The eighty year-old composer and saxophonist Benny Golson has added many enduring, much-played compositions to the jazz repertory, and it was a privilege to hear him play them – gently and thoughtfully- at Ronnie’s last night.
Golson has an instantly likeable, generous and self-deprecating platform manner. His vivid and interesting, if lengthy, spoken introductions explained the circumstances of composition of tunes such as “Along came Betty” and “Whisper Not.” At one point, with poignant emotion undimmed after 53 years he talked about the spur to writing “I remember Clifford.” Trumpeter Clifford Brown had died in a car crash aged just 25. Golson’s last words before embarking on that tune sounded heartfelt, as did the sweet-toned playing which followed them: “I still miss him.”
Golson felt obliged to apologise repeatedly for his saxophone playing: “I’m a lousy saxophone player” was a phrase which came out more than once. But that sentiment was simultaneously a generous tribute to the trio of James Pearson, Simon Woolf and Chris Dagley – “You should know that these guys are first-rate, and they’re going to make me sound really good.”
Pearson was indeed on particularly fine form last night. At one point Golson, overjoyed by what he had heard, looked at his watch after the trio had played Johnny Mandel’s Emily to see if could fit in a call to the composer to tell him how well the tune had been played.
Woolf was on great form too. He played bowed solos on the bass, capturing, imitating, developing Golson’s simple lines. Chris Dagley was sympathetic and responsive throughout. There was only one number taken at a proper uptempo burn- fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane’s blues Mr P.C., near the end of the second set – which at last gave him at last the opportunity to show some real kick.
What for me was most memorable about the gig was to hear Golson play his own themes with such beauty, lyricism and simplicity. The fire which he brought to improvising in his prime is not what it once was. Misty reflectiveness was the mood last night, occasionally drifting into reverie. But the melodies of the opening number “Horizon Ahead” and “I remember Clifford” were stated with a directness which got straight through to the emotions.
Golson said how pleased he was to be back at Ronnie’s after a long gap. He visited Ronnie’s in the sixties. The album “Three Little Words “with Stan Tracey’s trio was recorded as long ago as 1965. There was more than a hint – “I might just tear up my passport” – that there might not be many more visits.
So if you want to hear a legend playing his own tunes, and telling his engaging stories- eg about Golson and his teenage friend John Coltrane (the former 16, the latter 18) being star-struck swooners when Charlie Parker visited Philadelphia…. there are two more nights on this visit- tonight Tuesday 16th and tomorrow 17th – to go, to hear, and to enjoy.