Tag Archives: Larry McKenna

“JAZZ ON BROAD” AT THE HOPEWELL VALLEY BISTRO AND INN: PHIL ORR, WARREN VACHÉ, LARRY McKENNA, JOE PLOWMAN, DANNY TOBIAS, ANGELO DiBRACCIO: September 9, 2019

Larry McKenna

Although I am slowly learning my way through New Jersey, I had never ventured to the town of Hopewell — until I learned this past September that both Larry McKenna and Warren Vache would be playing with pianist Phil Orr at the latter’s Thursday-night sessions, JAZZ ON BROAD at the Hopewell Valley Bistro and Inn — a delightfully friendly place with good food and a solicitous staff.

Warren Vache and Danny Tobias

The outside (in nice weather):

The inside (welcoming in any weather):

The collective personnel on these performances is Phil Orr, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Warren Vache, cornet; Danny Tobias, trumpet; Angelo DiBraccio, alto saxophone.

Something pretty (Phil, Larry, Warren, Joe):

Something propulsive (Phil, Larry, Warren, Joe, Danny, Angelo):

and a little commentary from Warren, between songs (with Danny and Larry playing supporting roles in this improv):

JAZZ ON BROAD will be continuing in Spring 2020, so keep yourself informed if you are anywhere near.  I hope to visit the Bistro again because their menu emphasizes homestyle Hungarian cuisine (I couldn’t video and eat goulash simultaneously, something I regret).

May your happiness increase!

BLISS (Part Two): DANNY TOBIAS, LARRY McKENNA, SILAS IRVINE, JOE PLOWMAN (1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, New Jersey, Sept. 21, 12019)

I saw the sign, and stopped for it.

Here is the first part of BLISS, and you will hear I don’t exaggerate: four songs performed by Danny Tobias, trumpet, fluegelhorn; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Silas Irvine, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass, at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey, on September 21, 2019.

Celestial music, to be sure.

Here are some still photographs of the four illuminators, thanks to Verizon:

and

and

and

You’ve been patient.  Now for the moving pictures (with sound, too)!

Gershwin and Gershwin:

Rodgers and Hart:

Edgar Sampson:

Lerner and Loewe:

Youmans and Caesar:

What lovely unaffected music.  I can’t wait for this quartet’s return engagement.

May your happiness increase!

BLISS (Part One): DANNY TOBIAS, LARRY McKENNA, SILAS IRVINE, JOE PLOWMAN (1867 Sanctuary, Ewing, New Jersey, Sept. 21, 12019)

Everyone’s bliss is different.  But for me, one version is being close to and recording a small group of creative musicians playing splendidly, listening attentively to one another in a quiet space in front of a rapt audience.  It’s bliss when it happens, and also because it happens so rarely.

But it did happen in the lovely 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey, for two hours on September 21, 2019.  The noble creators were Danny Tobias, trumpet, fluegelhorn, and Eb alto horn; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Silas Irvine, piano; Joe Plowman, string bass.  And here’s their first set: lyrical, controlled, passionate, swinging, deeply melodic.

Larry McKenna

They began with I’LL ALWAYS BE IN LOVE WITH YOU, which although it did not begin life as a swinging tune, Count Basie made it so — as do they:

What followed continued to make me and the rest of the audience happy, but if this quartet had decided that enough was enough with this single performance, I would have been satisfied.  Slightly mystified, but smiling.  But I am thrilled they continued.

The lovely MY IDEAL (check out the lyrics if you don’t know them):

Danny picked up his new / old Eb alto horn for MOOD INDIGO.  Wait until the end, after the last notes, for his musicological commentary and a patented Tobias comic flourish:

Danny’s own HOW’S IT GO? — based on chord changes that were part of the common language when there was one:

Get up, stretch, find some snacks, and the second half will be posted shortly. I bless these four creators and thank them as well.  Thanks also to Bob and Helen Kull, for making the 1867 Sanctuary a shrine for wonderful art.  This post is for John Scurry, John Herr, Sam Taylor, Melissa Gilstrap, and R1, of course.

May your happiness increase!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO LARRY McKENNA! (Part Two): LARRY McKENNA, SAM TAYLOR, STEVE ASH, NEAL MINER, FUKUSHI TAINAKA at SMALLS (June 23, 2019)

Larry McKenna got to the gig early, as did I and many others who knew what gorgeous music we were about to hear, created right in front of us.  He and Sam Taylor, both on tenor saxophone; Steve Ash, piano; Neal Miner, string bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums, made castles of sound for us — two sets’ worth.  And for those who live by clocks and calendars, Larry turned 82 on July 21, 2019.  He’s not “spry”: he is in full flower right now.  Consider the blossoming evidence of the first set at Smalls here.

Before the gig. Photograph by Melissa Gilstrap.

(Incidentally, Larry and Danny Tobias have a little concert date on Sunday, September 21, at the 1867 Sanctuary in Ewing, New Jersey — details here.)

Now, for the second set at Smalls — beautiful playing by everyone!

