“Dennis Budimir? A giant. When you want to talk about playing, call Dennis and just leave everybody else’s name out.” – Tommy Tedesco
When he emerged as a stellar young bebop guitarist, many thought Dennis Budimir was destined for jazz stardom. But circumstances took him in another direction.
Jazz’s loss yielded a big win for mainstream music, as Budimir spent four decades enjoying first-call status on hundreds of film soundtracks, hit records, and TV shows. Ultimately, one of jazz guitar’s golden boys emerged as the number one protégée and heir apparent to studio-guitar legend Tommy Tedesco.
As a charter member of the Wrecking Crew – the session players who were more legendary than famous – Budimir earned four consecutive National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) MVP awards then was recognized with a citation for lifetime achievement (the Emeritus Award for Outstanding Past Performance).
Jazz guitar great Joe Diorio once called Budimir “a mystery man,” and some say he’s reclusive. But peers know him as a music giant whose protean abilities created musical artistry. And Budimir winning the 1971 Downbeat Critics’ Poll, long after he was well established in the studios helped confirm his personifying the generational bridge between the old guard and the avant garde.
That assessment is endorsed by Larry Coryell. “I first heard Dennis on a Bud Shank record called New Groove on Pacific Jazz, and I immediately loved his playing because it was different,” he said. “It was quite introspective, with ideas outside the accepted tonality. I was very attracted to that. And I really loved his guitar sound; it was straight-ahead, deep, and traditional. His solos still sound modern today, which is quite a feat when you consider I first heard Dennis around 1961! I was recently sent a recording of him with my old friend, bassist Albert Stinson. They represented, to me, part of the hip core of L.A. players during the ’60s.”
Al Hendrickson, the once-reigning king of session guitarists who began his studio career in 1938, cited Budimir in a 1972 interview. “He can sight-read, cover rock, jazz, jingles, and film score sessions with flair and creativity,” said Hendrickson. “He’ll be the new guy.”
The list of artists who’ve availed themselves of Budimir’s talent reads like a veritable who’s who. The short list includes Rod Stewart, Linda Ronstadt, Randy Newman, Ravi Shankar, Tom Waits, Frank Zappa, John Lennon, Harry Nilsson, Quincy Jones, Frank Sinatra, Warren Zevon, Brian Wilson, Dizzy Gillespie, The Fifth Dimension, Elvis, Robert Palmer, Joni Mitchell, and even the Partridge Family.
The story begins with an 11-year-old Dennis asking for a ukulele – and a savvy music-store salesman putting a guitar in his hands, instead. Despite it being a Stella that would cause his fingers to bleed, the youngster was hooked, and lessons followed with Bill Lyons. Though time has made details hazy, Budimir recalls how, eventually, his parents bought him an inexpensive Martin.
In a 1990 interview with jazz radio host Ben Young, Budimir recalled how as teenager, he played dances and casuals with various local musicians. “Then, through word of mouth, I started to play with better musicians,” he said. “Number one was a very notable man, drummer Billy Higgins. I get nostalgic about Billy because we were in awe of him even though we were just teenagers. I think I even have one very bad recording of us back then. We went to a little cheap recording studio and paid to record.”
The Early Years
Circa 1955, word began to spread among L.A.‘s new, young lions who were all connecting with each other. A network of progressive players was emerging that included drummer Billy Higgins, Budimir, bassists Ralph Peña and Albert Stinson (still in high school), vibraphonist Gene Estes and guitarists John Pisano and Billy Bean among many others. Dennis recalls, Ralph Peña was a lovely man and a terrific bass player who had a home in Hollywood and some of us would jam in his garage. At the time, I liked a lot of guitar players, in particular Jimmy Raney. In fact, I visited Jimmy in New York and remember playing his really beat-up Charlie Christian ES-150. But I was never really blown away by anyone particular. I was never cocky, but always sure of myself. There were a lot of fine players, but when Billy Bean – this skinny, red-haired kid – got his guitar out, it knocked me on my ass! I’d never heard anybody like that. So we became fast friends.” Bean died in January, 2012 after a distinguished career as a jazz sideman. But a reissue of early sessions with Budimir, Bean, and John Pisano was released in 1999 as West Coast Sessions on the String Jazz label.
