Mr. Mellifluous: A Listener’s Guide to Benny Golson

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 10.31.11 in Spotlights

Benny Golson's New York Scene

Benny Golson

Most jazz fans recognize Benny Golson’s tunes, even if they don’t know who wrote them. Art Blakey played “Blues March” every night for decades, “Stablemates” has been a jam session favorite even longer, and mastering “I Remember Clifford” is a trumpeter’s rite of passage.

Golson’s melodies sound good on their own, and have a way of slyly drawing improvisers in. His tunes have such strong shapes, soloists need only hint at their contours to sound focused on the material, and his catchy motifs lend themselves to impromptu development. “Whisper Not” is built on a pair of notes, the first short and low, the second longer and higher: a simple contrast played out in different ways in every phrase of the song. It’s easy for a soloist to run with that. Golson’s a composer who thinks like an improviser, and a superlative tenor saxophonist with a composer’s knack for tying together rhythmically supple phrases.

He grew up alongside chum John Coltrane in Philadelphia, and has some of the same speed, exploring the nooks of passing chords. But Golson had the warmer, furrier tone, and was more drawn to tuneful melody. You can hear what he owes tenor patriarch Coleman Hawkins. The unaccompanied “You’re My Thrill” on Golson’s Take a Number from 1 to 10 nods to Hawk’s solo classic “Picasso.”

In the late 1950s, Golson wrote for and recorded with trumpet phenom Lee Morgan, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band and octet, and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. He began making his own solid records in 1957, off to a running start with the hot/cool quintet/nonet Benny Golson’s New York Scene.

But he really clicked after teaming up with tartly suave trumpeter and peerless balladeer Art Farmer in the three-horn sextet the Jazztet, one of the great hard bop bands formed in the 1950s. Blakey’s Jazz Messengers was a battering ram, and Max Roach’s groups played intricate games with time. By comparison the Jazztet was less showy, but lighter in tone and on its feet. For a quick intro hear the “Five Spot After Dark,” named for the Bowery hangout where the Jazztet split bills with Ornette Coleman in 1959. Tommy Williams’s limber bass dominates the introductory blues choruses – a quietly offbeat touch – and the riffy tune itself is an earworm. The effortlessly swinging rhythm trio is anchored by ever-alert Philly drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath, and you can hear what effective foils the lyrical Farmer and Golson were. The trumpeter had his mellow sound yet piercing attack, offsetting the tenor’s smoother lines and timbral depths.

The Jazztet’s six early-’60s albums are on The Complete Argo Mercury Sessions, along with three sessions by each co-leader from the same period (including Golson’s fine Free, Turning Point and Take a Number…). (It’s one of a few downloadable sets that reprise the contents of out-of-print boxes from the esteemed jazz reissue house Mosaic.) Most of these albums are separately available; for a quicker intro try Meet the Jazztet (with Curtis Fuller on trombone and newcomer McCoy Tyner on piano) or the sequel Big City Sounds, with “Five Spot After Dark” and Cedar Walton at the keys.

They were awfully good, but it was hard keeping such in-demand players together. Parting was amicable, allowing Farmer and Golson to reconvene with trombonist Fuller in the 1980s, yielding five more Jazztet albums with the same spirit but no stale mothball aroma, like Moment to Moment (where Tootie Heath used a phone book for a snare drum, Benny says) and Back to the City and Real Time, live in New York and sparked by the subtle and powerful drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith. Golson had no problems working with young lions like Smitty; they’d grown up playing his tunes.

Golson got his 15 minutes of non-jazz fame, playing himself – as a target of ardent autograph hound Tom Hanks – in Spielberg’s 2004 The Terminal. Golson’s barely in it, but he’s the MacGuffin who sets the plot in motion. The tie-in album is Terminal 1, with a couple of Golson standards (“Blues March,” “Killer Joe”), Eddie Henderson sizzling on Harmon-muted trumpet, and Carl Allen on drums. That album’s quintet plus trombonist Steve Davis became Golson’s latest three-horn sextet on New Time, New ‘Tet four years later. He didn’t sound at all like he was pushing 80.

The Jazztet feeling has always stayed with him, but Golson’s no stranger to offbeat settings. Take a Number from 1 to 10 from 1961 was a gimmick album with a purpose, starting with solo tenor and adding one instrument per track, a clever way to explore multiple textures on one record. The skeletal early tracks give his commanding horn plenty of exposure.

And then there’s ’67′s Tune In… Turn On to the Hippest Commercials of the Sixties – back when jingles were apt to be jazzy or bossa nova-y to start with. There’s some trendy electric harpsichord (as on “Music to Watch Girls By,” where Golson channels Stan Getz), and wordless ooh-bah-bah singers; on “Wink” and “Happiness Is,” Benny’s tries out the newfangled Varitone electric saxophone, walking in Eddie Harris’s shoes. It’s all absurdly entertaining.