Thursday, February 07, 2008

Remembering Lenny Breau

Next to a Duke Ellington short that I saw when I was about seven, guitarist Lenny Breau was the first jazz musician I saw on TV. In the mid-'60s, when shows like Shindig and Hullabaloo were in vogue in the U.S., the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation launched a series of after-school music shows from different cities. For a lot of us, that was our first look at up-and-coming artists like Joni Mitchell, Gordon Lightfoot and The Guess Who.

Once a week, the show originated in Winnipeg — hometown of Neil Young and the fledgling Guess Who — and one segment was always devoted to Breau's guitar wizardry. He was just moving between his devotion to Chet Atkins and his enthrallment with Bill Evans, and still not so far into his drug addiction that he'd lost contact with his audience. His touch was magic, and his musical conception like nothing in my imagination.

Breau — who was murdered in Los Angeles in 1984 at the age of 43 — still fascinates people, and not just guitarists. Ottawa actor Pierre Brault, who has made his name writing and performing one-man plays, will debut a new play about Breau this April at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa. With luck, it will tour after its initial run here.

The March issue of DownBeat includes my article about the play, but here's a longer, unedited version of what's in the magazine.

# # #

By James Hale

“I might not end up making a million bucks, but I’d like to be known as the guy who started this movement,” said guitarist Lenny Breau.

It’s unlikely Breau made anything approaching $1 million, and where he ended up was dead at the bottom of a swimming pool at 43 – the victim of an unsolved murder. But, among jazz guitarists, Breau’s advanced use of artificial harmonics and ability to weave counter-melodies together is legendary.

“It’s like there’s a secret society of the guys who love his work,” said Toronto-based guitarist Michael Occhipinti. “We’ve all taken something from what he developed.”

“Any one aspect of Breau’s technique would be enough to build a career around,” added Los Angeles guitarist Skip Heller. “He conceived of things on the guitar that no one had done – the ideal combination of imagination and technical skill.”

Separately, both compared Breau’s revolutionary approach to Glenn Gould’s, and Heller made one more historical allusion: “Hearing him play is like watching Houdini get out of a trunk.”

While Breau’s innovations have kept him on the minds of guitarists, his name is virtually unknown by others 23 years after his death.

Canadian actor Pierre Brault is looking to re-connect Breau’s spirit to audiences with a one-man play, 5 O’Clock Bells, that opens this April in Ottawa and may tour beyond that initial run.

“I think Lenny’s story is a tremendously engaging human story,” said Brault, who has garnered rave reviews for previous solo shows – portraying a convicted political assassin and an art forger. In 5 O’Clock Bells, he plays seven characters from Breau’s life, which the actor relates to the seven strings on his subject’s custom-made instrument.

“Together, these voices – people like his mother, his father, Chet Atkins and others who cared for him – will resonate to create Lenny’s voice. He wasn’t an eloquent man in any way except through his instrument, so I’m trying to create that instrument through the seven voices. They’re the strings of his life.”

Like one of the Bill Evans piano ballads Breau loved, the play will follow an impressionistic path to cover the details of its subject’s life: Born to country performers Hal “Lone Pine” Breau and Betty Cody on the road in rural Maine in 1941. Recording debut (entitled Boy Wonder) at 15. Settled in Winnipeg at 16. Switched to playing jazz at 18. Frequent TV performances across Canada and the U.S. Championed by Atkins and given a major-label contract in the late ‘60s. A ghostly, long slide through sustained drug abuse, punctuated by the occasional brilliant reappearance, until a sudden – albeit not unexpected – death notice.

“I had Lenny in the play as a character at first,” said Brault, “but I realized that he couldn’t tell us anything more than his music already does. The big challenge in writing this play is getting the audience to appreciate what a genius he was without having the other characters keep saying, ‘Wow, you’re a genius.’ In the end, it’s not the details that audiences care about; it’s the human emotion that drives a play forward.”

Although Brault plays guitar, he knew from the play’s inception that he could not pull off the illusion of re-creating Breau’s ambidextrous legerdemain, yet music must play an integral role. So he turned to guitarist Paul Bourdeau, a Carleton University music professor and musical magpie who has mastered Breau’s techniques. At a workshop session in October, Brault, Bourdeau and the play’s director, Brian Quirt, worked through the script, identifying where musical cues – some ersatz Merle Travis, some Atkins, Barney Kessel, Indian ragas – would help illuminate the story.

In the end, though, Brault feels the play itself is a kind of musical expression.

“I always try to reduce my plays to a single word to really know that I’ve captured the essence of the person, and with Lenny that word is ‘harmony.’ He was a beautiful flower of a man who never wanted to hurt anyone; that’s why he couldn’t turn away anyone who wanted to buy him a drink or get him high. He was constantly trying to find the overtone – the harmony – in everything he did. My goal is that when the audience sees how he affected these seven people I inhabit they’ll hear the true note of who Lenny Breau was.”


matt field said...

thanks for this! my stepdad turned me on to breau as a teenager. he ended up being one of my first entry ways into jazz. an under appreciated mater for sure.

James Hale said...

I should add that if you're a guitarist and want to delve more deeply into the mysteries of Breau's world, Ottawa guitarist Paul Bourdeau has an instruction DVD that will set your head spinning and have your fingers aching. Paul studied with Lenny, and he knows his stuff.

Paul B said...

Paul Bourdeau would like to clarify that he is not a professor at Carleton University. In the past, he has acted as a performance instructor at Carleton.

James Hale said...

Yes, my apologies to Paul Bourdeau.

Those intricacies of academic titles! Ironically, I serve as the chair of the editorial advisory committee for Carleton University's alumni magazine, so blowing the title is doubly embarrassing.

James Hale said...

I forgot to add that this article seems to have the Curse of Lenny upon it; I originally thought about posting it here because DownBeat made a couple of editorial errors (which will be corrected in the next edition). Little did I realize that I'd made my own error.
I hate when that happens.