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While certainly in his twilight years, there seems to be no stopping Benny Golson in his quest to deliver music with integrity and intelligence. On a recent tour of one-nighters, Golson took to the stage at Cleveland’s Night Town with a local rhythm section for two sets of jazz within the mainstream tradition. If the evening possessed a minor flaw, it would be that despite his coy sense of humor and penchant for telling some interesting stories, the banter was a bit on the heavy side throughout both sets. At one point Golson nodded towards the audience and commented, “My wife usually tells me my problem is I talk too much.” And truth be told, she’s probably right.
The first set got underway with Clifford Brown’s “Tiny Capers” and despite the blustery and resilient sound that seemed to pour so sweetly from Golson’s horn, the rhythm section sounded just a bit tentative. Bassist Dave Morgan had on hand two of his students, pianist Alton Merrell and drummer Matt Perko and it took them some time to really lock in as a unit. On a whole, Merrell was the more impressive of the two, contributing some fleet-fingered solos on “Whisper Not” and “It Could Happen To You.” By contrast, Perko was somewhat less accomplished and his playing lacked that extra edge or sense of risk taking that might have elevated the group’s inspirational platform.
Golson had a story that he used to introduce every tune and so it went as the first set continued with “Are You Real,” “I Remember Clifford,” and “Beautiful Love.” Highlights included a brilliant melodic variation in the lower register during his solo on “In Walked Bud” and the premier of a more recent composition, “Pierre’s Moment.” The second set turned out to be a tad less varied, with “Along Came Betty” the only original of the lot, but Golson did engage in some lush ballad work on “Thinking of You,” complete with those breathy and fluid runs that have become one of his trademarks.
So in the final analysis, Golson proved to be as sharp as a tack and he undeniably served as a gracious host to the local rhythm section, often beaming during Merrell’s solos. Again, Perko could have stoked things along with a bit more fire and I could have done without a bass solo from Morgan on every tune. Still, it was gratifying to catch a glimpse of a true jazz legend at a time when it seems were losing more and more of our founding fathers every year.
Years ago now--in Rhodesia--listening to Voice of America with Willis Conover I heard Bunk Johnson play When The Saints Go Marching In, and Billie Holiday sing Don't Explain. I knew then there was no other life for me than jazz.