The early signs were ominous when Benny Goodman played at the Kennedy Cente last night, but fortunately the pessimism that preceded intermission was only partly justified. By the evening's end, it was well established that the famous jazz clarinetist, who will be 70 at the end of May, has as sharp a technique as ever -- and if his staying power has fallen off, that is hardly a surprise.

Goodman came out and welcomed the audience at the beginning of the concert, but then he disappeared backstage and did not get really involved in the proceedings until after the intermission. The first half was filled in by the seven other members of his ensemble, which has been advertised as a sextet for some reason but sounded more like a smallish big band when everyone was playing together.

Two performers stood out in Goodman's generally competent group: guitarist Cal Collins, who soloed exquisitely in "I Got It Bad," and bass Major Holley, whose technique is equaled only by his sense of humor and whose deep, vibrant voice matches exactly the tone of his massive instrument.

In the second half, Goodman played a good variety of solos, taking fairly frequent rests and sounding best when he played chamber style with just piano and rhythm section. His familiar brilliance could be heard in such numbers as "Lady Be Good," but he played more often (and very effectively) in a subdued style that relied on fine phrasing for its effect. His "Send In the Clowns," for example, was perfectly straight and very poetic in style; I'm not sure it could be called jazz, but it was beautiful.