Album Reviews

Lenny Breau: The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau–Live! (Wounded Bird Records)

lenny breau

Lenny Breau
The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau–Live!
Wounded Bird Records

Canadian guitarist Lenny Breau never quite got the break he deserved, but it wasn’t for a lack of talent. From a young age, Breau began making music, quickly becoming a child prodigy thanks to performing in his father’s moderately successful country & swing band. A falling out with his father prompted him to strike out on his own, forming a jazz trio, Three, and quietly establishing himself as a guitarist’s guitarist. His style was a unique blend of country, jazz, and classical guitar, resulting in an amalgam of melody and picking style that was uniquely his own. By the early 1960s, he was a well-established guitarist in Canada, performing on radio and television, as well as hosting his own radio program.

His profile was high, resulting in legendary guitarist Chet Atkins taking him under his wing, signing him to RCA. His debut solo album, Guitar Sounds From Lenny Breau, was released in 1968, but it was The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau—Live! that delivered Breau’s best work. Recorded live at Shelly Manne’s famous club, Shelly’s Manne-Hole, the album captures Breau on stage, both solo and with his trio. The record was well-received critically, with the music press lauding this new, compelling talent and this demonstration of his wide range of skill.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this session, because Breau masterfully handles numerous styles of music with aplomb. One minute, he’s handling a pop standard like “A Taste of Honey,” then he’s riffing on a cover of a complex Joe Zawinul number (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”), while offering some fine country picking on “The Claw,” a Jerry Reed song, and then offering up an original composition, a musical tribute to the music of Ravi Shankar on “Indian Reflections For Ravi.” He even takes a vocal turn on “That’s All,” a song he learned from Merle Travis. His originals “Spanjazz” and “Bluesette” are fine as well, blending and blurring the line between the work of Wes Montgomery and his mentor, Chet Atkins.

The respect he garnered from fellow guitarists didn’t translate into record sales, and the disappointing performance of The Velvet Touch of Lenny Breau—Live! would signal his withdrawal from studio recording; he would return a decade later with his proper follow-up album, but on a much lower scale than his previous work. His life would be cut short in 1984, when he was found dead in his apartment complex’s swimming pool. Some said it was an accidental death related to a bender, while others—including law enforcement—postulated that he had been strangled by his wife. Whatever the cause, a velvet touch was lost, and thanks to reissues such as this one, it’s nice to know a talented young man has not been lost to obscurity.

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