When pianist Benny Green announces at the outset of this live recording that the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, Calif., is his “favorite club in the world,” and that he’s been playing the venue for 33 of his 54 years, he’s not just buttering up the audience. Green’s previous release, 2015’s Live in Santa Cruz, was also cut there, and all the way back in 1993 he made an album at Kuumbwa as part of the Ray Brown Trio. That level of familiarity with a performance space might cause some musicians to coast, but Green—accompanied here by longtime bassist David Wong with Rodney Green on drums—kicks things up a notch instead. He’s on fire from the get-go.
Happiness!, apparently, wasn’t even intended to become an album. Green recorded the set for his own use, as is his custom, and after realizing it had been a special night, decided to release it. There’s some roughness to the mix, and a homespun quality to a bit of the music, but therein lies the album’s charm. From the opening reading of Horace Silver’s “St. Vitus Dance” through Wes Montgomery’s “Twisted Blues” to close, it’s clear that the comfortable relationship between trio and audience pushed the musicians.
It’s difficult to pick highlights. Certainly, the back-to-back Cedar Walton tunes, “Martha’s Prize” and “Sixth Avenue,” as well as the Wes number, bring out Green’s innate ability to retain a sense of melodicism even at a breakneck pace, while the somewhat more reserved rhythmic swingers “Down Under” (by Freddie Hubbard) and “Chant” (Duke Pearson) best showcase the trio’s tightness and group commitment. There is only one Green original here, “Pittsburgh Brethren,” and it, too, serves as a showcase for each player while staying on course as a start-to-finish dazzler.Originally Published