Since the well publicised death of Michael Jackson I’m sure that I’m not the only one to mourn the passing of a great musician and musical influence for the world of pop and countless other genres. But as well as feel the passing of a man who will not be forgotten I can’t help but reflect on music itself and note that unfortunately none of us are getting any younger. I don’t like to start with such a morbid note but it is true and it does take moments like this to remind us that there are a great number of outstanding musicians out there and that they should be seen live before they are only available on CD’s and other recorded formats.
On the 16th June, Ronnie Scotts saw a jazz master step through its doors on one of his few return trips to the UK and he was well worth the late midweek tube ride home for. The night was hosted by the great Benny Golson and the audience was treated to some of his greatest numbers reminding us how many fantastic jazz standards he has written in his lifetime.
The night began with John Law’s Art Of Sound; a three piece outfit with John doubling on piano and Budda Box. The original songs set the mood nicely as the audience gradually filtered in. Unfortunately the night showed evidence of signs of either the recession or Ronnie’s tickets prices as it seemed that even a name like Benny Golson didn’t pack the house, but there was enough for the atmosphere to be special. John’s Law music is defiantly worth investigating; his first set to kick the night off featured a good range of styles – from straight up swing, to minimal and almost classical styled pieces. The Budda Box added a different dimension too. With synths and recorded vocal speeches John Law was able to add a more deeper style to an ordinary three piece. There was enough space for each musician to have their own solos to illustrate that the trio was built upon three very strong jazz musicians. My favourite of the night was ‘Trap Clap’ which was a bossa piece but a bossa with a difference. It had the light style of a normal bossa but the bass and piano added paper to the strings of their instrument to give a more edgy sound. Definitely different and definitely worth checking out – John Law’s latest CD ‘Congregation’ was released earlier this year.
One short interval later and one of my idols stepped onto the stage. Benny Golson had with him a strong back line including Chris Parsons and Simon Wolfe and a strong front line with his wife in the audience. I’ve never seen Benny live before and have heard many of his songs performed both live and recorded by many other bands, so was excited to hear the man play them himself. Benny Golson plays just like he talks; steady, smooth and sultry. His tone was mellow and was complimented well by the trio behind him. No one can doubt that Benny Golson knows how to write a good tune and it shows in his playing that he is taking care with performance of his tunes as if he was playing them for the first time again. Each song was confident and strong but they were played with almost paternal care and dedication that was admirable to hear. Benny would probably be the first to tell you that he is more of a songwriter than he is a saxophonist but still he played well, his improvising was strong and sounded like the man had been playing them for a majority of his life – which he has. Each track sounded comfortable and yes he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of modern jazz, but to be honest that wasn’t why I was there. I was there to hear a great musician play some great songs that he had written and I wasn’t let down.
If there was one area that I was slightly disappointed about that night it probably would have been the number of songs played by Mr Golson (that and the lack of ‘Killer Joe‘). Through two sets of an hour a piece he only played eleven songs and two of these were played by the trio alone. A lot of the time was taken up by the anecdotes that were used as an introduction for each song. It was great to hear him tell the stories he had but by the end I felt that I would have preferred him to tell him the story of his life in the way musicians should; by playing their music. As always the story behind ‘I Remember Clifford’ was a moving one, and indeed it was a moving rendition, but still I felt there should have been more music – after all that was why we were there.
The trio with Benny were given two features; a great arrangement of ‘Billies Bounce’ which was more of a straight swing version than the bop rendition that most opt for, then later in the second set they performed ‘It Might As Well Be Spring’. Despite wanting to hear more of Benny himself the trio did not disappoint in any manner. Each were strong players and we were witnessing true masters of their instruments playing and the drummer was outstanding. All too often drum solos are overlooked by trios and quartets but he was so strong they couldn’t do anything else but let him take centre stage and play. And man could he play!
My favourite tracks of the night were ‘I Remember Clifford’, which was the main reason for seeing Benny that night, ‘Now’s The Time’ and ‘Gypsy Jingle Jangle’. The last song finished Benny’s final set for the night and was a gypsy folk infused track with fast sporadic runs and touches of firelight and night majesty about it.
The chance to see a jazz great like Benny Golson was a chance to step back in time and see the creator of many fine jazz standards step forward and play them how he wrote them many years ago. It was great to see one of the greats performing again and I hope that he returns to the UK soon as there are few out there now who knew and performed with the greatest jazz musicians and still live to tell the tale. This year he celebrated his 80th birthday, so happy birthday Benny! Despite wanting to hear more of his music than his talking it was still a privilege to hear what he had to say. Keep telling them Benny, the world’s listening.