Lenny Breau Remembered

By Jim Ferguson

(Guitar Player Magazine November 1984)


"Lenny Breau was the most innovative guitarist since Wes Montgomery," is how jazz artist Phil Upchurch describes the legendary fingerstylist. Lenny's friend and mentor Chet Atkins profiled him as "the greatest guitar player in the world today." And tributes by Joe Pass, Tal Farlow, and Johnny Smith have been equally strong. Regardless of style, few musicians have been universally held in such high esteem by their peers.

While Lenny's untimely death on August 12 was initially reported to be a swimming related accident, several days later it was announced that he had apparently been strangled. This brutal end to one of the instrument's most brilliant voices shocked the jazz world and especially the guitar community in Los Angeles, where Breau had lived for approximately the last nine months. At this writing, the case is unsolved.

Best known for his stunning, crystalline octave harmonic arpeggios, Lenny Breau possessed one of the most comprehensive musical vocabularies in the history of the instrument. Although he will no doubt be most remembered for his talents as a solo artist, he was an expert ensemble player who felt equally comfortable with bebop, fusion, rock, and funk. In a solo improvisational context, he could transform a familiar jazz standard into an extended tonal painting, complete with changes in meter and mood, rich harmonies, and introspective sections offset by formidable technical displays. A student of jazz, classical, and country styles, as well as more exotic forms such as flamenco and East Indian music, he had a vast array of sounds and textures at his disposal.

One of the cornerstones of the Breau style was his uncanny ability to play chords with his right-hand thumb and first two fingers, while superimposing single-note lines with the third finger and pinky. Early explorations of Chet Atkins' right-hand approach led him to master the coordination of two distinct parts and develop the skill to emphasize a voice at will. He occasionally added a bass line to this concept, resulting in a mind-boggling three-voice tapestry that made an indelible impression on all who heard it.

The son of country music performers Hal "Lone Pine" Breau and Betty Cody, Lenny was born in Auburn, Maine, on August 5, 1941. According to his uncle Gene, he was "clapping hands in time onstage to his parents' band as early as three." By the time he was eight, the inevitable influence of country music had taken hold, and Lenny began playing guitar. Four years later, the lad was performing with his folks on country circuits, occasionally billed as "Lone Pine, Jr. "In an unpublished interview from 1981, he recalled: "My folks were country music performers. They made records and even did a few tours with the Grand Ole Opry. There always were a lot of guitarists around." While Lenny was still a teenager, his family relocated to Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Largely inspired by Chet Atkins' work, Breau had been primarily playing country music prior to moving north, although he had also begun listening to jazz guitarists, including Tal Farlow, Johnny Smith, and Barney Kessel. In Winnipeg, he met several jazz players and was intrigued by melodies, harmonies, and progressions more complex than those country music had to offer. "I started playing jazz by slowing down Tal's records and analyzing his runs," he explained. "Bob Erlendson, a local piano player, taught me chord structure and which scales go along with them. Later, I began listening to [pianists] Bill Evans and McCoy Tyner. Then I got interested in [saxophonist] John Coltrane." The combination of practice and experience eventually began to pay off, and Lenny soon developed a considerable reputation, working as a studio musician for the local Canadian Broadcasting Company affiliate and even hosting his own program.

Chet Atkins knew the Breaus through their record label, RCA. However, he had no idea they had such a talented son. Lenny explained: "Chet heard one of my studio tapes, and evidently was impressed." While Atkins made the young guitarist a standing offer for a recording contract, at the time Lenny felt he wasn't ready. A few years later, however, his confidence had grown. In 1969, he cut the legendary Guitar Sounds From Lenny Breau under Chet's auspices. Later that same year, he produced The Velvet Touch Of Lenny Breau Live.

Despite the undeniable talent that Guitar Sounds displayed, it featured popular tunes that had little appeal for the jazz record-buying public. Consequently, the album sold few copies, although Breau became known among musicians-especially guitarists-as the most innovative instrumentalist in years. Velvet Touch fared little better, and Lenny's commercial potential looked uncertain.

Unable to cope with the pressures of performing and financial struggles, he turned to drugs and alcohol, which plagued him on and off for rest of his life: "When I initially recorded, I didn't feel ready-I wanted to practice for another 10 years first. And then the records didn't sell, because RCA didn't get behind them. I got depressed, and after a while had a drug problem, which added to everything."

