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What's so good about Benny Green?
A quick look at Benny Green's bio sheds some light on why he is one of the most respected pianists on the scene: he's either played with or lists as influences musicians who cover a huge range of styles within jazz. No wonder his playing is so interesting - his earliest exposure was to Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk; he also lists pianists like Erroll Garner, Ahmad Jamal Bud Powell and Oscar Peterson as influences. Before he was 40 he had already played with Betty Carter, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Freddy Hubbard, Ray Brown, Diana Krall, Christian McBride and Russell Malone, among so many more.
But what exactly makes Benny so popular as both a leader and a sideman?
In previous posts, I've mentioned the concept of "swing"...and I've never been able to adequately describe it. The best I can do is suggest that "swing" is what makes your toe tap and your heart beat a little faster when you're listening to a great musician. Benny Green swings. A lot. Here's a clip featuring a duo performance of the classic "Satin Doll" with guitar great Bucky Pizzarelli...a pretty swinging combination of players and repertoire. The video quality's not the best, but the music comes across just fine:
What also impresses me about Benny's playing is his ability to seamlessly shift from style to style. In the clip above, he sounds perfectly comfortable playing a straight-ahead version of a Swing Era standard. In this next clip, he tackles the music of Thelonius Monk, and sounds like a different player. This speaks to Benny's commitment to and understanding of his craft: it would be easy to play the two tunes with the same approach - many musicians do. But here, Benny seems to be channelling Monk, taking on some of Monk's idiosyncrasies - notice the dissonant notes and, at times, an almost off-kilter sense of rhythm:
The two clips above demonstrate Benny's musical and pianistic mastery. I enjoy the chameleon-like quality of his playing - he's just as likely to be playing classic stride piano repertoire as he is to be playing hard-hitting original compositions. He has an in-depth understanding of the music he plays. In this final example, where he's teamed up with a pretty amazing lineup of musicians, he knows exactly how to contribute to a fiery post-bop performance. The track is a bit on the longer side, but it's worth every minute. These musicians are, as one of my teachers used to say, "not bad if you like that sort of great-playing-great-time-great-everything sort of thing". Benny's solo starts at 6:30.