REVIEW: Benny Golson Quartet at Ronnie Scott’s,

Benny Golson in 2006
Photo credit: Ed Newman/ Creative Commons

Benny Golson Quartet
(Ronnie Scott’s, March 8th 2016. Review by Andrew Cartmel)

Benny Golson pulls the microphone off the stand to tell the audience at Ronnie Scott’s a story, and the cable drops out of the bottom of it. “This is an omen,” says Golson. “I talk too much.” It’s been observed that of all the jazz luminaries in the famous photo ‘A Great Day in Harlem’ in 1958, there are only two survivors — Benny Golson and Sonny Rollins. If Rollins dominates as improviser, then Golson arguably has the edge as the writer of tunes that have become standards.

On his classic composition Whisper Not Benny Golson played breathy, low phrases, hoarsely and erotically insistent — and beautifully lyrical. His sparse, husky tenor was set against bright cymbal highlights by Doug Sides while Antonio Faraò offered soft, chiming piano in support. Golson played a pensive chant against the taut, supple rhythm section. Faraò’s piano notes cascaded, all sharp edges, exploring and testing the outline of the tune like a cat scratching to get in. Benny Golson closed his eyes and lifted his fist in delight. Gilles Naturel sawed the strings of the double bass insistently in a softly ruthless rush of phrases. Golson provided a lover’s whisper as Doug Sides loped and leaped across intervals. It was a wonderfully moody and eloquent piece, shimmering out of existence at the end.

Benny Golson is an ingratiating raconteur and a priceless primary source in the story of jazz. At the age of 87, he clearly has to pace himself. But a couple of marathon 15-minute anecdotes, while valuable as oral history, cut into what was already an abbreviated gig. These tales concerned his friends and partners John Coltrane and Clifford Brown. They were often moving, but not as moving as the music itself. An unkind listener might have been tempted to reverse Miles Davis’s famous adage and say, “Just put the horn into your mouth.”

When Benny Golson did put the horn into his mouth in Mr PC, a John Coltrane composition, Coltrane’s playing was evoked by a subtle squeak and squawk lurking in Golson’s smooth tenor lyricism. Antonio Faraò seized the tune and shook it until it rattled, as Doug Sides poured on salvos. Gilles Naturel got to show what he could do with a polished, hip solo, Sides excelled on the drums and then Golson returned to offer a slick, bop gloss.

I Remember Clifford opened with Golson playing a hollow, mournful, heartfelt solo against minimal bass, light touch brushes and subdued piano chords. Golson’s tenor was a sharp, lonely, isolated sound like a grainy radio broadcast from 1956 bringing us the terrible news of Clifford Brown’s death on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Golson’s playing was deft, thoughtful and haunted by loss. Antonio Faraò played runs of considered beauty, Doug Sides shimmered on the brushes, and Benny Golson ended on a ghostly, lonely solo — a lilting, whispery serenade of loss.

This was the highlight of an all-too brief gig. The half dozen tunes played by Benny Golson’s quartet tonight only scratched the surface of this great musician’s catalogue.

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