By 1958, Budimir’s talent had developed significantly, along with that of Billy Higgins, who’d already played on Ornette Coleman’s first records. Band leader and producer H.B. Barnum, who wasn’t about to let a young talent like Dennis get away, literally took the young guitarist to the union hall so he could join Local 47. Moreover, the avuncular Barnum introduced young Budimir to another player destined for jazz stardom – alto saxophonist/flutist Eric Dolphy.
Dennis says, “We worked at a club in South L.A., a real, bona fide nightclub. I wasn’t even supposed to be there because I was underage and they had a stripper, Velvet Voche. We’d go to H.B.’s house and crash early on Saturday because we had to be back at six o’clock Sunday morning for the breakfast show that lasted four hours. I don’t know how I did it! And of course none of us had any money so our band uniforms were kind of shabby. I remember Redd Foxx would often headline and when we’d take the stand he’d say, ‘Where do you fellas get your suits shined?’”
“The first job I had with anybody well-known was in 1958, with Harry James, when I was 19. Then, I went with Chico Hamilton in ’59 and ’60; Eric Dolphy and I were in that group together. When we played Birdland in New York, we were opposite probably the greatest jazz group ever – Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Winton Kelly, and Paul Chambers. It was incredible to get on the stand after those guys played. That was one of my biggest thrills.
“One night, Kenny Burrell invited me to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, the famous club where all the jazz greats jammed. I asked Cannonball how to get there and he said, ‘Well, you take the A Train,’ and I thought, ‘Oh my god!’ I never knew what that meant. And what a thrill, when Kenny let me sit in. With Chico, we worked opposite Sonny Rollins, who didn’t say much to anyone, but one time gave me a ‘Yo’ sign; I was on cloud nine for two years after that!
“I also worked with Bud Shank and (bassist) Gary Peacock, which was one of the most exciting gigs I ever had. Bud let Gary and me explore, musically, and it was so rewarding. Gary, who’s with Keith Jarrett now, was one of the most extraordinary musicians I ever worked with. After that, I went with Peggy Lee in 1960 and ’61, and got my draft notice while I was in London with her.”
Dennis’ early experience with Chico Hamilton and Eric Dolphy were instrumental in his creating and developing a soloing style that is more horn oriented. However, in addition to being a cliche-free soloist who doesn’t rely on licks, his chordal ideas are colorful and imaginative. He’s an advocate of using a keyboard to experiment and discover unique and effective ways to configure bass lines, chord voicing, inversions and substitutions. Dennis’ hero is composer/arranger Johnny Mandel who’s a master at harmonic voicing, creative chord changes and inventive bass lines. Dennis’ early albums, like A Second Coming and Sprung Free, are still sought out by his fans and showcase his pure pre-studio jazz days. But perhaps his most notable was the groundbreaking Alone Together, on which he played duets with his own solo guitar rhythm tracks, a concept recently revived by Martin Taylor. It’s where you’ll hear Budimir’s versions of such standards as “East Of The Sun,” “I Can’t Get Started,” and “Embraceable You.” Each is reharmonized to employ progressive and dynamic chord movement over which he invents horn-like lines that are as modern as today.
Dennis says, “When people ask me who my influences were – meaning guitar players –the answer is ‘no one,’ because my goal is to be the best musician I can be, not the best guitarist. My main influences, because I consider myself a jazz player, were Charlie Parker and [pianist] Bud Powell. But there’s also Miles Davis, Phil Woods, Cannonball Adderley, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Johnny Mandel, Dave Grusin, Michael McDonald, Gary Peacock and Billy Higgins There were a lot of fine guitar players I liked, and still like, for instance, Robben Ford, but if I had to pick one influence, there’s no question it would be Charlie Parker.”
The Session Guitarist and More Influences
Any artist would have to process being sidetracked by a hitch in the army. But Budimir found himself in L.A. dealing with a changed music business, as well. “Around ’64, I stopped playing jazz on a regular basis. But then I got out of the Army and started getting a few [gigs doing] studio work, since there wasn’t much happening for jazz guitar.”
