Mainstream! The Great Benny Golson
The present CD’s title track has a programme with which nobody really needs bother that much. It’s nice that Benny got a part in the film for which this music was composed, and it might be interesting that the music’s said to represent people moving in out and around a transport terminal. But what is of musical account is the variety of rhythms and cross-rhythms and the shifts of pace which are crucial to Golson’s music.
He is resolutely North American in seeking metrical variety without more than occasional resource to, for instance, Latin patterns, or Caribbean, or on at least two other not so old CDs, something almost Klezmer (albeit called “Gypsy Jingle-Jangle”). These are not presences outside North America, and Golson manages them with unusual intelligence and profundity, but they are appendices to his main building.
He comments on them actively just as he comments on aspects of US popular music and its rhythms. There is no “fusion”; there is no superficiality. He lifts nothing; he takes things up and does something more with each one.
If he uses a steady rhythmic pattern, it’s to allow variety and fluctuations of pace in solos, a stimulating and stimulated freedom within firm patterns which lets the music develop melodically and emotionally, and also in rhythmic complexity against whichever steady dance drums, bass, and piano do. His themes often have memorably strong rhythmic patterns quite of their own. He may have a fair number of very interesting compositions to his name, but when one reads of a performer producing album after album of new compositions, and each of these is described as ‘strong’, either they aren’t really, or some term involving super-strength is needed for Golson.
“Killer Joe” is at once a portrait of a type or generalised individuality, a refinement of a proto-funk walking beat—the rhythm section engages in counterpoint!—and an expression of well-developed musical character which gives soloists an opportunity to engage in dialogue. The leading rhythmic-melodic figure—the notes and the beat are inseparable—demands their comment.
Here, a tune with “Caribbean” in the title (“Caribbean Drifting”) is almost a parody of Calypso rhythm. There’s nothing crudely simple about it; the atmosphere is complex and the soloists have a wealth of (plural) opportunities. Golson’s boundless admiration for Dave Brubeck’s “In My Own Sweet Way” perhaps reflects a depth of interests in common between these two rhythmists.
Golson has a tremendous expressive fluency on tenor saxophone—he is not a revolutionary yet he is absolutely not predictable. He never tries to scare anybody, and he is full of surprises from sheer depth of invention.
Here he has Eddie Henderson as front-line partner on trumpet. The blurb refers to Henderson’s opening of “Park Avenue Petite” as on ‘muted trumpet’, but ‘muted’ is a metaphor for the very subdued, almost toneless sound of Henderson’s entirely open horn. There is no mute in it, it just doesn’t sound (in another sense) open. On “Caribbean”, Henderson does have a mute in, and whatever his obvious recorded pedigree, the range of colour he achieves within mute brings to mind older musicians he often differs from quite drastically when open (Harry Edison, obviously, plus Roy Eldridge). It was hard to think of a player of his later generation who does so much inside a mute—probably more than he does without one—until sheerly coincidentally I received another CD by a lesser-known contemporary of his. Can the mute-wearing trumpet be moving into the musical territory of such ancient tenor saxophonists as Don Byas and Lucky Thompson, so important still in Benny Golson’s own playing?
The nice, gently fluffy-edged but light-toned tenor on “Park Avenue” seems to inspire the pianist, Mike LeDonne, to his own delicacy. Nearly a veteran now, but not widely known, he has problems on “Blues March”. That lively application of a military beat, of military drumming or even the military itself, is another comment-loosener. But the jovial Carl Allen (lovely guy, wonderful drummer) doesn’t get that crisp overriding definition Art Blakey achieved on the tune’s premiere. LeDonne sounds almost stranded, pumping away without the proper rhythmic edge. Henderson minimises the distance between himself and Roy Eldridge with some corkscrewing, highaspossible, rapidaspossible playing.
Golson, having played “Sweet Georgia Brown” a very great deal during his apprenticeship, had never recorded it till now. The effect is shockingly anti-pretentious, without that ‘passionate intensity’ with which the worst are too often (cf. W.B. Yeats) filled. Don Redman’s “Cherry” was likewise out of style with an abiding emotional circumscription Golson always avoided. There is a winsome charm to the almost simple-minded lyric (best sung in gentle self-parody but not sung here). The tune needs very detailed shading and nuance, and a not very bebop tendency of innocent melodic extension. On his favourite Brubeck tune, Golson does show what an interesting player of Latin music he could be, if he hadn’t his other ambitions.
“Killer Joe” is, after all, a portrait drawn from Golson’s US experience, and one he was surprised, he later reported, has given its name to something like a genre of tunes. Back to Byas, whose recorded masterpiece is arguably “London-Donnie”, a version of “Londonderry Air” (Danny Boy) which antedates a famous recording by Ben Webster. Webster is all floating beauty, Byas emotional like no other tenorist. Golson has a go at the same in the very lengthy coda to his “I Remember Clifford” on Up Jumped Benny on Arkadia, where he goes into a Puccini aria whose tune (but not words) might have helped inspire the Clifford Brown tribute.
I don’t mention that to detract from the CD under present consideration. Just to underline the singularity of Golson’s ambition and depth of musical expression, which brings and keeps a whole lot from a very wide range of musical and human experience into jazz. Do many people know how much there is to this great man’s music?