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Since being passed the torch by such revered elders as Art Blakey, Ray Brown, Betty Carter and Freddie Hubbard, pianist Benny Green has carried it proudly. Over the past three decades, Green, 55, has maintained a fierce dedication to acoustic, straight-ahead jazz, predominantly in the classic trio format. Which makes his latest, Then and Now (Sunnyside), a bit of a departure: He adds a few splashes of Fender Rhodes to the mix, brings in veteran flutist Anne Drummond, and works with a vocalist — young bop acolyte Veronica Swift — for the first time on any of his own albums. —Shaun BradyWhat led you to add the Rhodes to your sound?
If you turned on the radio in the 1970s, the keyboard instrument that you were most likely to hear would be electric, not acoustic. As an improviser, the sounds that inspire and influence us stay inside us, resounding and resonating, and we draw upon it in certain moments. I’d been thinking for a few years about giving myself permission to record a few pieces on Rhodes, and a few pieces on this album presented themselves to me organically as crying out for that sound.
You started your career working with vocalists, Betty Carter in particular. So why did it take so long for you to use a vocalist on an album of your own?
I just find there’s so many that go ‘shooby dooby’ and don’t study the language of jazz as someone like Ella Fitzgerald did. This young woman, Veronica Swift, was born to two old-school beboppers, Hod O’Brien and Stephanie Nakasian. She has some stuff that you just can’t get in school. I was blown away to hear her because I didn't expect, with the way trends have been going in recent years, that I’d ever meet a young woman that could swing like that and sing ballads in a way that indicate that she’s really lived.
Given what’s happening in the culture, was it important for you to work with women for the first time on one of your albums?
I’ve recognized for years that there’s been a boys club in jazz, and I’ve just wanted some women who could really swing to step up to the plate. That is happening in a big way right now. We’re past it being a novelty. But quite honestly, I did not have an agenda to have women on my record. Be they male or female, they gotta be able to play.
The cover of Then and Now features a childhood photo. What comes to mind when you look at that kid?
It was pre-9/11, pre-Internet, pre-cell phones, pre-getting my heart broken. I was a very happy, innocent little kid. It’s empowering for me to look at photographs from my childhood because I had a very happy childhood and I’m still that same guy, so it takes me right back in my heart. It’s restorative to me spiritually.