Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Benny Golson: The New ‘Tet and Some Old Favorites

New Time, New ‘Tet & The Best of Benny Golson
OJC/Concord Records

Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal had problems in its execution, but the premise is cool. Tom Hanks’ character is trying to enter America to get Benny Golson’s autograph, as a tribute to his late jazz-loving father. Golson himself briefly appears in the film, and he can also be heard joking with Horace Silver in the Academy Award nominated documentary, A Great Day in Harlem. Both give a sense of Golson’s easy stage manner and popularity with fellow musicians, which has led to a long, prestigious career, and now two new releases, New Time, New ‘Tet and his Greatest Hits, timed to coincide with his 80th birthday.

‘Tet is short for Jazztet, which was the name of the sextet Golson co-lead with Art Farmer from 1959 to 1962, and later reunited in the 1980’s. Together they developed a sound that married the fire of hardbop with more ambitious and structured arrangements than the standard blowing session fare for the Jazztet’s three horn frontline. It proved a perfect vehicle for Golson, so it makes sense that he would return to the sextet format with his new group.

New ‘Tet starts with “Grove’s Groove,” an easy mid-tempo get-to-know-you workout, providing each of the horns, Steve Davis on trombone, Golson on tenor, and (Dr.) Eddie Henderson on trumpet, as well as pianist Mike LeDonne and bassist Buster Williams in the rhythm section, nice solo space to introduce themselves. There is also one special guest on New ‘Tet, vocalist Al Jarreau, whose sophisticated interpretation Golson’s classic standard “Whisper Not,” complete with brief but pleasing scatting, should satisfy both the vocalist’s smooth-ish fans and Golson’s core jazz audience.

Golson draws from some eclectic source material, including an elegant but soulful cover of El DeBarge’s “Love Me in a Special Way,” which features particularly warm solo statements from the leader and Davis. His arrangements also morph the music of Verdi into the jazz waltz “Verdi’s Voice,” and Chopin’s ballad “L’adeau” into a showcase for Henderson’s muted trumpet.

New ‘Tet concludes with the lesser known Golson original, “Uptown Afterburn,” another up-tempo workout with a kind groove that never gets overly hectic. Frankly, it is pretty impressive how fresh and vital New ‘Tet sounds, considering it was recorded by an artist about to crack the octogenarian mark.

Of course, as a compilation, his new Best of release will hardly generate any review ink, but it still counts as part of Concord’s busy release schedule. The tracks themselves are culled from some great albums since Concord now holds the rights to the Prestige, Riverside, Contemporary, and Milestone catalogs, but selection choices will always debatable on collections. Here, several of his classic standards are indeed represented, including an earlier version of “Whisper Not” and “Along Came Betty,” but oddly there is no “I Remember Clifford,” his tribute to Clifford Brown, which is probably his best known, most covered composition.

Rights are always an issue too of course, which is why instead of the Jazztet’s original “Killer Joe” this collection includes a relatively recent version recorded for Terminal 1¸ a session of music inspired by the Spielberg film. However, not that the anyone could ever replace the great Art Farmer, but in one way some might actually prefer Golson's 2004 quintet take (featuring the New ‘Tet line-up, minus Davis), if only because it allows more time for the musicians to stretch out.

New ‘Tet is a timely and convincing reminder of Golson’s talents as a musician, arranger, and composer. It is great to hear him still at the top of his game after six decades in music. New Yorkers can also check out Golson and the New ‘Tet live at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola through Sunday (2/8).