It seems like a lifetime ago that I was still a trial attorney in Philadelphia. One of the benefits of working in the City was the fact that I was able to spend some time each month down at my favorite audio “salon”, the now long gone Chestnut Hill Audio, which is where I purchased most of my audio stuff. The owner, Jack, always had new music to listen to as well as some new equipment, although he remained loyal to his main brands. On one of those visits, I was exposed to a young and incredibly vibrant and compelling pianist, Benny Green, who is the subject of this article.
Benny Green was born in New York in 1963 and moved with his family at a very young age to Berkeley, California. The family purchased a piano when Benny was 6. He started with lessons at 7 and quickly fell in love with the instrument. By the time he entered his teenage years, he knew he wanted to make the piano his career. In fact, he had a weekly trio gig at Yoshi’s while in high school. After high school, he moved back to New York and began to sit in at jazz clubs. He quickly built his chops and found his way into Betty Carter’s touring band and then to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. After that he joined the Ray Brown Trio, played with his idol, Oscar Peterson, and ended up with a recording contract with the Blue Note label.
While Benny has been featured in recordings of the Ray Brown Trio and with Oscar Peterson, this article will focus on my favorite five recording with Benny as the leader. The first is the recording that introduced me to Benny way back in the early 90’s. Am I that old? Downright ancient.
Benny Green at Birdland.
Copyright Joe Whip (2017)
1. Testifyin’ ! Live at the Village Vanguard
When I first heard this recording, I was hooked. Benny’s piano seemed to leap right out of the speakers, filling the room with sound. I would describe Benny’s style as muscular and vibrant. Think a combination of Oscar, Art Tatum and Bud Powell but with a sound all his own. Robust block chords and a very fast right hand. Even with this speed, Benny is no one trick pony as his work on ballads is superb as well. All of his talents are on display on this recording, as are those of his two stellar sidemen, the great and Philly’s own Christian McBride on bass and Milwaukee’s Carl Allen on drums. This set was recorded in 1992 direct to digital two track by Jim Anderson, so you know it sounds good. The drum solos are very dynamic. This recording has not been mastered at a high level so you can really crank this baby up and enjoy the dynamics without fatigue. Jim Anderson is well known in audiophile circles as the engineer on most of Patricia Barber’s recordings.
One would expect that musicians would be at their best playing at the Vanguard, one of shrines of Jazz, and this set is no exception. I have attended several performances at this club, which has been in continuous operation as a jazz club since 1929. When you walk down the steps into this basement club and turn left, you are walking right into history. All of the greatest in jazz have performed there. Looking around at all of the pictures on the walls, you can almost feel their presence. The set features a mix of standards and originals from all three musicians with several excellent solos. My favorite track and it is hard to choose just one, would by Down By The Riverside. If you are going to own only one Benny Green recording, this is the one to get.
While putting this piece together, I contacted Jim Anderson about the recording process used to make this stellar album. I received this response which I am sure will be of interest to the audio nerds out there.
"Hi Joe, Testifyin' is one of my all-time favorite albums. It’s a testament to the power of a touring and working band. The guys were well rehearsed prior to walking into the club.
We recorded live at the VV with the Effanel Recording Truck and Crew parked outside the truck.
There certainly was a soundcheck prior to the first set, but there’s no such thing as "setting and forgetting” levels during a live recording.
All mixing and any effects/limiting/reverb, etc., was committed to on the spot.
The recording was state-of-the-art at the time 44.1kHz 16 bit, recorded directly to DAT using a Pygmy A to D converter.
The only change to the staging at the VV was the addition of a low (slightly higher than the kick drum) plexiglass partition around Carl’s drum kit in order to help us get definition on Chris’ bass.
The console in the Effanel truck was a Soundworks 32 channel console and monitors were Meyer HD-1’s.
We recorded for at least 2, or perhaps 3 days, during the trio’s time at the Vanguard. It was either the Friday/Saturday or Saturday/Sunday.
We found that bands recording live were usually loose and relaxed on the final night(s) of a week-long stay and many times the best music came from the Sunday night sets.
The final mastering and editing were done with the Sonic Solutions editing/mastering system at Foothill Digital.
Again, this was state of the art, at the time."
Listen via Qobuz Testifyin! Live At The Village Vanguard - Benny Green
Listen via Tidal Testifyin! Live At The Village Vanguard - Benny Green
2. Live in Santa Cruz
I have been fortunate to see Benny live on several occasions, and this set captures those experiences beautifully. I was taken aback the first time I saw him perform as he seemed such a quiet and reserved guy. Until he turned around and touched the keyboard. It was like a bomb went off, drawing you right into the music. This set was recorded at one of Benny’s favorite clubs, Kuumbwa, before a very appreciative audience. Benny is accompanied by his current regular bassist, David Wong, and the venerable Kenny Washington on drums. The performances as well as the recording quality are top notch.
Listen via Qobuz Live In Santa Cruz - Benny Green
3. That’s Right
The Benny Green Trio consisting of Benny, Christian McBride and Carl Allen, made several studio recordings for the Blue Note label in the ‘90’s. For my money, this is the best of the lot. The set was again recorded by Jim Anderson and as expected, sounds mighty fine. The set list features a combination of standards and originals, like Christian McBride’s Hoagie Meat. The music is hard driving and really gets the feet tapping, with excellent solos by all three musicians.
Listen via YouTube That's Right - Benny Green
4. These Are Soulful Days
This Blue Note release features another sensational trio, with Christian McBride on bass and Russell Malone on guitar. There are probably a few of you that will recall Russell Malone as the guitarist for the original Diana Krall trio. Released in 1999, These Soulful Days contains tracks selected by Benny Green from the Blue Note catalogue, in celebration of the label’s 60th anniversary. Beautiful music, beautifully played and recorded, what more could you ask? My favorite track is the finale, Horace Silver’s Come On Home, which features some sizzling solos.
Listen via Qobuz These Are Soulful Days - Benny Green
Listen via Tidal These Are Soulful Days - Benny Green
5. Benny Green and Russell Malone Live at the Bistro
This is a more laid back set compared to the other recording I have featured here but no less memorable. It is clear from this recording that these two are kindred spirits musically. Released on Telarc in 2003, this recording places you right in the club with the musicians. It is fun hearing the crowd talking to the two as they play, clearly enjoying the music. The sound is excellent with a wonderfully captured piano in particular. The set features some standards, some originals and tunes not normally heard in a jazz setting, such as Killing Me Softly. This is a fine recording for late night listening with the lights down low.
Benny Green is another of those musicians who deserve a wider audience. I hope after sampling these recordings, that you will agree.
Editor's Note: Good luck finding this one. It should be a fun digital hunt :~)
Benny Green online - LINK
Benny Green on SoundCloud - LINK