Barney Kessel Plays ‘Carmen’ // Barney Kessel (Contemporary S 7563)

It’s Sunday, which means West Coast Jazz. Last week, a reader left a comment on a post mentioning (requesting?) Barney Kessel, a guitarist severely associated with all things West Coast. His comment brought on the realization that I haven’t really spotlighted him at all in the many years I’ve run this humble blog, which is wild because I do like him a lot. Consider that omission corrected here with one of my favorite Kessel albums and one of the more successful fusions of jazz and ‘classical’ music. To the music!

The Music

The Tune: “Free As A Bird”

The Tune: “Flowersville”

Recorded: December 19 & 22, 1958 in Los Angeles, CA


  • Barney Kessel – Guitar
  • Buddy Collette – Flute, alto flute, clarinet
  • Bill Smith – Clarinet, bass clarinet
  • Jules Jacob – Oboe, clarinet
  • Pete Terry – Bass clarinet, bassoon
  • Justin Gordon – Flute, alto flute
  • Ray Linn – Trumpet
  • Harry Betts – Trombone
  • Herb Geller – Alto Sax
  • Chuck Gentry – Baritone Sax
  • Justin Gordon – Tenor Sax
  • Andre Previn – Piano
  • Joe Mondragon – Bass
  • Shelly Manne – Drums

Lest the long list of musicians give you the impression that this is some orchestral, heavily-arranged thing with the jazz taking a back seat to everything else, relax. This is tasty, always-swinging jazz, and if you’re hip to the opera from which the music is sourced, it’s even more of a gas.

The opera isn’t the most popular musical form, and in the public mind is usually associated with rather healthy men and women singing in a foreign language with heavy vibrato. However, if there’s ONE opera the average person on the street would know, it’s Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. They probably don’t even know who Bizet or Carmen is, but hum the “Habenera” from act 1 and they’ll finish it for you. In fact, two tunes (does an opera even have “tunes”?) from Bizet’s classic opera that have become what may be the most recognizable opera pieces the world over. Written by Bizet and premiered in 1875, it flopped, naturally enough, and the poor guy died shortly thereafter. Of course, after he died, his opera became wildly popular, spawning numerous cross-overs into pop culture and beyond. ‘Carmen’ was embraced by black America when in 1943 ‘Carmen Jones’ hit Broadway. In the words of its creator, Oscar Hammerstein, it was a “modern Negro adaptation”, and proved so popular that it was made into a movie the following decade, which was even more popular and starred Harry Belafonte, Dorothy Dandridge and other famous and soon-to-be famous black Americans. There was a ballet, numerous opera reprisals, and play spinoffs. It was only a matter of time before jazz got a hold of it. Enter this album.

West Coast jazz musicians were always a little more liberal and whimsical when it came to their musical sources and material, and during it’s golden era of the 1950’s, a West Coast outfit could release an album of Disney tunes (Brubeck), the latest and greatest Broadway show (Manne), or fugues and rondos (literally everyone west of the Mississippi River). Barney Kessel’s adaptation of ‘Carmen’ into a palatable jazz offering then is right in line with the thriving and always-interesting jazz scene on the Pacific Coast. It’s a musical triumph that showcases both Kessel’s writing and arranging skills as well as the musicality and durability of Bizet’s work.

In writing these arrangements, Kessel kept the melodies and spirit of the tunes while injecting new life into them by adding chord progressions, countermelodies, and in some places, Latin overtones. Above all, he always includes places for the music to breathe and open up for some blowing. Sometimes this results in some of Bizet’s tunes sounding like completely new pieces. For instance, I had to check out the original piece that Kessel’s “Flowersville” is built on to truly appreciate what was going on. “Flowersville”, besides the fun title, is a pretty neat little thing that unfolds from it’s orthodox beginning to a shouting showtune, complete with some cooking solo work from Kessel’s guitar. The melody they play when they take the song out is catchy like a rash, and it’s had me humming it for the past few years. Just infectious.

