An evening with Benny Golson is far more than just another jazz set. The veteran tenor saxophonist and composer is an engaging personality -- a witty raconteur with a story to match every piece of music.
He was in fine form Tuesday in his opening set at the Jazz Bakery. Golson was working, in effect, as a traveling soloist, performing with the Los Angeles-based rhythm section of pianist Bill Cunliffe, bassist Bob Magnusson and drummer Roy McCurdy. That might have been a problem for some players but not for the 76-year-old Golson, who has played masterfully in every imaginable situation.
Not that there was anything lacking in the accompaniment. Cunliffe and Magnusson worked together with extraordinary empathy, superbly interweaving harmonic lines behind Golson's soloing. And McCurdy, as always, played with a splendid combination of timbral subtlety and percussive energy. Golson favored their offerings so much, in fact, that he featured the trio in their own intimate take on "Body and Soul."
But it was Golson's entrancing mixture of music and memories that made the program so entertaining. Between numbers he carefully covered the mouthpiece of his saxophone with a reed cap, placing the instrument to his side as he began a lead-in anecdote. Before launching into John Coltrane's "Mr. P.C.," he recalled playing with the great saxophonist when both were teenagers. With a sly, rueful look, he said that his mother "always preferred John's playing, especially when he was playing 'Sunny Side of the Street.' "
Other tunes received similar introductions -- most notably a description of the conversations with Steven Spielberg that led to Golson's prominent presence in the film "The Terminal."
Any Golson program has the enormous benefit of his substantial catalog of jazz hits. Among others, he offered the jaunty "Along Came Betty," adding a whimsical comment about "whatever became of Betty." Then, reverting to the standard repertoire, he closed his winning program by showcasing his still potent improvisational chops in a spirited romp through one of the perennial jazz favorites, "Sweet Georgia Brown."
Where: Jazz Bakery, 3233 Helms Ave., Culver City
When: 8 and 9:30 tonight through Sunday
Info: (310) 271-9039