Anna M. Sala
NY: (212) 581 - 0612
NY: (212) 581 - 0612
When Benny Green took the bandstand at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, California, with his trio of bassist David Wong and drummer Rodney Green last June 13th, it wasn’t his intention to make an album. But when the set was done, the 53-year-old piano maestro, who had recorded the engagement, as is his custom, on his portable field recorder, realized he had something special.
“I felt connected with the audience, and when I listened back, the feeling had transmitted,” Green states, explaining why he decided to release happiness! (Sunnyside), his second consecutive location date from the hallowed northern California club, following the efflorescent 2015 album Live In Santa Cruz! (Sunnyside).
“I’ve been playing at Kuumbwa consistently for over 30 years both as a sideman and with my own trio,” Green continues. “This audience has heard me many times before, and whenever I return I want to give them something new. This is an expectation I place on myself as a bandleader.”
Green fulfills that self-imposed mandate on happiness! (Sunnyside), a summational album that stands as strong as any item from a distinguished leader discography that dates to 1988, six years after he returned to his birthplace of New York City from Berkeley, California, where he grew up, 80 miles north of Santa Cruz. In contrast to Live In Santa Cruz! and its 2013 in-studio predecessor, Magic Beans (Sunnyside), which both feature exclusively original music, here Green primarily interprets repertoire by a cohort of composers—Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Thad Jones, Duke Pearson and Wes Montgomery—that evokes the sound and feeling of the 1950s and 1960s Blue Note recordings on which Green cut his teeth as a Berkeley teenager. In continuity with those albums and the 2010 trio date, Source (JLP), Green brings forth the inflamed, go-for-broke spirit of bebop, deploying the impeccable, often spectacular technique that has garnered him international acclaim since his mid twenties, without ever showing off or sacrificing the unrelenting swing, pianistic sophistication and abiding blues feeling that is his signature.
“When I was younger, those guys were still alive and extremely active, and although my passion was strong, my sense of responsibility to represent them was less focused,” Green says. “These days, so much is called “jazz” which isn’t intended to swing or have any sort of blues to it, which are the central elements that my mentors taught me should always be present in jazz. Now that most of my heroes like Cedar and Freddie and Horace have passed on, it’s a deeper calling I live by than ‘Oh, how fun that I get to play.’ I see many people younger than me in the audience, in addition to older listeners, and I feel they are coming out to get the experience of what straight-ahead jazz feels like in person. A self-respecting disciple understands that the level of Art Blakey or Ray Brown will never be surpassed, but their vibration—the way the beat feels when I played with them—this became part of my DNA.”
Green is referring to his 1987-1989 tenure playing piano with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers—which he joined after a 1983-1987 stint with the iconic jazz vocalist Betty Carter—and to 4½-year (1992-1996) run with the Ray Brown Trio. After leaving Blakey’s employ, he joined the Freddie Hubbard Quintet, in which, between 1989 and 1992, his partners in the rhythm section were bassist Christian McBride and drummer Carl Allen. In 1990, he signed with Blue Note, for which he made seven recordings during the ensuing decade, three of them (Greens , Testifyin’ , and That’s Right! ) featuring his working trio of McBride and Allen, and another (The Place To Be ) with McBride and drummer Kenny Washington.
On these dates, Green established a capacious sonic template, executed with exemplary creativity and consistency. He refracted into his own argot vocabulary drawn from warp-speed Bud Powell-influenced bebop and the vertiginous double-octave concept of Phineas Newborn, Jr.; in-the-pocket, blues-drenched Soul Jazz and oh-so-slow, heart-on-the-sleeve balladry harkening to Gene Harris; American Songbook interpretations that struck a just balance between esoteric intellect and communicative sensibility; original music that drew from the harmonic concepts of Freddie Hubbard and McCoy Tyner.
He brought similar values to Brown’s trio, as documented on a series of CDs for Telarc Jazz: Bass Face (1993), Don’t Get Sassy (1994), Some of my Best Friends Are…The Piano Players (1994), Seven Steps to Heaven (1995), Super Bass (1996) and Live at Sculler’s (1996).
