Benny Golson at Chicago Symphony Center

Benny Golson by Mark Sheldon
Benny Golson

Story by Jean Timmons

On January 30, 2009, the Chicago Symphony Center welcomed jazz saxophonist and composer Benny Golson for a program billed as a celebration of his 80th birthday (born January 25, 1929), and it was a well-celebrated birthday, indeed. In the past, Golson has made music with many great jazz musicians, including Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, and Art Farmer. At one point in his career, he set playing aside to write music, arranging and composing for other jazz artists and for television series and films, e.g., M*A*S*H, Mission Impossible, and Des Femmes Disparaissent. For his birthday, he brought his tenor sax to Symphony Center.

Benny Golson It seems to this reviewer that the structure of the program allowed Golson the flexibility to play music other than popular or well-known Golson compositions. In other words, he was not tied to a musical review of his career. Fittingly, pianist Mulgrew Miller, a musician who is very partial to Golson, and his trio opened the program. It was an excellent choice. With the fine accompaniment of his trio, Rodney Greene on drums and Ivan Taylor on bass, Miller gracefully executed a set that featured mainly Golson's well-known compositions.

As if to carefully ease the audience into a night of jazz music, Miller opened with the old chestnut "A Sleeping Bee," a very lyrical piece, which Miller sang beautifully via his piano. He was so enthralling, with cascading Oscar Peterson-like passes, that one did not hear the other members of the trio until well into the music. Then the bass took on an involved solo, on top of old sleeping bee. Next, the energetic drummer made his presence known in sharp contrast to the other members of the trio. After this musical introduction, gracious Mulgrew spoke to the audience about the honored guest, referring to Golson at one point as His Excellency. Then the trio played three classic Golson compositions: "Stablemates," "I Remember Clifford," and "Whisper Not."

Each piece was thoughtfully arranged. "Stablemates"" was rendered at a fast, breezy pace. Unique in that it didn't sound like anything else, except for the hint, perhaps, of "Tangerine" toward the end. Mulgrew solos were distinctive, and the bass was resonant. The ballad "I Remember Clifford" touched on all the contours of a reminiscence. When Mulgrew played the ending solo, one is reminded of the reason this sweet remembrance of the beloved Clifford Brown has such long legs. "Whisper Not," another distinctive Golson piece, featured the marvelous brush work of the drummer, and Julliard-trained, Chicago-born bassist Taylor was outstanding as well.

Benny Golson The final piece provided a rousing finale to Mulgrew's set; it was Charlie Parker's "Relaxin' at Camarillo." Fast and furious. Listeners could certainly hear echoes of Parker. It was perfect for the drummer to attack, and he did. The trio jammed; the trio relaxed. They played their music, while setting the stage for the main attraction.

In addition to his tenor, Golson brought his Jazztet: Eddie Henderson (trumpet), Steve Davis (trombone), Mike LeDonne (pianist), Buster Williams (bass), and Carl Allen (drums). They took the stage and immediately launched a little swinger called "Grove's Groove." After a short group statement, the trombonist played out front. Golson was laid back on this selection, as they all were content to swing in an understated way-relaxin' at Symphony Center. Terribly cool.

Besides the writing and the playing, Benny Golson is a raconteur, and his introductions to the pieces were quite entertaining. He seemed to enjoy his stories and music along with the audience. It was intimate. The band followed the opener with Monk's "Epistrophy." From the first note, hit so emphatically to the roll of the drums, it was an excellent interpretation. Ever the band leader, Benny strolled the stage, pausing near members of the band to catch the intricacies of their improvisations.

Benny Golson At this juncture, Golson expressed his appreciation and interest in classical music as introductions to three classical-inspired arrangements. The first was based on a Chopin piece and it featured a trumpet and piano opener. When the other musicians joined, the drummer's use of brushes was a wonder. As for the trumpet, Henderson's tone was rather like that of Miles Davis. Switching gears on the next piece, Golson's "Gypsy Jingle Jangle," the band combined gypsy dance or folk music with jazz. For this one, the bass showed off his dexterity and the pianist stretched a bit as well. Clever music, it was, that gathered strength as it developed. And finally, Golson took on Verdi in a piece he called "Verdi's Voice." This music contained very familiar airs, but then Golson took over with his cleverness. The drummer established a firm rhythm, on which the trumpet nicely embellished. The trombonist was very sensitive but clear. The bass seemed to weep on this one. Great composition.

The final piece returned to straightahead jazz. Another Golson original composition, it was called "Uptown Afterburn" and was reminiscent of "Killer Joe." With this one, the bass set the pace and Golson blew hot on it. Much camaraderie on that stage for all to see. The night revealed an artist who has lived through many phrases of jazz, and his music reflected so much change. He is so dynamic, which was great for an audience to experience in a person of his age and stature.

On this night, there had to be an encore. We patiently waited until the drummer walked back on stage alone. He sat at his workbench and began establishing a rhythm that was a call to his compadres to join him for a little "Blues Walk." And so everyone marched along.

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