The Jazz.com Blog
January 27, 2009 · 1 comment
The Eisenhower Theater is the smallest on the main floor of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, but that’s not to say it’s modest: the three-tiered theater seats 1,100 and is as grandiose as any stage in the venue. This was the site of the equally grandiose “Benny Golson at 80” on Saturday night, January 24.
Even by the Kennedy Center’s opulent standards, Golson’s performance was no mere concert, but a full-on gala. Hosted by Danny Glover, the evening featured the legendary tenor saxophonist and composer performing with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO) and leading two small combos—his new lineup for the Jazztet and an all-star quintet featuring trombonist Curtis Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Al Harewood—plus guest appearances by classical pianist Lara Downes, vocalist Al Jarreau, and the Uptown String Quartet. Not to allow a humdrum moment, sections of a specially produced documentary of Golson’s life were screened during transitions between bands. The performance of the program easily matched its ambition – oddly, however, its weakest element turned out to be Golson himself.
Partly the problem was a technical one. Through the first half of the show, Golson (who wore a snappy suit and a large, contented smile) was poorly miked; his levels were so muffled that he was barely distinguishable from the CHJO on the opening “Along Came Betty.” His quiet was a surprise, but not terribly disconcerting given “Betty’s” gentle arrangement. It wasn’t until Golson joined the all-star quintet to play “Love, Your Magic Spell is Everywhere” and “Five Spot After Dark” that something was clearly amiss: the volume on the microphones was too low.
Even so, in the small combos Golson seemed the only one not to compensate for the amplification. On “Five Spot,” for example, Fuller’s trombone was aggressive and swaggering, and Walton, though steely as ever, launched a galloping piano solo. The same proved true of the Jazztet pieces: In particular, trumpeter Eddie Henderson and drummer Carl Allen were consistently loud and energetic, and Steve Davis met their verve on his own “Grove’s Groove.” Golson, though perfectly deft and inventive in his solos, somehow felt detached—as though he’d just as soon be watching TV in his hotel room.
The technical glitch was fixed in the second act, the tenor in its rightful place as the dominant sound onstage. Its practitioner, however, still seemed uninspired, though less so, when the Jazztet returned for “Uptown Afterburn” (likely the best performance of the night, with the rest of the sextet firing on all thrusters) and were joined by Al Jarreau for “Whisper Not.” It wasn’t until Golson returned to the CHJO for “I Remember Clifford” that he was truly engaged—mindful of the tragedy of the song’s namesake, Clifford Brown (which had been recounted in the film), Golson’s horn suddenly bore all of the nostalgic sadness along with his standard virtuosity and imagination. This was the Benny Golson we’d been hoping to see.
If the honoree was having an off night, it wasn’t spreading. The other musicians were nimble, some downright stellar: Henderson and Allen went above and beyond in their performances, the trumpeter fierce but radiant in his lines and the drummer turning in strong and unendingly happy solos and fills. Another drummer, CHJO’s Jeff Hamilton, also did a superlative job, notably with his beautiful brushwork on “Clifford.” The guests’ performances were likewise difficult to impeach; Downes’ performance of Golson’s “On Gossamer Wings” was an anomaly—a throwback to Romantic-era piano solos—but beautiful, and Jarreau’s delivery of “Whisper Not” was even more clever and expressive than usual. The highlight of the entire concert, however, was the unannounced guest: Golson’s fellow Philadelphian, Bill Cosby, who joined the show to present Benny with a special performance at the piano, a few hilariously dissonant minutes of gibberish. (“I wrote this when I was four years old!” Cosby shouted off-mike.)
If anything, the other musicians’ enthusiasm should have been contagious, which makes Golson’s non-engagement that much more puzzling.
As a friend noted later, Golson is at his most comfortable when building a rapport with his audience, joking and telling stories. He’s a gentleman and a people person. This evening’s program, however, was tightly controlled; between the film, Glover’s speaking parts, and the transition between bands, Golson had little room to play to the crowd. “I Remember Clifford,” on the other hand, allowed him to share a personal moment with us, and may thus have provided the connection he (and we) sought.
At 80 years old, however, Golson’s chops are still beyond question, and there’s no doubt that in a venue more suited to his persona—an intimate venue—his performance would be incandescent. The venerable jazzman has plenty more to stories to tell.
This blog entry posted by Michael J. West