Other tunes are much more easily recognizable and easier to follow, like “Free As A Bird”, based on the famous “Habenera”, with its tango rhythm proclaimed on the onset by the bass. There’s a lovely solo section where Kessel plays unaccompanied, adding his own reharmonizations and melodies to Bizet’s. With support from the full band, first the woodwinds, later the brass, Kessel turns the piece into a swinging affair.

The other tunes flow in the same vein, with Kessel’s arrangements sparkling throughout. Swinging the classics is always a difficult thing to pull off, but this album is a fun example of when it comes off well. The band is filled with names familiar to the West Coast scene, with Shelly Manne’s tasty drums providing excellent shading and support, as does Andre Previn’s piano. The horns are rife with familiar names (Buddy Collette, Herb Geller) and the unfamiliar (Ray Linn), but they form a cohesive group with a cohesive sound.

Down Beat Magazine, however, didn’t think so. Reviewing the album in 1959, John Tynan wrote that while Kessel’s handling of the material was “clever, the performances skillful” and that “the album is laced throughout with a rich sense of humor”, it was overall “unsuccessful in empirical practice.” In fact, despite again noting the fine musicianship involved, he writes that the “effort on the whole becomes boring”. He concludes his review by casting doubt if ‘Carmen’ is proper material for modern jazz. He gives the album three stars, “for the musicianship”. Ouch. What do you think? Do you agree?

The Cover

Raggy Waltz Rating: A

The album is actually what drew me to this record. That bright yellow background grabs you, and then that red bull (haha) front and center injects the art with a shot of whimsy. Because of course an opera set in Spain needs a bull on its cover. The whimsical nature of the art extends to the handwritten subtitle and artist name. And what’s with the glasses? Did the toreador not make it? The only thing that mars this otherwise perfect cover is all the album information at the top of the jacket. In 1959, stereo was the shiny new toy in the music business, and many record companies splashed ‘STEREO’ as obnoxiously as they seemingly could on albums to alert the buyer of this new shiny toy. Happily, by the early ’60s, most record companies toned it down with the stereo proclamations, making the early examples relics.

The Back

Thorough liner notes contributed by Vernon Duke, an accomplished composer (“April In Paris”, etc) and lover of Bizet. In fact, half of the notes are a history of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, the other half are devoted to the actual album. They’re very informative, which is nice.

The Vinyl

Up until Contemporary began pressing records in stereo, all of its labels were yellow. Then, when stereo came, it pressed those records in varying shades of dark green to black. These are closer to black, with a delicious gloss on them, surrounded by that deep groove. They have a high-quality feel to them, too. As for sound, Roy DuNann, Contemporary’s engineer and the West Coast’s answer to Rudy Van Gelder, strikes again. The sound is lifelike, and there’s a closeness present, like we’re in the studio with the guys. His stereo still needs some work, with much of the left channel left empty on “Free As A Bird”, making for a somewhat lopsided listening experience when listening with headphones. A minor quibble, though. I love Mr. DuNann’s sound just the same. It sounds like the previous owner loved the album too, as there’s gentle but noticeable groove wear throughout. Groove wear goes with the used-vinyl life, and I honestly don’t mind it when it isn’t too bad. Well, that’s a lie. I do care, but I can live with it!

The Place of Acquisition

I bought this on eBay years ago back when I was in college had like 30 records total. Good times. However, I was first introduced to Bizet over 20 years ago. Watching Sesame Street when I was a child, Elmo and an opera singer sang the “Habenera”, with the help of some sheep, chickens, and pigs. It was silly, it was funny, and it was memorable. I remembered that silly skit forever after, and it wasn’t until I was in high school that I discovered where that melody came from. So I guess you could say that my appreciation for this album was 20-plus years in the making. Thank you Sesame Street. And if that description of the skit piqued your interest, here ya go. You’re welcome. Happy Sunday!

One thought on “Barney Kessel Plays ‘Carmen’ // Barney Kessel (Contemporary S 7563)

  1. Thankyou! Cool. I also once had this as asecondhand thick vinyl – v. scratched. Now have the c.d. – not as audio-good Best Wishes, Bernard

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