Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Bill Cosby had appeared at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater on Jan. 24. He appeared at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Music Review: Benny Golson's 80th Birthday Concert

Saxophonist Golson celebrated his 80th birthday at the Kennedy Center.
Saxophonist Golson celebrated his 80th birthday at the Kennedy Center. (2004 Photo By Paul Hawthorne -- Getty Images)
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By Mike Joyce
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 26, 2009

Between his two performances at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Saturday night, Bill Cosby dropped by long enough to fashion a comically discordant, ham-fisted piano improvisation during the 80th birthday bash for NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson. Standing a few feet away, Golson appeared both touched and dumbfounded.

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg also paid tribute to Golson, via a taped segment in which they affectionately recalled the saxophonist's key appearance in their 2004 film "The Terminal." Yet the unscheduled cameos didn't come close to trumping the urbane sound of Golson himself, playing tenor with trademark fluidity on several self-penned compositions that have become jazz standards, including richly orchestrated arrangements of "Along Came Betty" and "I Remember Clifford," performed with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra.

While the grand sweep of Golson's career defies compression, a film shown during the evening in several segments proved both instructive and entertaining. It was peppered with Golson's often amusing anecdotes about his childhood fascination with saxophonist Arnett Cobb, his notable associations with trombonist Curtis Fuller, trumpeter Art Farmer and drummer Art Blakey, and his subsequent work as a trailblazing composer and arranger in Hollywood. The film also featured commentaries from several musicians who've known Golson for most of his professional life, including fellow Philly reedman Jimmy Heath, as well as some terrific vintage still photography. Certainly no one in the audience needed to be reminded that Golson has paid his dues after a snapshot of Tiny Grimes and His Rocking Highlanders, a band that required its members to wear kilts in performance and with whom Golson played, flashed on the screen.

Projecting a suave and soulful sound after all these years, Golson was heard in a variety of colorful settings, including an all-star quintet that boasted Fuller, pianist Cedar Walton and bassist Ron Carter. When performing with the New Jazztet, Golson's latest ensemble, he helped create a textured front-line weave with the help of trumpeter Eddie Henderson and trombonist Steve Davis. Golson's compositions also inspired distinctive interpretations, from the classic "Whisper Not" (sung with bop-ish finesse by Al Jarreau) to the balletic keyboard reverie "On Gossamer Wings" (rendered with nuance and drama by pianist Lara Downes). Hosted by actor Danny Glover, the concert closed out with the evening's most surprising and ingenious arrangement, a performance of "Blues March" by the Uptown String Quartet.

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