Tag Archives: Larry McKenna

MAKING MELODY COME ALIVE: LARRY McKENNA, AARON SEEBER, DAVID WONG (March 18, 2018)

Listening to Louis Armstrong play, Bobby Hackett reportedly said to an observer, “Do you know how hard it is to make melody come so alive?”  Hackett knew, because he made such transformations happen for forty years of picking up the cornet.  I am sure that both Bobby and Louis would deeply admire the mastery of tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna, a legendary figure I got to meet a few weeks ago at a downtown New York restaurant.

Larry had made the trip (by Bolt bus!) from his Philadelphia home, and he was quietly dazzling — along with the sensitive playing of David Wong, string bass, and Aaron Seeber, drums.

Such beauty might sound easy, but it isn’t easy to create.  So we salute Mr. McKenna, graceful, quiet, modest, yet building castles of feeling and sound right in front of us.

May your happiness increase!  

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FOR REAL: “ALONG THE WAY”: SAM TAYLOR QUARTET with guest LARRY McKENNA (JEB PATTON, NEAL MINER, PETE VAN NOSTRAND)

I alphabetize my CDs by artist (with shelves for the unclassifiable) so that young tenor saxophonist Sam Taylor’s two discs — one from 2015, MY FUTURE JUST PASSED, and the new one, ALONG THE WAY (both for the Cellar Live label) sit comfortably between Eva Taylor and Jack Teagarden.  And everyone’s happy, because those three musicians place great emphasis on clear, personal delivery of melodies, staying true to the composers’ intention, no matter how intriguing the harmony might become.

If you know the work of Sam, Larry, Jeb, Neal, and Pete, I need say no more: swinging lyricism, never formulaic.  But perhaps young Mr. Taylor is new to you. Prepare to be delighted.  Here’s a taste of ALONG THE WAY:

Sam Taylor is a young man according to the calendar, but already a mature artist with a deep feeling for his art.

A friend encouraged me to listen to his first CD, MY FUTURE JUST PASSED — even given the dark title (it’s a wonderful song from 1930) and I was fascinated — as I wrote here.  Sam is that rare player willing to take his time to sing his own song.  And songs meant more to him than dots on the page or the secret knowledge of harmonies, bent and stretched: they are narratives of feeling, even with their words unstated.  In 2015, I was fortunate enough to see and hear Sam live a few times — one of which I documented here.

I knew about the most respected Larry McKenna, now 80, the splendid player based in Philadelphia, so when Sam told me that his next project would be with Larry, I was excited.  And as you have heard from the clip above, it is not following any two-tenor formula.

No “En garde!” and certainly not “Gentlemen, start your engines!”  No cutting, no bloodletting — rather a deep dear brotherly conversation between two players who know the true center of their music.  It isn’t even the Young Man and the Venerable Sage: rather, it sounds as if Sam and Larry have transcended the clock and the decades to be fraternal, sweetly discoursing on common themes.

And those themes are memorable ones.  The asterisk indicates those selections on which Sam and Larry play: MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY* / FATS FLATS* / ON THE TRAIL / WHERE ARE YOU? / PEOPLE WILL SAY WE’RE IN LOVE / THE CLOSE  THINGS (a McKenna original)* / THERE’S NO YOU* / WILD IS LOVE* / I WANT MORE.  Although there are several uptempo performances, the overall mood is mellow — which is not to say dozy or “Easy Listening,” but a lovely pensive swing feel.

Listen to some excerpts here — about ninety seconds taken from each track, surely enough to whet a listener’s appetite.  Incidentally, if you wonder “Who’s playing now?” I confess with amusement that at first I didn’t know . . . even though I have heard both players, Sam live and Larry on record and video.  But as I thought of it, it seemed more evidence of musical brotherhood than anything else: two lyrical players in the same groove.  Sam plays the melody on MAKE SOMEONE HAPPY with Larry weaving beautiful lines behind him, and he solos first; on FATS FLATS Sam goes first; on THERE’S NO YOU,  Larry plays the bridge and solos first; Larry solos second on I WANT MORE.

And listeners who are truly listening will have delighted in this rhythm section AND in the beautiful recorded sound.  Sam’s notes are a wonderful heartfelt tribute to Larry and to Sam’s first teacher — who steered him towards Bird and McKenna, wise choices.

Some people with long memories and substantial record collections may be saying to themselves, “I hear Zoot and Al!  I hear Lucky Thompson!  I hear Sonny!”

Me, I hear Taylor and McKenna, and am thankful for them and for this CD.

Here is the best place to purchase a disc or download (at quite surprisingly low prices) and to support the Cellar Live label.  Buy some copies (note the plural!) so that we can have a Volume Two.

May your happiness increase!