Jazz great Howard Roberts discussed Dennis’ dilemma in one of his seminars. Roberts was probably the first guitarist to schedule guitar seminars in major cities. They were in essence an offshoot of his regular column in Guitar Player. He’d discuss whatever guitar issues that were on his mind, answer questions about the business and the difficulties of being a studio musician. And they became very popular events. In one recorded seminar Howard said, “Dennis is one of the most beautiful jazz players that ever was, but when he came back from the Army he found no place to play in a lethargic market. It must have been traumatic for Dennis; I’d been in the middle of all of it and knew it was that way, but he didn’t. Finally, he went to the studios and started doing Elvis Presley dates. It was an ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em thing.’”
The studio scene forced Budimir to consider playing different music, and was ultimately served as a catalyst in his growth as an artist. Coming from an intense jazz background, he had to re-orient himself.
“I remember a date early in my career, when the chart called for a C chord. I played it, but the leader asked, ‘What are you doing?’ I had played C, E, A, D, G, but used a C6th add 9 because no jazz player would ever play just C-E-G! The guy said, ‘No, play C E G.’ I asked him, “‘Are you crazy?’
“So I had to quickly reassess my values. And the more I got into the studio thing, I realized that while some areas of rock and country may not be as sophisticated as jazz, in order to be very good at those forms required knowledge, talent, skill, and conception similar to what you need in any music, including jazz and classical. So, after 40 years as a studio player, I have a great deal of respect for people like Larry Carlton, Robben Ford, Glen Campbell, and Louie Shelton. Larry and I worked hundreds of dates together and he always amazed me with his expertise in contemporary rock guitar.
“I played hundreds of dates with Glen Campbell, who was an unknown, long-haired kid who’d gotten into the studios. He wasn’t a real reader or a sophisticated musician, but he was great at what he did. Again, I wasn’t analyzing him with my nose in the air. He had a great ear and did what he did within his own boundaries, and of course he became a big star. So, I developed a different perspective. My view broadened.”
Budimir remembers that years ago, Tommy Tedesco told him, “Go in with the attitude of changing a tire. If you go in with attitude of ‘I’m an artist, a jazz musician. This is s**t.’ you won’t last long. When the red light goes on, you have to give your all, even when they do nine million takes.”
Tedesco’s advice proved invaluable, and Budimir later found himself the first-call guitarist for a diverse range of artists that included Robert Palmer, Joni Mitchell, Warren Zevon, Dion, the Bee Gees, Harry Nilsson, Natalie Cole, Quincy Jones and on countless Motown sessions.
“The guy who really turned me around to listening to rock guitar was Louie Shelton,” Budimir said. “I remember doing a Peggy Lee date at A&M with Louie. And he played very simply – not a lot of notes – but very tastefully. And I said to myself, ‘If Miles Davis was a rock guitar player, that’s how he’d approach it.’ That turned me on to listening to that style more seriously. Louie’s playing was so tasteful and sophisticated. No doubt, Larry Carlton was influenced by Louie, too, because he took that style and elaborated on it. I’ve done hundreds of dates with Larry, but I have to say, Louie was the one I first heard play that style.
“And speaking of Larry, one day we were playing a date at the Record Plant. Before the session, the rhythm section played a blues. And when we finished, Larry leaned over and said, ‘Can you teach me how to play like that?’ That was a high compliment, coming from Larry. I never forgot that because I know he meant it.”
They’re ninety eighty percent boredom and two percent sheer terror. That’s the famous aphorism about studio sessions. But Budimir, being the consummate pro, always tried to employ his best artistic sensibilities and never “phone it in.” Such players as Tommy Tedesco, Bob Bain, Howard Roberts, Bill Pitman and Al Hendrickson all had reputations as assiduous, reliable and creative talents. And in the rarefied air of studio musicians, professionalism was not just respected but it was expected from the industry types who were subject to corporate record company budgets. “Not that Tommy didn’t have fun,” Dennis says, “but when the red light was on, he was focused and thoroughly professional.” But if a part called for it, I tried to play lyrically and with as much emotion and feeling as I could.” And that was the prevailing attitude I received from everyone I talked to about Dennis. Like Tommy, he was gracious and even eager to pass along anything that would help a younger or less experienced player.
