Live in Santa Cruz! (Sunnyside)
The audience at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Northern California is obviously familiar with pianist Benny Green, and, perhaps, with his trio featuring bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington. Decades ago, Green took the stage at Kuumbwa as a young sideman with Ray Brown, Betty Carter and Art Blakey, respectively, then quickly established himself as a leader and perennial favorite. With this 2013 concert, augmented by tracks recorded during a return engagement in 2014, Green celebrated nearly 35 years on the bill — and his 50th birthday, as well.
Green’s trio would be a crowd pleaser anywhere. They don’t rely on gimmicks, keep song lengths less than six minutes, enjoy wonderful interplay and present a repertoire of solid jazz that doesn’t require a Ph.D. in music theory to understand. And they sound like they’re having a helluva good time. The musical connection between Green and Washington, in particular, demonstrates a tangible warmth and playfulness between old friends.
Comprising all Green originals — most of which swing like crazy — the set list seems to have been composed with Washington in mind. Nary a song is heard that lacks written drum fills and syncopated hits throughout. And while the trio usually keeps the dynamic level at mezzo-forte or softer, some of Washington’s fills call to mind Blakey’s famous bombs. Bassist Wong plays his parts to perfection, comping with a big, woody sound. Unfortunately, he only solos on the final track, the medium-shuffle “Anna’s Blues.” And once is not enough.
A pair of ballads, “Cactus Flower” and “Golden Flamingo,” show the trio’s sensitive side. Green’s touch can be exquisite, suggesting the likes of Kenny Barron or Tommy Flanagan. Then he can turn around and bash like a chopsy Horace Silver, including right- and left-hand independent counterpoint, and his trademark two-handed octave runs at breakneck speed. A display of exemplary musicianship, Live in Santa Cruz! entertains as much as it impresses. —James Rozzi