Piano icon Oscar Peterson took notice, and signified his approval by choosing Green as the first recipient of the City of Toronto’s Glenn Gould International Protégé Prize in Music 1993. Five years later, Peterson invited Green to join him on the classic two-piano date Oscar & Benny, on which Brown also performed.
Green ended his Blue Note contract with These Are Soulful Days (1999), a drummerless trio with McBride and guitarist Russell Malone that drew stylistically from the classic Peterson-Brown-Herb Ellis recordings of the 1950s. After recording Naturally with that same trio for Telarc in 2000, Green recorded three more Telarc CDs: a 2001 solo piano recital titled Green’s Blues, and two duo dates with Malone (with whom he toured extensively from 2002 to 2006), titled Jazz at the Bistro (2003) and Bluebird (2004).
As the Green-Malone duo ran its course, Green eventually moved back to the West Coast, where he recalibrated, looking for his next step. He recalls: “Calls were coming in for me to lead trio shows, but I was basically just putting groups together for specific shows, relatively unrehearsed, jamming, playing standards. This wasn’t wholly satisfying. I wasn’t really sinking my teeth into the situation.” The next step arrived in 2009, when guitarist Satoshi Inoue brought Green to Japan for a tour with Kenny Washington and Green’s Messengers bandmate Peter Washington on bass, and asked the rhythm section to play some numbers.
“At our first rehearsal, it felt so great playing with them that my passion came right back to me as though it had never dissipated,” Green says. “Suddenly I felt that I needed to have my own trio again.” As he rededicated himself to the trio context, he refocused on composition. “I remember Art Blakey telling me, ‘It’s important to write because your music will be here after you’re gone,’” he says.
Indeed, each of the 19 Green originals that appear on Magic Beans and Live in Santa Cruz! has the feel of a tune you somehow recall from a recording by such bebop piano icons as Bud Powell, Tadd Dameron, Walter Bishop, Jr., Walter Davis, Jr., Elmo Hope or Sonny Clark. The music is alive and fresh, as though Green and company were actually living in the era of his heroes, transplanted to the here-and-now. “There’s a certain magical world on the Blue Note records I grew up fascinating in—particularly quintet records with trumpet, tenor saxophone, piano, bass and drums—that I make a conscious effort to translate to the trio,” Green says. “of course you can’t make the piano sound like a ride cymbal, and there are so many elements in the quintet that a piano, on the surface, doesn’t have. But there’s always a way, if you envision a sound and feeling that you want to get across to listeners, and you know it’s valid, and you hang in there with your concept, never give up the vision and search. If you have the heart to stay with it, a particular feeling and sound is achievable.”
That Green knows whereof he speaks is evident not only from his own meteoric career trajectory after moving back to New York in the spring of 1982, but in his choice to study privately with Bishop (referenced on the “Airegin”-like “Bish Bash’ from Live In Santa Cruz!) and Davis (to whom Green paid tribute on “Humphrey”—Davis’ sobriquet—from Testifyin’!).
“As a teenager I was very drawn to the fire I felt from Bud Powell and McCoy Tyner, who I saw as connected, not as two separate islands,” Green says. “I saw Bish as a connection not only to Bud, but to Jackie McLean, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Art Blakey, whose records he played on. When I introduced myself to Bish, I asked if he would teach me. At our first lesson, he showed me his upright piano and said, ‘Play something.’ I played my interpretation of his trio arrangement of ‘Don’t Blame Me’ from the Jackie McLean album Capuchin Swing. That helped us to bond in a big way. From second lesson on, he wouldn’t accept money from me. He started calling himself my New York father. He was astoundingly patient and tolerant of my youthful naiveté, and he really cared about me.”
