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January 2013: Larry McKenna Quartet

RJ Johnson By

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Larry McKenna Quartet

January 17, 2012

Arch Street Meeting House

Philadelphia, PA

The Philadelphia jazz scene is well known for its reverence of jazz tradition. Compared to the constantly shifting modern scene of New York City, and the experimental projects produced by the current European scene, Philadelphia musicians are often seen as living examples of the preservation of jazz tradition. No one embodies this principal more meticulously than saxophonist Larry McKenna.

McKenna is perhaps the most quintessential of Philadelphia's native jazz musicians, has worked with several jazz legends throughout his lengthy career as both a bandleader and accompanist. He has performed alongside Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Buddy DeFranco, and Mel Torme, while still remaining active as an educator and booking his own small group gigs at various clubs throughout the city.

This show was produced by the Philadelphia based non-profit organization Jazz Bridge, which provides financial support to jazz musicians in times of crisis.

The set was comprised entirely of standards, many of which have become less frequently present amongst today's jazz musicians regardless of location. The set opener, "Lullaby of the Leaves," served as a perfect framework upon which McKenna displayed his textbook style of improvisation. McKenna's lines are rooted in bebop, but are often more lyrical and rhythmically diverse than the fiery eighth note based lines of the classic 1940's style.

One of the more noticeable aspects of McKenna's approach is his assimilation of essential jazz vocabulary from various stylistic periods within jazz history. McKenna reproduces fragments of lines associated with other saxophone giants, and then uses them to build unique lines of his own. His lines contain the robust bravado of Lester Young, the bluesy inflections of Dexter Gordon, and the passionate energy of John Coltrane all while maintaining a high level of originality and an infectious, exuberant energy.

McKenna was equally matched by vibraphonist Tony Miceli, a furious improviser who's ability to effectively blur the line between aggressive soloist and graceful accompanist is distinctly noticeable. Miceli's lines often involve layering phrases together into lengthy yet rhythmically secure statements. This was especially evident on the Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring," which was played at an up-tempo clip. His ability to combine sixteenth note phrases as well as triple groupings within otherwise eighth note based phrases adds a deeper element to his improvisations, serving as the perfect contrast to McKenna's bop sensibilities.

Bassist Kevin MacConnell and drummer Dan Monaghan rounded out the group by providing a highly refined sense of classic swing without sounding dated or succumbing to the often monotonous nature of standards gigs. MacConnell's quarter notes added a strong forward motion to the entire group, also serving as a featured soloist on several tunes including the lesser-known Antonio Carlos Jobim composition "Someone to Light Up My Life." Monaghan mainly served as the rhythmic backbone of the group, preferring to serve as an accompanist rather than take a solo of his own. While trading eights between McKenna and Miceli, however, Monaghan did display his well developed polyrhythmic abilities, effectively obscuring the bar lines without ever losing the precision that has come to be associated with his drumming throughout recent years. Monaghan was the youngest member of the group, and is certainly a rising talent on the Philly jazz scene.

The evening's set thoroughly demonstrated the qualities which have solidified Larry McKenna's reputation as the pre-eminent bebop saxophonist in Philadelphia. He can be seen performing in Philadelphia with increased regularity, often with pianist Tom Lawton, another Philadelphia jazz legend. McKenna is a living piece of jazz history, and one which Philadelphia can proudly claim as its own.

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