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Jazz Review

Benny Green Strides Right With Nostalgia-Tinged Style

March 16, 2001|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

There are those who feel that the most fascinating era for the piano in jazz was the '20s and '30s, when stride, boogie-woogie, blues and swing were all coursing through the music. Rent parties, at which pianists offered their services to help someone raise a rent payment, became opportunities for virtuosic displays of skill. And pianists such as James P. Johnson, Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Albert Ammons and, of course, the king of them all--Art Tatum--were brilliantly exploring the piano's enormous versatility.

What does all this have to do with a review of Benny Green's solo performance at the Jazz Bakery on Wednesday night? A lot, actually, since Green's appearance--replacing the previously scheduled Ahmad Jamal--was largely devoted to his own strikingly contemporary take on early piano style in general and stride piano in particular.

Green has always been a fine technician, often identified--with good cause--as a disciple of Oscar Peterson. But for this appearance, he found much more of his original voice by digging, ironically, into the jazz past.

His program was filled with standards--"Just You, Just Me," delivered at breakneck tempo, "I Wish You Love," "Someone to Watch Over Me" (opening with a brief, lyrical rendering of the song's verse) and "It Seems to Me I've Heard That Song Before."

Green's stride segments were remarkable, sometimes more than that, as he juxtaposed rapidly moving right-hand figures against a metronomic left hand that pounded out bass notes and chordal clusters. Often, in the style of the rent party "ticklers" (as the pianists of the time were called), he added touches of humor, bouncing bass notes against high treble figures, building to dramatic climaxes.

Given Green's relative youth (he is 37), the performance was impressive for his ability to capture a past approach to the piano with such style and verve. In his hands, stride was very much alive, enhanced by his contemporary harmonic vision and the undercurrent of bop that drifted through his melodic figurations.

It was good enough that one suspects that Green, transported to the piano-cutting sessions of the '20s and '30s, could easily have held his own with the masters of the period.

*

* Benny Green at the Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City. Tonight, Saturday and Sunday at 8 and 9:30 p.m. $22. (310) 271-9039.

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