“When I was beginning my career as a studio guitarist, Dennis would often tell me what I needed to know,” said producer/composer Jay Graydon, famous for playing the guitar solo on Steely Dan’s “Peg,” offers these comments. “Once, on a session where we were both playing acoustic, the chart had a passage that didn’t make sense. But Dennis taught me what to look for and how to keep the rhythm flowing. That’s an excellent example of his experience and why he has had a long career. He’s simply excellent on every level. His reading is as good as it gets; he plays many styles extremely well, including whatever current styles of pop.”
“Dennis was like an older brother who was always there for us with great advice and support,” added Mike Anthony, another session great.
“Dennis’ contribution as a guitar player is unsung in that he was always the anonymous studio pro who played great, in tune, in time, and always correct,” said studio ace Tim May. “He had the musicianship to be a major force in the demanding L.A. studio-guitarists’ scene. It didn’t always come with a lot of high-profile accolades, though he was paid handsomely and commanded the respect of his peers. But to sustain a career as a major session guitar player in L.A for more than 40 years is no small accomplishment. From the first time I worked with Dennis, I realized the bar was set high! I’d get that it had to be that good from first rundown to the first take and every take after! His playing set a standard that I aspired to. I’ve seen him do take after take with no mistakes! In fact, I can’t remember ever having to do another take because Dennis made a mistake. It just didn’t happen! And having worked hundreds of sessions with him over the years, to get his approving nod, and a ‘Yo Timmo’ after a particularly difficult piece meant more to me than he’ll ever know.”
The Old Guard
Years ago, while Budimir was working a date at A&M with Peggy Lee, Bob Bain dropped in. Bain asked the engineer who the young guitarist was. “Dennis Budimir,” he said. “But he just got his draft notice.” Bob, with his typical wry humor responded with, “That’s good. I’m happy to hear that.”
Likely, nobody have more respect and admiration for Bain. “Bob is the one we all aspire to, as a musician and as a person,” said Budimir. “Besides being a superb player, he’s a great gentleman, and he makes me proud to be a musician. I love Bob. We all do.
“Al Hendrickson also helped me so much early on; it was such an honor when he recommend me for gigs he couldn’t take, because that’s an endorsement in itself.”
Despite Budimir’s enormous respect for Hendrickson and Bain, the guitarist he was closest to was Tommy Tedesco. “He always had a great deal of affection for me as I did for him,” said Budimir “His memorial service was a who’s-who of L.A. guitar players. All of us played – Lee Ritenour, John Pisano, Mitch Holder, Tim May, and many more. It was quite a service.
“Tommy was so helpful with my career, as he was with so many others. He was basically a regular guy, but one of the sharpest people I ever met. He was one of the best readers, but could play in such a sensitive way. And he taught us all. One of the first times I worked for Quincy Jones, Tommy, who was fond of playing little tricks on people, saw I was having a hard time with a part that was in an odd meter. So he kidded me, saying, ‘Den, you’re new in this game and you’re not doing too well right now. You have one more shot, and if you don’t get it, you’re outta here.’ Then, when we started the next take, I realized he’d disconnected my headphones (laughs)! It actually calmed me down and loosened me up, because Tommy knew I needed to have a laugh and relax.” He later said he never messed with anybody unless he respected them.”
“My favorite story about Dennis was told to me by Tommy,” said Graydon. “They were on a lunch break and went to a guitar store to check out Ramirez guitars. Tommy played a guitar he really dug and asked the salesman to hold it for him so he could pick it up the next day. When Tommy went back, the salesman told him it had been paid for. He opened the case and noticed a toy ballerina, signifying Tommy’s recent win on ‘The Gong Show’ while he was dressed in a tutu. Tommy started to cry. It was a beautiful gesture by Dennis.”
Virtually every session player acknowledges having to read parts as written. But those who get the most calls can create whatever is needed to enhance an arrangement.
