Leonard Harold “Lenny” Breau (Photo courtesy and permission of Art of Life Records.†)
Lenny, how would you describe your music? In what terms?
Well, if I had to say something fast, I have to say, “It’s just music.” You see? But it’s a combination of all the different kinds of music that I learned—all the country music years and the jazz clubs and the flamenco records I listened to and the east Indian records—it’s a combination of all of that I liked to inject into my jazz playing. So it would be hard to have one name for it, you know what I mean?
— Lenny Breau (1968 half–hour film documentary)
Lenny is the greatest guitar player in the world today. I think he knows more guitar than any guy that’s ever walked the face of the earth, because he can play jazz, he can play a little classical, he can play great country—and he does it all with taste.
— Chet Atkins (1924–2001), Frets, October 1979
Lenny remains the Pacific Ocean of fingerstyle jazz guitar inspiration. Unmatched technique, stylistic diversity beyond belief and that musical wistful intelligence that I doubt we’ll ever see again. It’s great to have a musical hero you can still be amazed at after 40 years of study.
Halfway into it, I lost track of time and became stunned at what I was hearing. As a matter of fact, I wasn’t sure what I was hearing. Changes in time. Changes in keys, modal chord structure lines moving in and out of the melody line and then going off into some pure form of ethereal exploration. Extended solos between Lenny, Les and Steve.
He dazzled me with his extraordinary guitar playing . . . I wish the world had the opportunity to experience his artistry.
Lenny and I were in New York, and on a particular evening, decided to drop in at Birdland to hear John Coltrane. (Coltrane was about to record, or had just recorded his album John Coltrane Live at Birdland.) After listening to a set, Lenny, who invariably carried his acoustic guitar with him, approached Coltrane and asked if he could sit in. I recall John looking Lenny up and down and at some of the group and they nodded their consent. [ . . . ] When Lenny sat in, after plugging his guitar into one of the speakers, he initially just played chords to get a feel for what was happening. In the following number, when Lenny’s turn came to play, the effect was electrifying. Coltrane leaned over with eyes wide–open, looked at Lenny’s hands, and smiled. During the remainder of that session, which lasted for at least another two hours, Lenny played with authority with the great John Coltrane, and on many of his licks, Lenny led the charge.
— George B. Sykornyk (July 31, 2003), excerpted from liner notes to Lenny Breau: The Hallmark Sessions, 2003, Art of Life AL 1007-2.
One day I was at Chet’s and he told me he wanted me to meet this guitarist. Lenny was upstairs playing. Even before I made it half way up the stairs I was hearing things that were astonishing. Ten minutes later I was sitting with Lenny who began to play harmonics such as I have never heard in my life, and then I started learning right there and then. Chet, and he mentions it in his autobiography, always regretted that he didn’t film that session. To this day, there is no one in the world who can do what Lenny did and we are all indebted to his legacy.
He is the only guitarist I have ever known to play two melodies at the same time, in different time signatures and in different keys.
I have found a better player than I am.
— Merle Travis, describing a then 12–year–old Lenny
Lesson from Lenny: I thought that my music was my art. I built my whole life around that concept. I learned, instead, that my life was my art.
Through his own form and exploration of musical storytelling, Lenny created a spiritual soundscape. I think he was an apostle of the guitar; a prophet of the strings. He didn’t just play music. He played prayers, ragas of the soul from a world he saw quite clearly . . .
†Thanks to Mr. Paul G. Kohler, President, Art of Life Records
Related Links on Lenny:
Forbes-Roberts, Ron. One Long Tune: The Life and Music of Lenny Breau. Denton, Texas: University of North Texas Press, 2006. Print.
Routhier, Ray. “Maine-born jazz guitarist Lenny Breau remains influential 30 years after his killing.” Portland Press Herald Sunday, 10 April 2016. Web. 12 Apr. 2016. <http://www.pressherald.com/2016/04/10/maine-born-jazz-guitarist-lenny-breau-continues-to-influence-and-amaze-more-than-30-years-after-his-death/>.
‡“Stella by Starlight,” written by Victor Young (1900–1956) was first played as an instrumental in the 1944 movie, The Uninvited, which was directed by Lewis Allen and released by Paramount Pictures. Ned Washington (1900–1976) added lyrics to it in 1946.
‡Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten (née Neville) (1893–1987) was a left handed guitarist. She would play a right–handed guitar upside down and play it in that fashion. As a result of her holding the instrument this way, she developed a style of playing known as Cotton picking, where the melody lines were played with her left hand thumb, while her left hand fingers played the bass lines. Besides being an American folk and blues musician, she was also a singer–songwriter.
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