Pianist Benny Green Takes A Few Chances
Pianist Benny Green took a few chances last Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, and the risks paid off handsomely – for both him and his listeners.
The move was significant because Green typically plays with so much polish, precision and control that one yearns for at least a hint of unpredictability and danger. And though Green still led his trio through an impeccably crafted set, the surprises came in terms of the repertoire he chose to play.
The extended disclaimer he offered before launching into some newly minted original compositions for the first time in public suggested that he was more than a little anxious about the endeavor. He needn’t have been, however, for he turned in his best work by far in these premieres.
Without having been able to script every phrase and musical interchange in his “Magnanimous,” the first new work of the evening, Green showed more spontaneity than one often expects from him. For starters, the tune itself proved quite attractive, thanks to its slinky rhythms, easy-swing tempo and subtle blues undercurrent. If Green overstated his right-hand lines at certain junctures, he made up for it with his breezy phrasing, unhurried tempo and elegantly nonchalant delivery.
He sounded even more relaxed, and less rehearsed, in another first-time performance, his “Song for My Mother.” If the title evoked Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father,” the tune itself hardly could have been further afield from Silver’s buoyant, hard-bop aesthetic. In Green’s opus, the even-keel rhythms hinted at bossa nova while the opening phrases just barely implied a melodic line. Not until the bridge of the tune did it begin to show a discernible shape, yet with gracefulness and a gentle rhythmic lilt.
The only flaw here was that Green and his trio, staffed by drummer Kenny Washington and bassist Dezron Douglas, didn’t seem to know where to take the piece or exactly how to develop it. So at a certain point they simply hit the final chord, without having built to a persuasive conclusion. Considering the newness of the work, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising, and the band will have plenty of time in which to grow into the work.
Music of Charlie Parker always has played a large role at the Jazz Showcase, and not only because an enormous image of the bebop genius serves as the stage backdrop. Almost everyone who plays the club pays some homage to Parker, out of respect to both his towering position in jazz and to Showcase founder Joe Segal’s love of Bird’s music. But few Showcase performers take on “Charlie’s Wig” (based on “When I Grow Too Old to Dream”), a rarity that inspired Green to loosen up a bit and produce a heady rhythmic momentum. Bravo for that.
Bassist Douglas crafted a big, bounding, joyous solo in “Charlie’s Wig,” and drummer Washington was characteristically effective throughout the night in bebop, ballads, blues – you name it.
The trio’s tour de force came in another unlikely tune, Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings,” of all things, a piece indelibly associated with Count Basie’s band. Somehow, these three musicians conjured the blues-swing aesthetic, startling contrasts in dynamics and whisper-soft gestures we associate with the Basie style, but distilled to chamber-music dimensions.