Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

January/February 2011: David Braid

Lenny Breau (1941-84): The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau Live!

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The guitar player Lenny Breau is one of the most tragic figures in jazz. He is not widely known, neither today nor in his day, but he should have been an international jazz star. Breau’s playing was extraordinary, and he often left the impression of playing more than one guitar at the same time. His fans included such guitar masters as Joe Pass, Larry Carlton, George Benson, and Breau’s mentor, Chet Atkins. They ranked Breau up there with Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery as jazz guitar pioneers. His influences were wide and diverse, including flamenco virtuoso Sabicas, guitarist Tal Farlow, fingerstyle country player Chet Atkins, pianist Bill Evans, and saxophonist John Coltrane. In pulling these diverse musical approaches together, Breau created a distinctive sound on the guitar.

Breau fell under the spell of music easily and early. Both his parents, Hal “Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody, were country-and-western performers who were often joined on stage by their young guitar-playing son. In 1957, the family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba, to host a show on CKY radio.

Breau discovered jazz while listening to a Tal Farlow album and taught himself Farlow’s solos by slowing down the record. He was mentored by jazz musicians in Winnipeg and would often rehearse ten or twelve hours a day. In turn, he mentored others, and his friend Randy Bachman remembers many afternoons playing the guitar with Breau, who taught him to play difficult chords and solos. Bachman later used some of what he learned from the jazz solos he played in “Undun” and “Blue Collar,” songs he wrote for the Guess Who and Bachman Turner Overdrive.

In 1967, after hearing one of Lenny’s tapes, guitarist Chet Atkins, who ran the Nashville office of RCA Victor, signed Breau and the following year produced his first album The Guitar Sounds of Lenny Breau. Years later, he cut a duo record with him. Atkins remained a huge fan of Breau’s to the end and was a source of emotional support during some difficult years.

In the 1970s, Breau played regularly as a headliner and worked as a sideman for CBC Radio and Television and logged time with Moe Koffman, Beverly Glenn Copland, and Anne Murray. During this time, Breau developed a serious cross-addiction to alcohol and heroin. By mid-decade, the club dates had become more sporadic, and he was widely reputed to be unreliable.

In a 1981 interview with me about his drug addiction, his delicate state was obvious: “It’s just one of those things,” he said. “It’s like, it’s like I was hanging out with guys who were doing it. At first, I did it for inspiration, but in the end it turned against me. It’s like a seductress. It’s like a prostitute who takes more and more and more, and after a while you’re spending so much money that you really can’t enjoy yourself.”

Breau’s adult years were nomadic and he lived in Maine, Nashville, New York City, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa, and Edmonton. His last months were spent in a rough part of Los Angeles in the Langham Apartments, a building first owned by Al Jolson and later by Clark Gable. On August 12, 1984, he was found floating face-down in the rooftop swimming pool of the building. The autopsy report said it was death by strangulation. The LAPD believes he was strangled in the seventh-floor apartment he shared with his wife and dumped in the swimming pool. His murder remains unsolved.

Since his death, numerous reissues and new CDs have become available. The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau Live! [One Way Records #19315] is the second release of his career. Produced by Danny Davis, the leader of the Nashville Brass, it was recorded live over a period of two nights in September 1968 at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, a short-lived Hollywood jazz club opened by the legendary drummer Shelly Manne. Breau covers a lot of musical ground here, playing blues, flamenco, jazz, and East Indian-flavoured compositions.

Some tracks, such as “Indian Reflections for Ravi” and “Span Jazz” offer glimpses of his brilliance, but they are musical mountains to climb. They are showcases of colossal technique but come up short on cohesive musical ideas. Breau’s naked musical sensitivity is endearing, but some of his solos on this album meander and lack focus.

That said, this is still an innovative recording, with Breau often playing chords, melody, and the bass-line simultaneously. There are several ways to play the guitar: strum chords; solo by playing single notes with a pick; and finger-style, which consists of plucking the strings either with fingers and thumb or with the thumb pick. Breau’s gift was that he could do all three, all at the same time, and sound like three guitar players.

On the CD, Breau performs solos on electric and acoustic guitars, and in a trio with two of his friends from Winnipeg, Ron Halldorson (on bass) and Reg Kelln (on drums). On “No Greater Love,” “Mercy, Mercy,” “A Taste of Honey,” and “Bluesette,” Breau’s playing is dazzling and polished. These tracks tip the scale, making this an essential album. They show a risk-taker in action, a guitarist who lands on his feet no matter how high he jumps.

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