A troubled genius with transcendent musicality, Breau was a one-of-a-kind jazz player. John Wheatcroft explores his unbelievable style.
John Wheatcroft examines a style that almost defies belief - that of the incredible Lenny Breau.
Breau’s solo career began with great promise, with appearances on radio and TV and he was in great demand as a live performer. In the late 1960s a recording of his playing fell into the hands of his old hero, Chet Atkins who was amazed by what he heard. Not only had this young virtuoso assimilated his style, he possessed an improvisational flair equal to the best jazz musicians in the world. This included combining single-note lines with fragmented chords taken from jazz pianists such as Bill Evans; a revolutionary harmonics approach, an authentic assimilation of flamenco and an innate understanding of Indian rhythms. As Andy Summers said: “He could sing, he was great looking and he was an incredible guitar player.” What could possibly go wrong? Well, as Leonard Cohen said: “Lenny was a mess.” His troubles with drugs and the effect this had on his career, with no-shows, pawned instruments and sub-par performances were disastrous and went from bad to worse.
In 1984, Lenny was found dead, believed strangled, his body dumped in the swimming pool of his rented apartment, ironically during a period of relative sobriety.
The following examples can only hint at Lenny’s breadth and depth, so we’d encourage you to combine learning these musical excerpts with listening to his playing directly. His playing is so beautiful that if you only do this, it’ll be a worthwhile endeavour. Each extract could form the basis of an extended session of study; playing fast bebop phrases, syncopating the 3rds and 7ths while playing a top-line melody - his harmonics alone can take months to master. So treat this lesson as an introduction to one of the most unique and accomplished players to ever pick up a guitar. It took Breau a lifetime of practice to develop his facility and diversity, so we need to remember the old saying, ‘patience is a virtue’.
One aspect of Lenny’s playing that we can all learn from, is his transcendent musicality. His style was equally appealing to all music lovers, not just guitarists. We can become a little too obsessed with our own instrument and lose sight of the big picture. There’s a huge amount to learn if we cast the net a little wider, taking influence from pianists, drummers, singers and musicians from all styles, cultures and eras. Consider the musical attributes rather than purely the technical because, after all, the listener is really only concerned with how we sound. The way we achieve that sound is just a part of the process, purely a means to that end.
HE CAME UP WITH A WAY TO ADDRESS THE INSTRUMENT TECHNICALLY THAT NOBODY HAD DONE BEFORE AND NOBODY HAS EVER DONE SINCE PAT METHENY
Lenny Breau: his genius is all but unparalleled in popular music