SOMETHING’S GOTTA GIVE (as they used to say, “from the movie of the same name):

The lovely THERE’S NO YOU (hear a delighted woman in the audience say, “Oh, yeah!” once the melody registers):

The durable swing standard ROSETTA, which gives Sam a very touching opportunity to tell about his early and sustained connection with Larry:

MORE THAN YOU KNOW, a feature for Sam:

And to close, another song associated with Earl Hines [and Louis Armstrong and Lester Young!] its title a sweet reminder of the bonds we forge, YOU CAN DEPEND ON ME:

The sounds of this evening were completely gratifying, but what got to me — and you can see it in the videos — were the smiles on the musicians’ faces (echoed on the faces of people near me), expressions of  gratitude, joy, and pride — what an honor it was to be there and, to hear the artistry, to feel the delight.  How rare, how wonderful.

May your happiness increase!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO LARRY McKENNA! (Part One): LARRY McKENNA, SAM TAYLOR, STEVE ASH, NEAL MINER, FUKUSHI TAINAKA at SMALLS (June 23, 2019)

Today, July 21, 2019, the wonderful tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna turns 82.  Pause, please, to consider that.

Here is music that Larry and friends created, at Smalls in New York City, when he was a mere 81.  The friends are Sam Taylor, tenor saxophone; Steve Ash, piano; Neal Miner, string bass; Fukushi Tainaka, drums.

This is the first set of two: savor the energetic singing quality Larry offers us and how it inspires not only the audience but the other players.

Before the gig. Photograph by Melissa Gilstrap.

YOU’RE IT (Larry’s original, based on IT’S YOU OR NO ONE):

a less-morose version of YOU’VE CHANGED:

and my request, THESE FOOLISH THINGS — with Steve’s lovely introduction:

FATS FLATS (or BARRY’S BOP) which closed the first set:

Thanks of course to Sam Taylor, whose idea this session was, and to Fukushi, Steve, and Neal.  Thanks also to Melissa Gilstrap, Liz Waytkus, Joe McDonough, and John Herr.

When we have music like this to be nourished by, who needs cake or wrapping paper?  Every note is a celebration of our collective lives.

May your happiness increase!

MAKING MELODY COME ALIVE: JACK SAINT CLAIR, SILAS IRVINE, SAM HARRIS (April 6, 2019)

I knew something of young Philadelphia reedman Jack Saint Clair before I heard him — on a Danny Tobias gig last Saturday — by implication, because Danny has excellent taste.  And Jack has been part of the Marty Grosz Repertory Company that appears at the Mermaid Inn in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.  Later, I saw Jack get the coveted Larry McKenna Seal of Approval . . . if there is a higher honor I don’t know it.  But I was delighted and moved by his playing at that concert (with Silas Irvine, piano, and Sam Harris, string bass) so I think you should meet him too, doing what he does beautifully: making melody come alive, airborne, quietly compelling.

The song is SPRING CAN REALLY HANG YOU UP THE MOST, lyrics by Fran Landesman, music by Tommy Wolf — their 1955 variation on Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month.”  Or close enough.  Only 33 years separate Eliot and Landesman, proof of how quickly language moves and changes.

But there’s nothing cruel in Jack’s lovely consideration of this pastoral lament:

Anyone who has sung or played an instrument will know just how difficult it is to make melody come that alive.  For those of you, and you know who you are, who leap to Compare, whisper the comparisons to your coffee and don’t send them here . . . . Jack sounds exactly like himself, and we are glad of it.

May your happiness increase!

FOR PRES (Part Three): MICHAEL KANAN, LARRY McKENNA, MURRAY WALL, DORON TIROSH (Sept. 1, 2018, University of Scranton, PA)

Michael Kanan, Larry McKenna, Murray Wall, Doron Tirosh at the University of Scranton, Sept. 1, 2018. Photograph by John Herr.

 

Here are the closing three selections from a wondrous evening of music devoted to the sacred memory of Lester Young.  By “sacred memory” I mean the living presence of that great man, so ebullient, so tender.  And in proper Lester-fashion, everyone in the quartet sang his own song.

Here you will find Parts One and Two of this concert, which delighted me then and uplift me now.

The concert was, to me and others in the enthusiastic audience, a series of highlights, one quietly dazzling gem after another.  I have a special love for the blues in G, POUND CAKE, that appears in Part Two.  And the version of ALL OF ME that follows is tremendously touching.  Billie and Lester recorded it as a sweet ballad — in opposition to the bouncy versions that got faster and faster after its initial appearance a decade earlier.  This performance is like a caress:

LOVE ME OR LEAVE ME, happily inspired by the 1956 quartet session of Lester, Teddy Wilson, Gene Ramey, and Jo Jones (originally issued as PRES AND TEDDY on Verve):

Finally, Lester’s TICKLE-TOE, which is sheer fun, an audible evocation of joy:

You don’t need me to tell you that this concert was a transcendent experience.  Blessings on these four players and on the people who made it possible.

