Tag Archives: Larry McKenna

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!

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

I hope you saw and savored Part One of this magical concert in honor of Lester Young, featuring Michael Kanan, piano; Larry McKenna, tenor saxophone; Murray Wall, string bass; Doron Tirosh, drums — a concert made possible through the good efforts of Loren Schoenberg, the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and Cheryl Y. Boga of the University of Scranton.  This evening is one of the high points of my live jazz experience.

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

Now, let’s proceed to another trio of delights — whose collective and individual virtues do not need explication: heroically gentle swing.

THESE FOOLISH THINGS:

POUND CAKE, Lester’s blues in G for the Basie band (your “pound cake” was your Squeeze) — both Michael and Larry hark back to Lester’s solo, delightfully, and the wonderful swing everyone generates makes this one of the highlights among highlights:

LESTER LEAPS IN:

Magic.  And there will be a Part Three.

May your happiness increase!

FOR PRES (Part One): 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.

I extol the virtues of life in New York, but beautiful things are created when bold explorers like myself cross into other states, too.  On Saturday, September 1, at the University of Scranton, PA, Loren Schoenberg and The National Jazz Museum in Harlem presented “Tribute to Prez: The Life and Music of Lester Young” featuring The Michael Kanan Quartet, with saxophonist Larry McKenna, string bassist Murray Wall, and drummer Doron Tirosh. Loren wasn’t able to make it, but his perception and generosity made a wonderful musical event take place.  Thanks are also due Cheryl Y. Boga, Tom Cipriano, and photographer John Herr.

JUST YOU, JUST ME:

BLUE LESTER:

LADY BE GOOD:

I had the honor of being there, getting to say a few words about Lester alongside Michael and  Larry (to a hip audience) and recording the concert, nine extended beautifully floating performances which captured Lester’s spirit while enabling everyone to “go for himself.”  Here are the first three, which require only open-hearted appreciation . . . no explication needed.  Just sweetness everywhere.

May your happiness increase!

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!  

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!