Barney Kessel’s career took off in the 1940s backing up Charlie Parker, and others including Oscar Peterson, which was considered the toughest gig in the business because of Peterson’s breakneck tempos. He was rated the #1 guitarist in polls by Esquire, Down Beat and Playboy between 1947 and 1960. He formed a trio with Ray Brown on bass and Shelley Manne on drums, also both top-ranking musicians. They did a series of albums called The Poll Winners in the 50s. This is in addition to his Kessel Plays Standards series of albums in the same decade. In the 60s he was at the top of the list for studio work, and was a member of a group of sought-after studio musicians called The Wrecking Crew. He also was called upon by Columbia Pictures, and appeared in an episode of The Perry Mason Show, which included his jazz arrangement of “Here Comes the Bride” that was a key element in the plot.
Kessel was the guitarist, and often arranger/bandleader/producer for some of the most legendary names in the history of music, particularly jazz. Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Louis Armstrong are just a few. He also played on popular recordings for Phil Spector, The Beach Boys, and The Monkees, among many others. While his intention was to highlight the strengths of the singer, he had an orchestral style, and a natural gift for arrangement. The Julie London album “Julie is her Name” (which includes her signature tune “Cry Me a River”), features accompaniment of merely himself and bassist Ray Leatherwood. In the Les Paul tradition, drums (and other instruments) are implied by the guitar. One of the great classic jazz albums by Sarah Vaughan (“Sarah + 2”) is arranged the same way, with Kessel on guitar and Joe Comfort on bass. This album contains one of her most popular tunes “Key Largo”. Another fantastic album, though more obscure, is “Two Way Conversation”. This is an instrumental album with Kessel accompanied only by legendary bassist Red Mitchell.
Barney Kessel’s work should be studied and enjoyed by a much wider audience. His excellent technique executes bass lines, accompaniment, a melody, and percussion simultaneously. He always played in service to the song, though, no matter what the arrangement was. Though he wasn’t a flashy player, his style is identifiable by his smooth execution , and touch of humor. You are probably more familiar with his work than you are aware of.