“Sure, you’re expected to read the part, but soon you get called because of your reputation, reliability and for what you bring to an arrangement,” noted May. “For instance, the way Dennis laid in his part on Streisand’s ‘The Way We Were’ with the wah pedal... That was absolutely classic.”
Budimir recalls getting a call for a commercial where the agency wanted an Albert Collins guitar sound – very bluesy, raw, hard-edged. “So I got some of his records and nailed his sound. Collins wanted 25 grand to do it, and I did it for whatever I got. But then they said it was too raw. I knew I’d nailed it, and the composer knew I did, but I had to tone it down. But had they gotten Albert Collins, they’d have wasted 25 grand.”
After playing thousands of sessions, identifying specific ones is a challenge, but the pleasant ones are easy to recall. “It was fun playing on Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark album,” he said. “She borrowed my little Martin and took it home overnight. When she returned, it was in one of her wild tunings. I should have written it down (laughs)!
“I also worked virtually all of Harry Nilsson’s sessions, even when he produced Ringo. In fact, we were working the day John Lennon was killed, and of course called off the session. Speaking of Lennon, I was working a Phil Spector date when he was producing John at A&M. There could have been 10 or more guitars on it, and he usually divided it so some guys were playing electric and others played acoustic. So I was really tired, in a humorous mood and decided to pull out my banjo. Spector said, “What the hell’s that?” And I said, ‘Phil, give me a break. You might love it.’ To be honest, I don’t remember whether I played some boogaloo on banjo or if I put it away, but I know everybody was laughing.
“Frank Zappa was a very interesting guy. The first date I played for him, he took his shirt off, which was wild. Later, I did his album, Lumpy Gravy, which was unbelievable. He was like a mad scientist, mixing rock with classical. It was very difficult to read, but he was so unusual, eclectic, and always interesting. I remember Tommy Tedesco, Al Viola and I were on Lumpy Gravy. Besides the music being challenging, it was fun and rewarding because Frank had such great respect for session musicians.
“And what can you say about Quincy Jones? He recently called me in response to a self-produced CD I’d sent him. Modesty prohibits my repeating what he said, but it was so nice it was embarrassing! The first time I worked for Q was for The Pawnbroker, with Dave Grusin playing piano. I can’t say enough about Quincy.
“And I was proud to play the “Route 66” solo on Natalie Cole’s jazz album. I remember using an octave box that sounded great. That one was like the Robert Palmer sessions, because you’re so appreciated and you have such a nice feeling when you leave the studio.”
Other memorable sessions Budimir lent his talents to include: Randy Newman’s Good Ol’ Boys, Lee Ritenour’s Captain Fingers, several Robert Palmer albums, Orange Crate Art with Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, Bette Midler’s Bathhouse Betty, Neil Diamond’s, In My Lifetime, and even the bizarre Joe Pass album, Stones Jazz on which Dennis supported Pass who took a shot at “19th Nervous Breakdown,” Paint it Black,” “Satisfaction” and others.
Budimir has amassed an impressive collection of guitars.
“For studio work, I use a Gibson ES-347 for jazz, my Valley Arts Starts for rock, and I have a Martin 12-string – one of the early ones with no truss rod. It’s very hard to play; I think I’ll burn it in the fireplace next Christmas (laughs)!
“And believe it or not, for a jazz rhythm guitar, I use an Ovation. I’ve played some good ones, but amazingly, mine can sound like an L-5! People see it and say, “No, no...,’ but I’d tell them to hear with their ears, not their eyes. I made a study of Freddie Green, listening to all the records I could. I remember one night, about 3 a.m. on the South side of Chicago, in a club sitting real close, just watching him play and being in awe. I don’t want to sound pompous, but I think I’m one of the guys who nailed his sound. I did several albums for Concord with Greg Fields, a drummer who played with Basie, who told me I was the closest thing he ever heard to Freddie Green. And I thought that was a great compliment.
“I also have a Manzanero classical I bought from Laurindo Almeida, but I prefer my Ramirez. I don’t like all Ramirez guitars, but the one I have is incredible. And I have a ’20s Vega banjo I bought from Bobby Gibbons. It must weigh 400 pounds, but it’s great!