In lessons with Davis, himself a devoted acolyte of Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell during his own formative years, Green studied Monk’s and Powell’s compositions in granular detail, beginning with the volcanic “Tempus Fugit,” which Green recorded at warp-speed tempo on Source. After Green had committed the notes to muscle memory, Davis told him, “You’ve got to make it cry.” Green continues: “Walter slowed the intro way down, as though it was a heart-wrenching ballad, and he put this deep minor-key emotion into the phrasing and the dynamics. It sounded somehow Russian all of a sudden. It goes by so fast at the tempo that Bud played it, but you hear and feel that cry embedded into the music when you slow it down.”
These lessons bedrocked Green’s progress with Betty Carter, whose admonition “swing and play pretty,” remains his mantra. “Betty gave me a sense of visuals,” he says. “You can see a place, whether it’s from an actual memory or a vivid projection of imagination. You go there and feel everything about the atmosphere—the sun on your skin, the expanse, nature around you—and you can find the notes and intervals and harmonies and rhythms that paint a picture of this place. If it’s real to you, the composer, if you really meant it, took time and care and you put your heart into it, you can get to something real that listeners can feel and create a kind of place that invites them inside, although of course they don’t know what you had in mind while you were in the process, outside of what a certain title suggests of an instrumental piece. The challenge for a composer is to stay with their initial vision and honor that place they want to bring the listener to, to remember that this inspiration is coming from somewhere deeper than may seem to be represented on the surface levels of the process of choosing the notes which will open doors of imagery and emotion.”
A few months before he joined Carter in April 1983, Green sat in with the Jazz Messengers at Manhattan’s Blue Note. He had memorized the band’s book, impressing Blakey, who told him, “Keep doing what you’re doing; I’m gonna need you one day.” That moment of being asked to join The Jazz Messengers finally arrived in 1987. Carter bestowed her blessing on Green’s transition, “I know this is what you’ve always wanted and you’ve really worked for it”.
“What made me want to go to New York in the first place was hearing Art Blakey live at [San Francisco’s] Keystone Korner,” says Green, who was playing locally with such high-level jazzfolk as Eddie Henderson and Hadley Caliman during his teens. “When I saw The Messengers live for the first time in 1978, and I witnessed the connection between (pianist) James Williams and Art, I saw my whole future before me. I felt a conviction and I innately knew that I was going to move to New York, hear the band live as much as possible, keep a little tape recorder with me constantly to tape them and learn their music, meet Art, try to get a chance to sit in with him, be good enough that he’d want me in the band, and eventually become a Jazz Messenger. In hindsight, all these years later, I have to say that this testifies to what a catalytic force Art Blakey was. I felt this heritage streaming through Art. I felt a spiritual love in how he played. It drew me towards its undeniable warmth like sunshine. I had no aspirations that after Art I’ll become a leader, or that I wanted to record for a record label or anything like that. I just wanted to be a Messenger.”
During his years with Blakey, Green also played and recorded with ex-Messenger Bobby Watson’s influential Horizon combo. In 1989, he joined Freddie Hubbard (represented on happiness! by “Down Under” from Blakey’s 1961 album Mosaic), who heard Green while reuniting with the Messengers on several European dates. “Musically it was a godsend of a next step,” Green says. “Freddie needed, among other things, colors from the piano which were more like the sound of McCoy Tyner with John Coltrane and less specifically like Bobby Timmons playing ‘Moanin’, which I had done my best to immerse myself in with hopes of representing authentically as a Messenger.”
On the three aforementioned trio recordings that Green made with McBride and Allen, the pianist augmented his toolkit, incorporating the parallel octave concept of Memphis-born piano virtuoso Phineas Newborn, Jr., and the soulful feeling of Gene Harris, his predecessor in Ray Brown’s trio.
“Betty Carter had talked to me about how the way Gene Harris touched the piano in his 1960’s trio, which was called The Three Sounds and is documented on numerous Blue Note recordings, was perfection,” Green says, adding that, after forming his trio with McBride and Allen in 1990, he became “obsessed” with the Ray Brown Trio which then included Gene Harris. Green’s then-manager, who was a friend of Brown, persuaded the iconic bassist to hear a late night duo set by Green and McBride at the Knickerbocker, a Greenwich Village piano saloon. Afterward, Brown told the youngbloods, “Hearing you two reminds me of me and Oscar [Peterson] when we were your age.” Not long thereafter while in Japan, after hearing Green in a set by a “young lions” group called The Jazz Futures, Brown asked Green to participate in a record date with Jeff Hamilton and Australian multi-instrumentalist James Morrison. At the date, Brown told Green that the group would be imminently touring Australia, and asked if Green would be available to replace Harris for the first ten days of the tour.
