Philadelphian tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna holds what may be, if not a unique distinction, then certainly a rare one of having played with both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. In a career spanning six decades he's played with many other leading jazz figures besides but only occasionally has he stepped out as a leader on a recording session. From All Sides is only his fourth CD in all these years. Nevertheless, 74-year-old McKenna's wonderful form on this collection of originals and standards reasserts his credentials as one of the finest balladeers and interpreters of a tune since tenor saxophonist Lester Young.
McKenna starts off at the deep end with a ten-minute quartet exploration of the Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers tune "Everything I've Got." Bassist Kevin MacConnell, drummer Dan Monaghan and pianist Tom Lawton provide swinging support while McKenna's velvety tone caresses and embellishes the melody for almost five minutes. McKenna casts a seductive spell, never repeating himself and giving the impression that he could carry the tune all day. Lawton's response is equally expansive, but in the main, solos throughout the generous 75 minutes of From All Sides are more succinct.
Great chops aside, McKenna's considerable skills as a composer and arranger abound. On Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's chestnut "That Old Black Magic," and Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weil's "September Song," McKenna and trombonist Joe McDonough create lush harmonies while guitarist Pete Smyser keeps impeccable, swinging rhythm. On McKenna's breezy original "Side Stepping," tenor, trumpeter George Rabbai and trombonist McDonough's three-part voice provides rich-hued contrast to the individual statements that follow.
McKenna ventured fleetingly into lyric song-writing on his previous CD, Profile (Dreambox Media, 2009) and here he teams up once again with lyricist Melissa Gilstrap on four tracks, interpreted stylishly by singer Joanna Pascale. "The Close Things" and "Friends For A While" are lyrical ballads of old school finesse, with the latter featuring a fine solo from McDonough. "Christmas is Being with You" veers between saccharine nostalgia and blue-toned melancholy but the standout number is "One Falling Tree," a beguiling bossa whose lyrics evoke the poetry of Antonio Carlos Jobim.
Brazilian rhythms also color "Samba da Else," with McKenna, Smyser, Lawton, McDonough, and Rabbai on flugelhorn, all stretching out without disturbing the laid-back vibe of this gently swaying number. The achingly beautiful standard "I'll Never Be the Same" features McKenna, whose whispery lyricism recalls the magic of tenor players Young and Ben Webster; certainly, few saxophonists of today's crop can touch McKenna when it comes to reading a ballad. Two snappier tunes, the swinging "Action Blues" and the bop-inspired "You're It"both McKenna originalsround out the set.
McKenna is in great form on this impressive recording. He may be in the autumn of his years but the nuance and elegance that color these compositionsnot to mention the verve in the playingsuggest not only that the first-call Philadelphian tenor/composer has plenty still to offer, but that he's enjoying a new lease of creative life.
Everything I’ve Got; One Falling Tree; That Old Black Magic; The Close
Things; September Song; Friends for a While; Samba de Else; Side
Stepping; I’ll Never Be the Same; Action Blues; Christmas is Being with
You; You’re It.
Larry McKenna: tenor saxophone; Joanna Pascale: vocals (tracks 2, 4,
6. 11); George Rabbai: trumpet (4, 8. 11) and flugelhorn (7); Joe
McDonough: trombone (2-8, 11); Tom Lawton: piano (1, 4 7-12); Joshua
Richman: piano (2, 3, 5, 6); Kevin McConnell: bass (1-3, 5, 6, 9, 10,
12); Lee Smith: bass (4, 7, 8, 11); Pete Smyser: guitars (2, 3, 5, 7,
11); Dan Monaghan: drums.