“My Valley Arts solidbodies are my all-around workhorse guitars. And I have a Dobro without a raised nut that I just play with a bottleneck, not lap-style; I used that on City Slickers. Whenever you see Palance, that’s me playing Dobro. And there’s an old Danelectro six-string bass, a baritone uke, and a Martin mandolin. I also have a real old Martin C-2 I use with a high-string tuning. There’s also an an old electric sitar I haven’t played in years. At home, I have a Ramirez peghead Flamenco, two Charlie Christian ES 150s, and three ES-175sCCs.”
Budimir’s choice of amps is utilitarian, but impressive enough to draw pause from a collector or aficionado.
“I used two Dumble heads in the studio. Dumble was making a head for himself, but he let me buy it, and I also bought Jay Graydon’s because I wanted to go stereo with separate speaker cabinets. I had an old Gibson MC 700 controller, a Lexicon delay, an Alesis chorus, a noise gate, and a parametric equalizer. But the Alesis chorus and the Lexicon delay were the most important. For overdrive or fuzz, I used overdrive on the Dumble or a stompbox.”
The Synth Guitar
For a time, Budimir kept a synth guitar, and it prompted a visit from two famous composers. “Henry Mancini came to my house to hear it, because he wanted to write for it,” he said. “Mancini was a prince of a man who treated musicians with the utmost respect. Burt Bacharach came over, too, and I probably did 200 sessions on the synth. But it became such a logistical hassle, and having to compete with the keyboard guys just wasn’t practical.”
Budimir jokes about how, after years of sessions, he lives “...in the house that backbeats built,” meaning so many dates had him playing high “chinks” on the two and four. So, he finally self-produced the album he’d always wanted to make entitled, The Soul of Dennis Budimir.
“I recorded tunes that spoke to me, and poured my soul into them,” he said of it. “It serves as a culmination and manifestation of what I’ve gleaned from four decades of studio work. The great engineer Bobby Fernandez is mastering it.”
The orchestrated tracks on the CD showcase a side of the guitarist that had lain dormant.
His arranging chops are impeccable; but it’s his stunningly lyrical playing, devoid of licks and cliches that have elicited the assortment of superlatives from his peers that appear on the CD’s sleeve. When word got around that Dennis was self-producing a solo album, it wasn’t long before a number of industry insiders and old friends were eager to hear it. David Foster, one of music’s most notable producers, songwriters and arrangers invited Dennis to his home in Malibu on Thanksgiving weekend. Dennis said, “We listened to the entire album there in his magnificent recording studio.” Foster said, “You cover a huge arc of styles and your solo on Johnny Mandel’s, “A Time For Love” was unbelievable.” In fact, Mandel himself said in reference to the song, “Most musicians don’t get it, but you did.” Producer Dave Grusin, was especially interested because one of his songs, “The Trouble With Hello Is Goodbye,” is on the album. He wrote, “Dennis, your playing is superb, not only the melodies and choice of harmonies, but your bebop chops are unbelievable.” And Quincy Jones called Dennis with a such flattering comment that he’s too embarrassed to let me use it. But he was amused that Q said, “Let’s hang soon when I can find time. Right now, I’m with Spielberg at LAX and we’re headed for China.”
The great Jazz Hall of Fame inductee, Benny Golson, who wrote such standards as “Killer Joe” and “Along Came Betty” also invited Dennis to his home. He was sincerely touched by Dennis’ version of his “I Remember Clifford.” Mr. Golson wrote, “When you play, you play from the inner being of your soul. I’ve never heard any other guitar player play like you do.”
Saxophonist, Gary Foster wrote, “You put the blues in Jobim.” And bassist, Abe Laboriel’s telling comment was, “You take it to the street!” And to Dennis’ wife Julie, Abe said, “Did you know you married a black man?” But perhaps saxophonist Phil Woods’ comment was the most succinct, “It’s f**king magnificent!” After reading such accolades, Julie joked, “Dennis, perhaps now you should give yourself an autograph.”
Written by Jim Carlton, author of Conversations With Great Jazz and Studio Guitarists - Mel Bay Publishing. This article originally appeared in Vintage Guitar Magazine in November of 2012