And a few words about Larry McKenna, whose circle of admirers is expanding rapidly.  Larry and fellow Philadelphia tenorist Bootsie Barnes have made a CD, called THE MORE I SEE YOU.  One set of tantalizing little sound samples can be found here, and here’s a brief rewarding video:

And rather my praising this CD, I offer the notes written by Sam Taylor — a deep admirer of Larry’s and also a wonderful tenor player:

What defines the sound of a city? Ask three Philadelphians and get four opinions, as the joke goes. The people, their collective spirit both past and present, is a good place to start. Philadelphia, a city overflowing with history, is home to a proud, passionate, willful, and fiercely loyal people. The city’s jazz legacy is no different and has always been a leading voice. Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Trudy Pitts, Lee Morgan, the Heath Brothers, Stan Getz, Philly Joe Jones and countless other Philadelphia jazz masters are bound together by the same thread. These giants played in their own way, without concern for style or labels. They had an attitude; an intention to their playing that gave the music a feeling, a rhythm, a deep pocket. In Philadelphia today, there is no question who preserves that tradition, embodies that spirit and who defines the “Philadelphia sound”: Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna.

Now elder statesmen of the Philadelphia jazz community, Bootsie Barnes and Larry McKenna were born just a few months apart in 1937. The times in which they lived often dictated their career paths, but no matter where their music took them Philadelphia was always home.

Bootsie Barnes credits his musical family as the spark that began his life in music. His father was an accomplished trumpet player and his cousin, Jimmy Hamilton, was a member of Duke Ellington’s band for nearly three decades. “Palling around with my stablemates, Tootie Heath, Lee Morgan, Lex Humphries” as he tells it, Barnes began on piano and drums. At age nineteen he was given a saxophone by his grandmother and “knew he had found his niche.” Over the course of his decades long career, Barnes has performed and toured with Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Smith, Trudy Pitts and countless others, with five recordings under his own name and dozens as a sideman.

Mostly self-taught, Larry McKenna was deeply inspired by his older brother’s LP collection. It was a side of Jazz at The Philharmonic 1947 featuring Illinois Jacquet and Flip Phillips that opened his ears to jazz. “When I heard that I immediately said: ‘That’s what I want to play, the saxophone,’” McKenna recalls. Completing high school, McKenna worked around Philadelphia and along the East Coast until the age of twenty-one, when his first big break came with Woody Herman’s Big Band. McKenna has played and recorded with Clark Terry, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and countless others. He has four recordings under his own name, with extensive credits as a sideman.

Their resumes are only a shadow of who these men are. To really know the true Larry McKenna and Bootsie Barnes, you have to meet them. They are as men just as their music sounds: giving, open, genuine and deeply funny. Working nearly every night, Barnes and McKenna are consistent, positive forces on the scene. Deeply admired by younger generations of musicians, they show us that a life in music should be led with grace, joy and honesty.

The first time I heard Barnes and McKenna together was at Ortlieb’s Jazz Haus in the mid 1990s. As an eager but shy young musician of about fourteen, I somehow found my way to the storied club on Third and Poplar Streets. A sign out front proudly stated “Jazz Seven Days” – the only place in the city boasting such a schedule. The bouncer working that night took one look at me and with what I can only imagine was a mix of pity and amusement, hurriedly waved me in. Eyes down and hugging the wall, I made my way along the long bar, past the mounted bison head’s blank stare, towards the music. My go-to spot was an alcove next to the bathroom: a place just far enough from the bartender’s gaze so as not to be noticed, (did I mention I was fourteen?) but close enough to the stage to watch and listen. The house band was the late Sid Simmons on piano, bassist Mike Boone, and drummer Byron Landham. (Anyone who was there will tell you: this was an unstoppable trio.) Barnes and McKenna were setting the pace, dealing on a level only the true masters can. The whole room magically snapped into focus: the band shifted to high gear, the swing intensified and the crowd had no choice but to be swept up in the music. They had a story too incredible to ignore. I sat there in disbelief at the power and beauty of what they were doing. It is a feeling that has never left me.

How they played that night at Ortlieb’s those many years ago is exactly the way they play today. In fact, they are probably playing better than ever. The track Three Miles Out is a shining example. Barnes solos first, hitting you with that buttery, round tenor tone with a little edge as he gets going. His ideas are steeped in the hard-bop tradition delivered with a clear voice all his own. There is no ambiguity, no hesitation, just pure, joyful, hard-swinging tenor playing. McKenna follows, with his trademark tenor tone, both beautiful and singing, strong and powerful. He swings with natural ease, a wide beat and always makes the music dance. He has what I can only describe as a deep melodic awareness thanks largely to his mastery of the American Songbook. McKenna is unhurried and speaks fluid bebop language. This is classic Barnes and McKenna.

The most challenging thing to describe is the way someone’s music touches your heart. I hope my fellow native Philadelphians will allow me to speak for them when I say we are all forever in the debt of Bootsie and Larry. May we live and create in a way that continues to honor them and their music.

I can’t wait to hear what they play next.

Sam Taylor
New York City, July 2018

May your happiness increase!