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.
New York City, July 2018
May your happiness increase!