It wasn't until nearly 10 years after Velvet Touch that he recorded again. During that time, the Lenny Breau legend grew as fans fueled by rumors generated by infrequent club dates-speculated on his whereabouts. "I never quit playing," he explained. "During that period, I learned about pain, which became evident in my music. I also became inspired by impressionist painters such as Renoir, and wanted to do the same sort of thing with music-portray whatever mood strikes me the way Keith Jarrett does on piano."

In 1978, Breau emerged from obscurity and appeared as co-leader with pedal steel master Buddy Emmons on Minors Aloud. Recorded in Nashville, the swinging session proved that Lenny was not only alive and well, but also in top form. Outstanding cuts include the melodic solo with self-accompaniment on "Secret Love," a rousing series of fours on Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple," and his jazz-waltz version of J.S. Bach's "Bouree In E Minor."

After being absent from the the public's eye for nearly a decade, Breau cut three albums in 1979. Recorded in late 1977 and early 1978, Five O 'Clock Bells found the guitarist in an uninhibited yet meditative solo setting on electric and nylon-string instruments. Featuring clearly unrehearsed first takes, the disk stands as one of the most striking examples of solo guitar impressionism ever recorded (Mo' Breau, recorded at the same session, was released in 1981). Another solo work also appeared that year-The Legendary Lenny Breau ... Now!-which was recorded by Chet Atkins but received little promotion.

Lenny's third album from 1979, Lenny Breau, featured the Canadian rhythm section of bassist Don Thompson and Claude Ranger, and friend Chet Atkins on one track. Recorded via the challenging direct-to-disk method, which requires cutting an entire side at one sitting with no restarts, the hip group effort is an exciting example of Breau at his imaginative, free-blowing best on electric. Playing a radically cutaway custom Tom Holmes solidbody, he creates the illusion of an electric piano comping behind his extended single-note solos.

Not content to remain at a comfortable plateau for long, Lenny continually searched for new ways to expand his art and play what he imagined. Inspired by the sophisticated chord voicings of Bill Evans, he began using a unique acoustic 7-string instrument made by Dauphin. While most 7-string exponents follow in the footsteps of pioneer George Van Eps, who utilizes an extra A tuned an octave below the open fifth string, Breau instead conceived of playing high-register close-voiced chords with a high A. Until he found a fine enough string for the high A, he employed a 20-lb test fishing line. Breau later played solidbody 7-strings made by Holmes and Kirk Sand, who is based in southern California.

Standard Brands, Lenny's last available LP, was released in 1981, although it was recorded over a three-year period. A duo with Chet Atkins, the album is a refined blend ofjazz and country textures, reflecting the pair's roots and mutual admiration. That same year, Breau appeared in the documentary Talmage Farlow, and began writing a well-received monthly instructional column for Guitar Player (an interview appeared in the October 1981 issue).

In November 1983, after spending the previous three years in Canada, California, Nashville, and Maine, Lenny settled in Los Angeles and began teaching privately and giving seminars. He appeared at the Hyatt Sunset with Tal Farlow and regularly played Monday nights at Donte's in North Hollywood, where the audience frequently included many of the area's top guitarists. After Lenny's death, a benefit organized by the club featured vibraphonist Red Norvo and guitarists Joe Pass, Herb Ellis, and Ron Eschete. A similar concert in Nashville included guitarists Mike Elliot and John Knowles, as well as Buddy Emmons. Guitar Player and GITjoined to create the Lenny Breau Memorial Scholarship (for details, contact the Musician's Institute, 6757 HolIywood Blvd., Hollywood, CA 90028).

For a musician as unique and innovative as Breau, he was probably the most underrecorded guitarist in the history ofjazz. His inability to sustain an active career resulted in him being known primarily to guitarists. Unfortunately, he had yet to make the definitive work representing his vast talents. Of the eight LPs under his own name, only four remain in print: Five O 'Clock Bells, Mo ' Breau, Minors Aloud, and Srandard Brands. However, there has been talk of his first two albums being reissued, and arrangements are being made to make available some previously unreleased material. Lenny appears on two tracks on Phil Upchurch's soon-to-be-released album on JAM (1737 De Sales St., Suite 300, Washington, DC 20036).

Recently, Chet Atkins said of his longtime friend: "He was a great fingerstylist with fathomless knowledge. His legend will continue to inspire future generations." All who knew Lenny will remember him as a softspoken man with a warm sense of humor. For being such a musical giant, he had no pretenses and was always more than wilIing to share his knowledge with fellow guitarists. And like so many artists, he received little in return for what he gave the world. But for those touched by his exceptional music, Lenny will live forever.