Benny Green: Live in Santa Cruz!

Benny Green conveys exalted inspiration without showboating or pretentiousness. Even his most subtle and complex offerings go down with such ease that it may take several listens for the depth of that subtlety and complexity to become truly evident.

This set, recorded live at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, features the pianist in a trio setting with bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington. The opening number, “Certainly,” sets the tone. It kicks off with hard-charging, full-bodied swing and never lets up; Green’s percussive block chords and lightly executed but sharply focused single-note lines complement his bandmates’ impetus, combining rhythmic thrust and textural complexity. Wong is both timekeeper and font of bottom-range improvisation; Washington deftly exploits the melodic and rhythmic capacities of his instrument. The three toss ideas among themselves, each riffing and vamping a while before handing off to the next player, often juggling several concepts at once.

The nine selections are relatively brief-most under five minutes-allowing for plenty of creative play but no self-indulgence. Nonetheless, it’s an ambitious journey through shifting emotional landscapes-joyful, mysterious, mournful, affirming, irreverent and solemn in turn. The closer, “Anna’s Blues,” a funky soul-jazz anthem, doesn’t break any new ground, but that seems to be the point: Its paradoxical blend of familiarity and freshness evokes a family reunion or a church social, where the old jokes and stories are trotted out and celebrated as shared heritage, not merely entertainment. It’s a fittingly old-school, good-timey conclusion to a set resonant with both seriousness of purpose and jubilance of spirit.

David Whiteis

David Whiteis is a critic, journalist, and author based in Chicago. He is the recipient of the Blues Foundation’s 2001 Keeping the Blues Alive Award for Achievement in Journalism. His books include Southern Soul-Blues (U. of Illinois Press, 2013) and Chicago Blues: Portraits and Stories (U. Of Illinois Press, 2006). He is currently at work completing a book on contemporary Chicago blues and a co-written autobiography of the late soul singer Denise LaSalle.