Live Last Night: Benny Golson

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

Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg also paid tribute to Golson, via a taped segment in which the two affectionately recalled the saxophonist's key appearance in their 2004 film, "The Terminal."

Yet the 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 Orchestra.

(The rest of the review is after the jump.)

While the grand sweep of Golson's multifaceted 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 African American 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 flashed on the screen of Tiny Grimes and his Rocking Highlanders a band that required its members to wear kilts in performance, and with whom Golson played.

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, the reedman helped create a textured frontline 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 both 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.

-- MIKE JOYCE

By J. Freedom du Lac |  January 25, 2009; 5:39 PM ET Live Last Night
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