Playing 7:30 p.m. April 17 at Wright Music Hall, Middle Tennessee State University
Having grown up in Philadelphia and jammed with John Coltrane as a teen, saxophonist, composer and arranger Benny Golson continues a thriving career that may not be as well recognized as that of his famous peer but is no less essential to the history of jazz. As opposed to being known as a giant of the post-bop and modal innovations of one particularly fruitful era, Golson, like so many of the best arrangers, has moved in sync with the currents of jazz over a long period of timein his case, more than 50 yearswhile also making distinctive individual contributions.
Still holding onto a tenor style that owed more to the hard-driving swing of Coleman Hawkins than to the boppers, Golson started playing with bandleaders of the highest pedigree in the 1950s, including Lionel Hampton, Johnny Hodges, Dizzy Gillespie and Art Blakey. Early in the next decade, he teamed up with trumpeter Art Farmer to form The Jazztet, taking a turn toward soul jazz and a rawer style, at times stepping out of the box to approach implicit dialogue with Coltrane. Golson's most lasting compositions of the mid-to-late '50s quickly entered the repertoire of almost every player in the straightahead tradition and remain there to this day.
At the top of this list is "I Remember Clifford," Golson's elegy for one-time band mate Clifford Brown, the influential trumpeter whose death at age 26 is the only reason he's not mentioned in the same breath as Miles Davis. Several generations of players have lent their distinctive voices to the ballad, starting with Gillespie (one of Brown's mentors), catching on with his contemporaries like Sonny Rollins and Stan Getz, and later reaching as far out stylistically as Anthony Braxton and geographically as Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.
The soft-treading "Whisper Not" and the more brazen blues of "Killer Joe" are not far behind in the list of standards, with melodic lines that have seeped into mainstream culture, even if listeners do not instantly recognize Golson's composing style in the same way that they might point out an Ellington or a Monk tune. Perhaps the best compliment one can pay to these standards is that they have been open to fresh approaches since the day they were written and have survived many decades of mannerist jazz trends that have since gone stale.
Since the '60s, a large segment of Golson's work has dwelled on arranging and composing for film, television and a host of performers from Dusty Springfield and Ella Fitzgerald to Itzhak Perlman. With his gift for writing melodies that have gained widespread recognition, as well as his interest in working with a multiplicity of ensemble voices in all genres, Golson's scoring and original compositions for TV shows like Mission: Impossible and M♦A♦S♦H have had more lasting appeal than mere period pieces.
Now 75, Golson shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to teach and perform regularly and to receive major commissions for jazz and classical orchestral works. Each of his new recordings is also forward-looking, experimenting with different combinations of players and arrangements, even as he grounds all his projects in a firm sense of jazz history.
His 2001 album, One Day, Forever, consists entirely of Golson's compositions (some new, some revisited) and displays the best of all the worlds he has embraced. The title track, in memory of Farmer's recently deceased wife as well as Miles Davis, backs understated vocalist Shirley Horn with an arrangement of cellos, French horns and a flute. Not only do Golson and Farmer reinvigorate Jazztet standards by including younger voices like trombonist Curtis Fuller throughout the CD, but the tenorist's mature style holds court in introspective, soulful and well-wrought solo statements.
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