“Ray asked if I could choose a dozen of his arrangements from the records, and that whichever ones I liked would form the repertoire for those dates,” Green reports. “He didn’t know that I already had all of his trio records, and had been working diligently on learning all of the arrangements. I slept with those records, played note-for-note along with Gene, so I arrived in Australia knowing every detail. At our first rehearsal, Ray asked what I’d like to play. I said, ‘Anything from the book.’ ‘Well, which tunes?’ ‘Anything’, I said. Ray started calling tunes, one after another. I knew them all. Ray kept a perfect poker face the whole time. But Jeff Hamilton later told me that during the break Ray said to him, ‘I can’t believe that kid learned all those arrangements.’ I returned home to New York, and a few weeks later, Ray called me from Australia, mid-point in the tour, and said, ‘Gene is going to be leaving the trio; would you like to join the band?’ I said, ‘Deal me in, please!’”
Green regards his tenure with Brown as “a kind of finishing school on the path toward trio leadership.” He continues: “Ray was addressing sophistication of sound—the actual sound I get from the piano—in a way that no one had talked to me about before. I knew at the outset that I’d get a Ph.D on swinging from this man, but it didn’t occur to me how much importance he placed on tone production, and that same message really carried over when I met Oscar Peterson through Ray.
“So many things Ray introduced me to still loom large for me every day, such as honest respect for a melody. The melody is the heart of any piece, which directly informs any truly meaningful, substantial improvisation—it’s not just a sequence of chord symbols upon which to apply scale tones. Ray not only showed me the melodies of the standards we played, but sat with me at the piano and showed me the value of choosing the right bass note that help the melody to resonate and “speak”. He showed me comparative examples of chord changes that merely ‘work’ functionally, in a utilitarian sense, as opposed to changes that truly help the melody to sing.”
In his present capacity as Professor of Jazz Piano at the University of Michigan, where he has taught since 2014, Green continues to draw on life lessons shown him by his mentors. “These guys were consummate masters of music, with such a deep sense of dynamics, contrast, shape and transition,” he says. “When I was a kid approaching this music, I had some beans, I had some energy, but I simply hadn’t lived that much. It’s incredible that the masters I worked with treated me not like a kid, but as though I just belonged in their bands. I so appreciate the patience and belief they showed in me. That was a tremendous form of leadership on their parts, as well, I think.”
Helming a trio which for the past three years has included a bassist and drummer who are two decades his junior, Green applies that leadership model on a regular basis. “David and Rodney are pros, but they they still look up to me because I’m almost 20 years older than each of them,” he says. “I feel a responsibility to keep the repertoire interesting and engaging for them as well as our audiences. We’re each quite serious about representing straight-ahead jazz in our lives, it’s a shared devotion for all three of us. When I play with these wonderful musicians who I consider to be brothers in what we share in this music to being the center of our daily lives, every note and every space means so much more to me now than I’ve ever felt before. I’m hungrier and more appreciative of the opportunity to play jazz for people today. I’m not knocking my former self at all, my heart as a jazz musician has been here since I was a barely more than a child. But as I take inventory of all the shifts and trends which occur in the industry, what’s meant by and subsequently thought of societally when one hears or reads the word ‘jazz’ in a commercial marketing capacity, and the truth of what I’ve been given by men who lived and died for this music, playing honest jazz becomes ever more precious to my human existence.
“I’ve never felt a need or a calling to try to become one who’s thought of or labeled as an innovator. Rather, I’ve strived since childhood to become an authentic jazz musician. I seek to stand as a torch-bearer for the continuum of straight-ahead jazz piano.”