Benny Golson is one sublime composer and tenor saxophonist. For too long, Benny (who turns 80 on Sunday) has been unfairly pegged as a glossy Los Angeles artist whose music is more closely identified with the jazz of TV ads and movies than the jazz of art and meaning. This is absurdly shortsighted. Listen to Benny's compositions and performances (today or yesterday), and you'll hear instantly that he's truly among jazz's most potent and profound artists. In fact, the only other composer-musicians I can think of with his combined tenderness and prowess are Benny Carter and Tadd Dameron. [Photo: fstop45/Flckr]
Benny really wears two crowns. He's one of jazz's most important living composers and certainly one of its most seductive practitioners as a player and arranger. He has penned more than 200 songs, among them jazz's most enduring standards including I Remember Clifford, Whisper Not, Stablemates, Along Came Betty, Blues March, Park Avenue Petite and Killer Joe. His playing is equally strong and penetrating.
Two albums from Concord Records released today make these points neatly. One (New Time, New 'Tet) was recorded last September. The other (The Best of Benny Golson) is a compilation of his recordings from 1957 to 2004. But first, full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes to The Best of Benny Golson. I do not receive royalties from the CD's sales nor does my appreciation here carry with it any commercial agreement or agenda. As readers of my five-part interview series with Benny back in September 2008 know, I just happen to dig Benny's scene—his music, his grace and his art.
Here are two paragraphs from my liner notes that summarize Benny's talents and gifts:
"What sets Benny's compositions apart are their shimmering contrasts. By tempering gorgeous melody lines with provocative harmonies and suspenseful tempos, Benny tugs the reins slightly on beauty, restraining it from going too far. The results are songs you can't wait to hear again and again.
"As a tenor saxophonist, Benny has recorded with virtually every major jazz artist since the early 1950s. His smoky, aggressive attack snaps eel-like among the melody lines, adding just enough friction to be both pleasing and menacing, which is exactly where true art lives on the instrument."
Unlike many jazz artists today, Benny works hard to win you over—not with cute tricks or cliches but with glamorous melodies and sly, risk-taking improvisational lines. To be sure, Benny's romanticism is unabashed and unfettered, wooing your ear with seductive pastel tones. But what you wind up responding to emotionally aren't the romantic touches. If that's all Benny's music had to offer, his collective works would have collapsed under their own weight some time ago and today would be largely forgotten. [Photo: fstop45/Flckr]
Instead, Benny's songs and playing continue to have meaning because they contain just the right doses of restlessness and unease. Lurking beneath Benny's polished melodies is a thrashing irony that competes shark-like for your attention. Benny's music thrives on taut, bluesy contrapuntal lines and sighing resolutions combined with the tasteful application of tension and knowing when to lighten up.
Many jazz fans forget that Benny had a surging career as a small-group leader and sideman on the Prestige and Riverside labels between 1957 and 1960. This bountiful period began shortly after he left Dizzy Gillespie's big band in 1956 and ended when he and Art Farmer co-founded the Jazztet. During this four-year stretch, Benny recorded albums such as New York Scene, The Modern Touch, Gone With Golson, Groovin' With Golson and Gettin' With It, which I believe is his most perfect album from these years. Benny also appeared as a sideman on albums led by Art Blakey, Curtis Fuller and Art Farmer.
Six of the nine tracks from The Best of Benny Golson are from these years: Whisper Not, Reunion, Are You Real?, Blues After Dark, I Didn't Know What Time It Was and April in Paris. The last tune is especially fascinating. Benny takes this classic a few ticks slower than most executions, allowing you to hear his magnificent breath control. Even careful listeners will have trouble hearing exactly where Benny catches his air. It's an extraordinary performance. The remaining three titles—Along Came Betty, Five Spot After Dark and Killer Joe—also are significant recordings from later years.
As you listen to this compilation, you hear Benny's smoky tone and cagey attack as he starts low on the register and rises steadily before launching streams of triplet runs. Benny's also about power here. He can add enormous energy at any point during a solo, lingering on notes before running all the way down or up, only to finish off with fabulous blues lines.
The second CD release, New Time New 'Tet, was recorded last fall. To me, this isn't a conventional album. It's more akin to a suite or concept album. Just four of the tunes are Golson originals, but the 11 tracks work together as one thanks to Benny's arrangements. And the playing is all sirloin. Joining Benny are Eddie Henderson (trumpet and flugelhorn), Steve Davis (trombone), Mike LeDonne (piano) [pictured], Buster Williams (bass) and Carl Allen (drums). Al Jarreau makes a vocal cameo on Whisper Not.
The album opens with Grove's Groove, a hard bop blues by Davis [pictured]. It's followed by a cool-tempered Airegin. With any lucky, Sonny Rollins will hear how Benny has arranged his standard and how he has paid tribute to his fellow tenor master. Golson's From Dream to Dream is a startling rainy-night ballad in the pensive mode of Park Avenue Petite.
Benny's Whisper Not snaps and crackles, with Jarreau giving the lyrics a relaxed, husky sound. Monk's Epistrophy is brooding and roils with a strong undertow. Benny's jazz arrangement of Chopin's L'Adieu is a spirited transformation of a classical piece. I'm not big on mixing classical and jazz, but this works.
Love Me in a Special Way is perhaps the album's most interesting choice. Written by r&b artist El DeBarge [pictured], the 1984 ballad receives a warm rendition from Davis on trombone. I wish more jazz greats would interpret lesser-known soul and r&b hits of the 1970s and 1980s. Another DeBarge hit yearning for a jazz treatment is All This Love.
Gypsy Jingle-Jangle is a rollicking original by Benny that opens deceptively with a peasant-y wedding melody but then breaks into an uptempo hard bop finish. Verdi's Voice is another jazz interpretation by Benny of a classical motif, and the album ends with Benny's Uptown Afternoon, a minor-key uptempo original.
Both albums celebrate Benny's music and playing in different ways. With The Best of Benny Golson, you get a feel for the artist's small-group energy and passion. On New Time, New 'Tet, you hear the master at work today, in a more advanced vein but still tricked out with signature hooks and lavish arrangements. Both seduce and pack quite a restless punch. And both remind you of Benny's beautiful contribution.
Benny's work with Art Farmer and the Jazztet is available here from Mosaic Records on The Complete Mercury Art Farmer/Benny Golson Jazztet Sessions, a magnificent box.
Despite a promising career as a singer and songwriter, El DeBarge was arrested for crack cocaine possession and sentenced last October to two years in prison. You'll find Love Me in a Special Way and All This Love as downloads at iTunes and Amazon. Both remain superb pop singles.
JazzWax clip: Here's a video clip of Benny, Curtis Fuller (trombone), Mike LeDonne (piano), Buster Williams (bass) and Carl Allen (drums) on Along Came Betty. Dig Benny's lines here, and follow where he's going up and down the horn: