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The Return of Jean-Paul Bourelly

Guitarist Jean-Paul Bourelly, a big man who lives large, has long had an outsized presence in my musical life. I first heard him on a couple of great Black Saint dates by Muhal Richard Abrams, followed by a few fabulous Cassandra Wilson recordings for JMT. Then I heard Boom Bop, his 2001 record featuring Archie Shepp, Henry Threadgill and two Senegalese percussionists. I was hooked. But he’s lived in Berlin for decades, rarely visiting the U.S. and developing his music beyond the faint spotlight of the jazz industry.


I’ve gotten to know Bourelly through his partner, Branwen Okpako, a filmmaker and professor at Hampshire College. Over a couple of dinners at our house, Bourelly and I hatched the idea of doing a concert together. Our 5th season of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares was already booked, but I was so excited by the prospect of hearing him live, we decided to add an 11th show. Judging by the turnout for his concert with drummer William Hooker at the Parlor Room on Friday, January 6, many shared my excitement.


Bourelly is beginning the process of re-introducing himself to America. He’s going to be living in the States, looking to work and network. For this impromptu concert, he enlisted Hooker, a colleague from Bourelly’s time in New York in the 1980s. Although they hadn’t played together in 30 years, Bourelly knew that “William would bring the spirit.” Hearing a tight working band can be exhilarating, but seeing two veteran musicians who had not set eyes on each other in decades come together and make a coherent statement was equally awe inspiring.


Hooker is a survivor of New York’s unforgiving jazz business, bringing his mojo to countless situations since the mid-seventies. His powerful drumming is augmented by a regal presence and recitation delivered with thespian polish. On Friday, he read from a small spiral notebook, but at one point, while Bourelly played a soft blues, Hooker coursed through the packed house intoning a repeated prayer: “Let light and love and power restore the plan on earth.” It was a peak moment.


The music was improvised, unrehearsed, the road map devoid of many details. The notes Bourelly left behind provided the barest of instruction: “guitar solo”, “walking”, “drum solo”, “end with rhythm.” What the program lacked in direction, it more than made up for in drive and emotion. The music was drenched in the blues, with references to Jimi Hendrix and shades of Carlos Santana. I found Bourelly’s unison singing with his guitar lines, a technique George Benson used to use, especially effective.


Bourelly told the assembled that to him, much of the music being made in recent times has been too nice. He said that in these dark times, nice is not what is needed. Part of his impetus for moving back to the United States was to help create an aesthetic of resistance to the coming regime. The music needs him on the scene.


He has a March concert scheduled at The World Stage in Los Angeles with Stone Raiders, his trio with Darryl Jones and Will Calhoun. His plan is to set up shop in the DC area, so we hope that as he gets his American footing, opportunities to hear the great guitarist will multiply.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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