Aside from a few moments on his previous Sunnyside album, 2018’s Then and Now, pianist Benny Green has only played Fender Rhodes as a sideman—and that rarely. Benny’s Crib finds him playing it exclusively. The development isn’t earth-shattering; Green sounds like Green, just applying his ever-superb, hard bop-rooted technique and imagination with a different tonal color.
There are a few subtle exceptions. On downtempo numbers like Walter Bishop Jr.’s “Coral Keys” and McCoy Tyner’s “For Tomorrow,” for example, he lets the Rhodes’ sustain stand in for latticework he might employ on acoustic piano. But his interactions with bassist David Wong and Aaron Kimmel on “Central Park South” and “Something in Common” show as much tightness and acuity as ever; ditto those with guests flutist Anne Drummond (“Coral Keys,” “Harold Land”) and conguero Josh Jones (“Coral Keys” again), and his accompaniment of vocalist Veronica Swift on “Benny’s Crib.” The improvisations too are perfectly in keeping with Green’s high standard, although he’s particularly inspired in his solos on “Harold Land” and “Benny’s Crib.”
The real pleasure of Benny’s Crib is hearing how the sound of the Rhodes responds to Green’s ministrations, not vice versa. Its timbre is excellent for blending, and so it does with Drummond’s flute and Swift’s voice—both of which are multitracked, with Green sneaking into the layers all but unnoticed. It’s when he plays unaccompanied, of course, that the colorings are most apparent: the way the bell-like tones converge and contrast on “For Tomorrow,” or the subtle fluctuations in the long notes of Dexter Gordon’s “Tivoli.” Those familiar with Green’s 1996 recording of his tune “My Girl Bill” will appreciate how the new version’s Rhodes mimics the old’s blend of piano and guitar. Benny’s Crib isn’t essential, but it’s a delight anyway.