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Benny Golson at Jazz Standard

Peter Jurew By

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Benny Golson Quartet
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
October 21, 2016

By now it's well established that you don't go to see the octogenarian Benny Golson expecting to be blown away by a titan of the tenor sax—a fact he's only too happy to confess to his audience at a packed Jazz Standard in October. Sure, Golson can still handle his sax just fine but his real mastery is—and has always been—making musical magic by conjuring a catchy tune and a toe-tapping arrangement that can enable a jazz ensemble to appear far greater than the sum of its individual parts. His original compositions have become standards, his arrangements of other composer's standards are brilliant, and he possesses and is only too happy to share his deep well of jazz lore gathered six decades in the business. When you catch this musical raconteur, you are in the presence of one the true jazz masters.

And what wonderful associates the maestro was working with this night: the top-of-the-line rhythm section included the "wild beast" Mike LeDonne on piano, the "remarkable" Buster Williams on bass, and the "effusive" Carl Allen on the drums, each of whom was in fine form in the early set.

The set kicked off with the bluesy "Domingo," a tune from the group's most recent album, Horizon Ahead, jump starting the evening with a rhythmic push from Williams and Allen's tight swing. "Along Came Betty" followed, the classic tune Golson wrote and recorded in 1958 while with one of the great editions of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers; he introduced the tune with a hilarious tale of it how it was originally being inspired by a woman named Betty, and how, now that he has been married for many decades to his wife, whose name is Bobbie, it's too late now to change the title. The standard itself is built on familiar hard-bop components—opening theme, individual explorations, restated theme to close—and on this night was strengthened polished and with the fresh ideas of a stellar rhythm section.

Another major Golson-penned standard followed. Golson related the heartbreaking story of how he composed "I Remember Clifford" upon learning of the death in a car accident of his friend, the great young trumpeter, Clifford Brown, at the age of twenty-five. Based on one of the great tragedies of modern music, the tune has transcended the jazz world and, according to Golson, been recorded more than five hundred times since Donald Byrd first did it in 1957; Golson himself recorded a memorable version in 1960 with the Art Farmer-Benny Golson Jazztet. On this night, Golson's quartet delivered a passionate rendition, giving each player ample space for heartfelt statements.

Golson turned the spotlight over his rhythm section for the next tune, a Cedar Walton composition, "Holy Land," on which pianist Mike LeDonne's spectacular talents were wonderfully anchored by bass master Buster Williams and Carl Allen's highly musical drumming. "Stablemates," another gem from the Golson songbook, closed the set; the tune made its debut in 1956 with the Miles Davis quintet that featured John Coltrane, Red Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones, and once again, Golson and his mates made jazz history come alive with fresh, new connections for modern listeners.

It sometimes sounds cliche to say a person has seen or done it all, but when referring to Benny Golson, the saying has the ring of truth. As composer, arranger, leader or co-leader, the man has been at the center of modern jazz virtually from the beginning. After a full set of the music and tales of this sweet-natured elderly master and his dynamite associates at the cozy Jazz Standard, this jazz fan headed home feeling enriched by the experience.

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