Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Along Came Benny

Last night was a great concert at UNT with Benny Golson and the One O'Clock Lab Band. The traditional Tuesday-night-before-Thanksgiving concert has been going on for 45 years now; it always features a world-renowned guest artist, and I was happy to be able to hear Golson for the first time. (He was actually the guest at a festival I'd attended about 10 years ago at Loyola University, but I didn't go to the evening concert where he played, opting instead for a trip to New Orleans' legendary Preservation Hall. This turned out to be a good move, as it was my only opportunity to see the founding Humphrey brothers, Willie and Percy, before they both passed away the following year. Since Golson was a judge at the festival, and I was in a band that performed, that meant that a bizarre situation was in place: He had heard me play before I heard him play! Still, there's no way he would have remembered my performance, whereas I will certainly remember his ten years from now.)

After an energetic opening set by the One O'Clock, which featured a couple selections off the new Lab 2004 CD, Golson took the stage. His biographical info is available on the website, so I won't duplicate it here, but he's the only living jazz musician who's contributed eight compositions that are considered standards to the repertoire, including "Whisper Not," "I Remember Clifford," and "Blues March" (all of which are in the TD/D repertoire), as well as "Along Came Betty" and "Stablemates," all of which were played at the concert. "Whisper Not" was the opener; it's one of my favorites, and the arrangement started with a bass solo, not revealing the melody until near its end. I was starting to figure it out as the changes progressed, and then a little melodic quote made me perk up a bit and go "yeah."

Even if Golson hadn't played a note all night, I would've given him a standing ovation at the end on the merits of his compositions alone. However, at the age of nearly 76, he's still got it as a player as well. Though he started off with a subdued, breathy tone and sparse figures, he let loose a few tunes into the set and would return to that peak again and again. I was extremely impressed, and, sitting in the fourth row as I was, it was also fun to watch the reactions of the sax players in the band.

But the writing and playing were just part of the package. He had stories--oh, the stories! One of the best tales of the night involved a 16-year-old Golson and his piano player buddy, future fellow giant Ray Bryant, having "am sessions" at Golson's house in Philly (he said they were "am sessions" because they weren't good enough to earn the "J" at first). One day, Bryant brought over this shy "country bumpkin" alto player who had just moved into the projects. At first, the new kid didn't want to play, but he did when asked...and he was pretty good. Golson's mother came downstairs and asked the new kid his name, and he told her--John Coltrane! He had several more stories like that; just like with last year's guest, Jimmy Heath, we felt like we were witnessing the entire history of jazz embodied in one person up there on stage.

All in all, it was a great night of music. The encore was an uptempo version of "Blues March" that brought the house to its feet. I could have listened for several more sets, but in the end, I walked away satisfied, knowing that I'd gotten to see and hear one more of the greats.

Oh, and I guess it's time to rent this movie, which features Golson in a speaking part. In a happy coincidence, it just came out on DVD today. Sounds like a great idea for the holidays... (Incidentally, that's not Benny's first foray into filmdom; he's been both a composer and an actor. Read it here.)

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