Divine intervention, contact with the other side, ghosts. Whatever you call it, jazz guitarist Bruce Forman will tell you he doesn’t believe in it. Well, at least he used to definitely not believe in it. He is no longer so sure after reflecting on the genesis of his latest effort, Reunion!, which celebrates late jazz guitar legend, and Forman’s friend, Barney Kessel.
“I don’t believe in people coming from the other side to ring my bell, yet here I am, telling this story,” Forman says.
Kessel may be the most famous guitarist non-jazz fans have never heard of. Active during the golden age of West Coast jazz, he played with everyone from Charlie Parker to Chet Baker. Kessel’s innovative sound – he played the same guitar throughout his career – pushed the needle and placed him among the top crop of guitarists Forman tuned his compass toward as a young musician. Touring with and learning under Kessel cemented a close bond that lasted until Kessel’s death in 2004.
“After he got sick, I would go to his house and play his guitar,” Forman says. “That guitar, it’s the sound of when I first fell in love with jazz; it’s a big part of my life.”
Kessel’s widow auctioned it off to an unknown buyer after his death, but the guitar and its memory never left Forman’s mind. He’d think of it when he would ponder his dream project: an album celebrating Kessel’s groundbreaking The Poll Winners records, a series of five albums Kessel recorded with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Shelly Manne between 1957 and 1975. Forman wanted to find Kessel’s original guitar, as well as the bass and drums used to record the album, recreate the classic studio sound, and write original compositions inspired by the trio.
On May 11, 2021, as Forman headed to a gig at Santa Cruz’s Kuumbwa Jazz Center – a venue he played with Kessel in the past – the memory of Kessel began to manifest itself in strange ways.
“It was like Barney was sitting in the car with me. I don’t even believe in this shit, but I’m telling you, I could smell his aftershave, he was a presence,” Forman says. Overwhelmed, he took a shot in the dark and reached out to the owner of Kessel’s guitar to let him know that, if he was ever interested in parting with it, Forman wanted the first chance to buy it. Forman wrapped up his Santa Cruz set and found a text from the guitar’s owner in Colorado: He had been looking to sell the guitar but had not advertised it because he wanted to find a buyer who knew Kessel and could appreciate the instrument’s sanctity.
Renowned rhythm duo John Clayton and Jeff Hamilton (playing Brown and Manne’s old bass and drum kit) join Forman on the 12-track album of original compositions, which Forman describes as “the kids playing their parents’ instruments.” The album was released on Oct. 17, which would have been Kessel’s 98th birthday. It’s available on streaming platforms and in hard copy.