Thursday, December 02, 2010

Benny Golson's Jazz Legacy Still Expanding

Highly honored over the past few years for his lengthy career (he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award among other honors), and recently feted at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. in celebration of his 80th Birthday, Benny Golson’s musical legacy is marked by two new releases on Concord Jazz. “The Best of Benny Golson” is a career spanning disc containing nine performances while “New Time, New ‘Tet” is his first new recording in five years with his new jazztet. Golson’s contributions probably are most noteworthy as a composer and arranger, but he has also been a distinctive saxophonist who has produced a strong body of recordings. Some of his compositions have become part of the jazz standard book including “I Remember Clifford,” ”Whisper Not,” “Along Came Betty,” and “Killer Joe.” One thing these carefully crafted compositions share is there memorable melodies that stay with the listener. Furthermore, there is a thoughtfulness in his tunes, arrangements and his playing. he eschews a hot extroverted music for a distinctive crafted work which is akin to the careful work of a jeweler cutting stones and crafting his rings, bracelets and charms. 
A career spanning decades can only be skimmed on a single disc, but “The Best of Benny Golson,” brings together nine performances that display the range and variety of his compositions as well as his playing. This compilation opens with an octet performing “Whisper Not,” with Art Farmer, Gigi Gryce, James Cleveland, and Sahib Shibab joining him for the front line with a muted, delicate sound to the arrangement effectively using Watkins’ French Horn, Shibab’s baritone sax and Farmer’s muted trumpet with solos from Gryce, Cleveland on trombone, Farmer playing open, and Golson himself. Gigi Gyrce’s “Reunion” is a sextet with J.J. Johnson on trombone and Kenny Dorham on trumpet as well as a rhythm section of Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and Max Roach, on a nice bop number with shifting tempos with Golson taking the lead solo, Chambers getting featured and the ensemble trading fours with Roach.

Are You Real,” a quintet performance with Curtis Fuller and a rhythm of Barry Harris, Jymie Merritt and Philly Joe Jones has some gusty playing from Golson before Fuller and Harris take the spotlight. Another date with Fuller brings the stunning “Blues After Dark,” another strong Golson melody, with its loping tempo and marvelous solos by both Fuller and Golson, both who employ an almost whispering attack at the beginning of their solos. Art Blakey joins Fuller on Golson on a delightful reading of Rodgers & Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Is,” while his ballad playing on “April in Paris,” evokes Ben Webster, in the use of space as well as tone on a superb performance although without Webster's heavy vibrato. A live rendition of “Along Came Betty” is from a Jazztet dated co-led with Art Farmer and with Curtis Fuller.

A 1997 recording of his “Five Spot After Dark,” has Ron Blake on tenor and John Swana on trumpet, both a bit more extroverted in their playing than Golson. Eddie Henderson is present on the closing track, a nice 2004 rendition of “Killer Joe.” Lacking familiarity with all the source albums for these tracks, I cannot vouch whether this is in fact the best of Benny Golson, but the music here is darn good indeed (to use a bit of understatement).

New Time. New ‘Tet” (Concord Jazz) releases an August 2008 session with Eddie Henderson, trumpet-flugelhorn; Steve Davis, trombone; Mike Ledonne, piano, Buster Williams, bass, and Carl Allen drums. All but Davis were on the 2004 rendition “Killer Joe,” from “The Best of Benny Golson.” In the liner notes, Jim Merod has these interesting words to describe this contemporary Jazztet in that it “incorporates virtually all the elements of the pensive, sometimes sentimental,consistently philosophical and always gregarious.” Trombonist Davis' “Grove’s Groove,” opens this set with a relaxed groove and his at times blustery tone contrasts with Golson’s more reserved sounding attack. Next up is Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin,” with Henderson brassy solo a highlight along with Buster Williams’s walking solo and pianist Ledonne’s sparkling playing.

Golson’s “From Dream to Dream” is an apty titled ballad with a languorous feel. Davis takes a lengthy, low-key solo while Henderson and Golson add soft embellishments around. The tempo struts a bit quicker as Al Jarreau adds a vocal to this new rendition of “Whisper Not,” with Henderson using his mute on his solo, followed by Ledonne adding a bit of barrelhouse to his bop piano. Monk’s “Epistrophy” opens with a blast from the horns before Henderson takes the lead on the melody as Davis and Golson adding their voices before Henderson opens his solo in an extroverted vein, on a number where everyone solos with Ledonne’s bouncy handling of Monk’s angular lines a delight and his chords punctuate Williams solo.

Golson rearranges a couple of songs from the Western Classical musical tradition, Chopin’s “L’Adieu,” with marvelous muted playing on this ballad from Henderson, and “Verdi’s Voice,” with the jazztet evoking a classical quartet. An unusual contemporary ballad, El DeBarge’s “Love Me in a Special Way,” showcases Davis’ gruff lyricism before Golson takes over for his romantic reading of the number. “Gypsy Jingle-Jangle,” is a pretty lively tempoed number with shifting tempos that lead one on a musical ride, more like the tilt-a-whirl than a roller coaster, but energizing indeed. The closing “Uptown Afterburn,” is another energetic musical jaunt with Williams, who solos here, anchors with his forceful playing.

This recording illustrates that age has not slowed down Benny Golson down, and with the latest Jazztet, continues to provide us with jazz that remains thoughtful, soulful, contemplative, fiery and passionate.

This look back and look forward at Benny Golson originally appeared in the March 2009 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 314) at pages 8-9. The issue can be downloaded at Review copies of the CD were provided me from the publication.

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