Benny Green’s Solo Mastery

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“It feels vast, like the ocean and earth and sky conjoined,” Green says of performing solo piano concerts.

(Photo: Don Dixon)

Benny Green’s 22nd album, Solo (Sunnyside), dropped in May, a month after his 60th birthday. The work documents the master pianist in transition. Recorded over two days last December, it’s a 40-minute recital comprising two Green originals and choice cuts of tunes by pianists Thelonious Monk, Oscar Peterson, Tommy Flanagan, Barry Harris, Horace Silver, Bobby Timmons, McCoy Tyner, Cedar Walton and James Williams. Green’s time is rock-steady, his attitude reflective, probing, melody-centric and emotionally transparent, like the five unaccompanied selections he plays on Fender Rhodes on Solo’s immediate predecessor, Benny’s Crib.

Both dates diverge dramatically from Green’s dozen or so piano trio albums since 1991, when Blue Note released Greens, the first of a trilogy by Green’s tightly choreographed trio with 19-year-old bassist Christian McBride and drummer Carl Allen (then his bandmates with Freddie Hubbard, whom Green joined after four years with Betty Carter and two years with Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers). These albums introduced Green to an international audience, among them numerous piano luminaries of the future. They were attracted to Green’s florid, virtuosic chops; his ridiculously fast lines amalgamating Bud Powell’s kineticism and Phineas Newborn’s vertiginous parallel octaves; his embrace of blues-infused soul-jazz and heart-on-the-sleeve balladry à la Gene Harris; and his signature American Songbook interpretations that privilege storytelling over abstraction.

Between 1992 and 1997, Green brought his voice to the Ray Brown Trio, raising his profile via six albums and much touring. Oscar Peterson took notice, and gave Green the signal honor of inviting him to make a two-piano album in 1998. Peterson’s influence suffuses Green’s previous unaccompanied recital, Green’s Blues, from 2002, a 12-piece program of primarily standards, and albums by a working trio with McBride and guitarist Russell Malone in 1999 and 2000.

Then Green took a decade-long hiatus from the trio format. “During the ’90s, I became unwittingly a bit formulaic,” he said at his New York hotel the day before joining McBride, Malone and Cécile McLorin Salvant at a Steinway Hall benefit concert for McBride’s Jazz House Kids organization. “I was on a major record label, getting a lot of attention, which I hadn’t planned for. I developed a mindset that, whatever I was doing on a record that people liked or was getting airplay, I should make sure I do it on the next record. I wanted to invoke enthusiasm from the audience without really being intent on deepening my content.”

Green didn’t release his next trio album, The Source, until 2010; there followed, in short order, Magic Beans and Live In Santa Cruz. He presented some two-dozen tunes channeling the inflamed spirit of hardcore bebop, refracting into his own detailed argot the respective vocabularies of heroes like Powell, Elmo Hope, Kenny Drew, Horace Silver, Sonny Clark, and also Walter Bishop Jr. and Walter Davis Jr., who taught him privately during the ’80s.

“I wanted to be more of a classicist than some of the more progressive thinkers of my generation — really studying those old records,” Green said. “Many of us were reverential toward our elders. We weren’t just going around high-fiving each other. We wanted their honest musical approval.”

As the decade progressed, Green increasingly felt that “some elements of leading a trio were becoming cumbersome,” he said. “I’ve wanted to play solo for many years, and my sporadic solo concerts felt so good, I wanted to explore it further. It feels vast, like the ocean and earth and sky conjoined. I get the same sense of connection with the instrument as when I first touched it as a child: the wonderment in my body. I’m not negotiating the vibration of cymbals and drums and the bass, or the bass coming through an amp. It’s all me, touching the keys and feeling the physical vibration coming back through the wood.

“It’s liberating. I’m the whole orchestra. I can make spontaneous diversions without having to cue anyone or make sure someone else understands or is prepared. Early in the pandemic, I saw it as an opportunity to consider what I was doing that I really enjoyed, as opposed to doing it because the structure was set in place. As I freed myself from filtering what I do through the trio context, I started looking more intently for the songs I most enjoy playing and most fulfill me.”

Since lockdown, Green’s Facebook feed includes numerous videos of his unaccompanied ruminations on a wide array of songs, and verbatim transcripts of numerous interviews with schoolmates from formative years in Berkeley, California (where he still resides), and collaborators from his four professional decades — including one with pianist-singer Johnny O’Neal, a Messengers predecessor. He’ll incorporate these texts in a forthcoming autobiographical memoir, along with eloquent essays about his family, teachers, past employers and pianistic influences.

“I’m shy and a bit of a homebody, and my personality on social media is a kind of alter ego,” Green said. “I started wanting to record some of my thoughts in writing after my father died in 2008. While teaching at University of Michigan between 2014 and 2018, I wrote some essays. After I left, I decided to post them, both to share with my community and hone my flow and skills as a writer. That some of my favorite living musicians have read my writing and encouraged my voice gave me confidence towards writing a book. My intention is to acknowledge mentors whom I didn’t necessarily think to thank or know how to thank properly while they were here in physical form. It’s a catharsis.

“The music I love and feel connected to is of Black American culture, which ethnically I’m not part of, though I’ve been blessed to be embraced by some of its grandmasters,” Green concluded. “I’d like to be a bridge to the ways that my elders shared with people of my generation to musicians who are younger than me, to leave an honest voicing of gratitude as gracefully as I possibly can.” DB



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