A month shy of 85 and among jazz’s greatest living composers, Benny Golson could ride out his career in America’s most prestigious venues. But it wouldn’t suit him. The iconic saxophonist’s talents as a musician are matched by his gifts as a raconteur, and for that he requires a close, intimate crowd — like the one he played to on Saturday evening at Bohemian Caverns in the U Street corridor.
“Some people say I talk too much,” he acknowledged to the crowd in velvety tones at the top of his set. “My wife says that — she’s sitting right over here — and I ignore her.” Sure enough, he was just settling into a windy, historical-philosophical speech; it went on for a few minutes, but with such grace and warmth it was easy to stick with him. Finally, Golson began the midtempo “Horizon Ahead,” a wise choice, as both tune and solo proceeded in a tone similar to his speech: graceful, warm and eloquent. But not loquacious; Golson’s phrases were quiet and lean, using only the necessary notes in a style that harkened back to the days of Lester Young. Pianist Sharp Radway was similarly economical. Drummer John Lamkin gave off a bit more steam in his solo, and bassist Kris Funn simply turned his astonishing abilities loose on a breakneck obstacle course of a run. “There’s always one showoff in the band,” Golson cracked afterward.
That opener set the pattern for the night to come. Golson went into witty storyteller mode to introduce his classic “Along Came Betty,” putting down the microphone and picking it up again for an addendum before cutting a somewhat more flourished figure. “I Remember Clifford” was prefaced by a jazz history lesson. Even his preamble to the song he sat out, a strident rendition of Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly,” was a mouthful.
But for all his talking, the evening never flagged. Perched comfortably on a stool with an elbow on Radway’s piano, Golson was charismatic, funny and compelling. His monologues were as spellbinding — and as worth the price of admission by themselves — as the songs between them. If the latter were more concise, they bore the mark of 60 years’ honing, and each carefully chosen note held the weight of those 60 years. Yet he wasn’t stingy about letting his accompanists testify, even egging on another of Funn’s bravura bass runs during “Along Came Betty.”
Though he’d advertised the fierce “Uptown Afterburn” as his closer, Golson capped it with a short take on the blues “Now’s the Time.” He supplemented that with yet another windy soliloquy; this time, though, his tongue was firmly in his cheek. “What have we done tonight? . . . We’ve imbibed the lactation of your applause. We’re corpulent! And we’re coming back for more,” he gushed. “Why, we might just end up playing ourselves to death in our appreciation of people like yourselves.”
West is a freelance writer.