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Larry McKenna: World On A String

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Larry McKenna: World On A String
Larry McKenna is not really a celebrity. He probably never will be. He plays tenor sax in and around Philadelphia. He apparently does not say a lot—although he clearly has a puckish sense of humor. It comes out in his playing. It is possible to drive by his suburban home, vaguely aware that a saxophonist, a pretty good one, lives there and keep right on going. A sort of metaphor for McKenna and his career (read our 2007 interview).

To a small group, musicians primarily, McKenna is not your average player. Some will say he is arguably the best in the world at what he does, not just in Philadelphia. And what he does is play beautifully and lyrically, distilling the modern history of the tenor saxophone, at least since Lester Young, into gorgeous sonorities. He has not recorded as much as say, Stan Getz, whose sound he sometimes recalls, or made live appearances in Mexico City and try to speak Spanish (as Getz once did). If you have heard him live, it may have been at a Catholic parish festival in South Philly. Or then again, at a Woody Herman Tribute Band festival in Los Angeles, since he is a Herd alumnus. McKenna has flown under that sort of oddly fragmented radar for many years. He has been called a "natural," schooled on the gig, not in the classroom. It shows.

Sooner or later, many great bop players—McKenna is arguably that too—have recorded with strings. These outings are not to everyone's liking, Somehow, the strings here, gifted players all, some associated with Temple University, where Larry has taught, are not an afterthought, but a harmonic extension of McKenna's playing. There are nine tunes, including "Samba de Else," a McKenna original, to add to Harold Arlen, Vernon Duke, Yip Harburg, Henry Mancini, Cole Porter , Jimmy van Heusen and Johnny Burke, Johnny Mandel, and Edgar Sampson, among others.

To top it off, McKenna and Jack Saint Clair, a fellow tenor player, did the arrangements. They knew what they wanted. There is no wasted space, no wasted motion, and not a wasted note. McKenna makes all the pretty changes, with spectacular results. Polished, tasteful, meditative, musical, gorgeous and in places, wryly hip. Dexter Gordon even peeks through occasionally. It is that kind of creative thinking.

World on a String opens appropriately enough, with McKenna cruising through an easygoing double-time with a touch of 52d Street here and there. An incredible "But Beautiful" follows, shades of Gordon Jenkins, as yearning a version as one could hear, with strings and piano tastefully interwoven. "Samantha" is a bossa, a genre which sometimes means cliché-time. Not here, where sincerity, not cynicism holds. To get away from the insanity with which we have surrounded ourselves, choose either "Emily" or "Dreamsville." Both will take you, unaided, to a much better place.

On "Savoy," McKenna is joined on tenor by Saint Clair, who more than holds his own. Joe Plowman also gets some space on bass, and with strings, the whole swings nicely indeed. The real sleeper is "Somewhere in the Night" otherwise known as the theme from the TV series "Naked City" (1960-1963), which has been little recorded since 1965. Some may remember Maynard Ferguson doing a big band arrangement, on Come Blow Your Horn (Cameo, 1963) and perhaps that is where this version originated. It is a pleasure to hear the Milt Raskin and Billy May chart rescued from obscurity. The recording closes out with a McKenna original, "Samba de Else" and "What is There to Say?"

A favorite? All of them. A memorable recording by an artist whose evident dislike for self-promotion and publicity should not prevent a widespread appreciation of his gifts.

Track Listing

I've Got The World On a String; But Beautiful; I Love You, Samantha; Emily; Dreamsville; Stimpin at the Savoy; Somewhere in the Night (Naked City Theme); Samba De Else; What is There to Say.

Personnel

Additional Instrumentation

Meghan Woodard, oboe; Alberta Dougles, violin; Justin Yoder, cello; Nellie Smith, cello; Chen Chen, cello; Gloria Galante, harp.

Album information

Title: World On A String | Year Released: 2023 | Record Label: BCM&D Records

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