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The point forever lost on the scolds who want to ban and abolish art they find offensive is the truth that art is a mirror, however imperfect or distorting, of the culture whence it springs. Artists, as Ezra Pound wrote, are the antennae of society. And when they’ve taken to cramming yams up their privates and pissing all over the holy image of Jesus Christ, you can best believe something’s amiss in society at large, something far more vital than who’s taking dirty pictures and whoelse is paying forthem. Likewise, when artists turn moribund and reactionary, it’s just as telling a sign that trouble’s afoot.
For about a decade now, or roughly since Wynton Marsalis appeared as self-appointed guru of the (now) thirtysomething generation of jazzers, the up-and-coming cats have been largely lost in a time warp, stone- frozen like the wife of Lot in a gaze toward the past. The rather remarkable resurgence of jazz’s popularity has exactly coincided with this trend, as if the music had taken up the cultural, nurturing role of Leave It to Beaver, presenting a stable, reassuring world in which Pop’s always wise and wears a sharp suit, and Mom never neglects to stock the fridge with bologna sandwiches and milk. A sweet enough sentiment, to be sure—and jazz has always savored its share of the sentimental. But for many folks, the music for which they’ve developed a taste is of the Kenny G/jazz-lite variety, a reminder of intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin’s remark that if something is getting popular, it must be in decline. But perhaps because they’ve been mesmerized by their own sharp suits (and the fat bank accounts that paid for ’em), many young players aren’t concerned with kicking out the jams so much as raking in the clams. If the music doesn’t sound a damn bit like the world they’re living in and still less like the art they believed they’d craft one day—well, they’re laughing all the way to the bank.
Positively everything about That’s Right!, the latest from pianist Benny Green’s trio, screams Ward and June Cleaver—the ’50s typography, the black-and-white cover photo of Green, and gosh, Beav, the tunes. Green supplements the originals here with some of the oldest melodies in the book—“Something I Dreamed Last Night” (1939), “Glad to Be Unhappy” (1936), “Ain’t She Sweet” (1927). Even the originals are standard-issue rehashes of dates gone by; the title track is indistinguishable from any number of Art Blakey shuffles, and bassist Christian McBride’s “Hoagie Meat” is the kind of dumb blues kids write in high school—which is just when he wrote it.
But the ultimate proof of the retro is Benny Green’s style. Though still a tender 30 years of age, he sounds like he might be 60 or 70. Or 80. On Horace Silver’s “Me and My Baby,” he retreats to the very loungesque double-handed chording of velvet impresarios like George Shearing, who made the style so popular about five decades ago that it’s still to be heard in fine hotels around the globe today. Green’s own “Cupcake,” which is astonishingly referred to in the liner notes as his latest composition, would be a perfect parody of Neal Hefti schmaltz (Green even covered a Hefti tune on his aptly named debut for Blue Note, Lineage) if there were even the vaguest suggestion of a whiff of a hint of irony—but no dice. Green’s a straight shooter, and these tracks are as unironic as a Pat Robertson fundraiser.
It’s a shame, too, for there’s no doubt the boy can play. On “Wiggin’,” Green musters up some verve with his parallel-hands-in-octaves percolations. He goes parallel again on Bud Powell’s classic “Celia,” deftly meandering about Powell’s boppish lines with lithe élan. But true to his backward-looking soul, instead of pushing the tune outward, Green reaches back to interject a bit of unaccompanied stride, utterly killing the mood as he loses his tempo in the process. His nod to Tadd Dameron, “Just a Tadd,” is the strongest cut of the session; he relaxes enough to make the tune a happy tip of the cap to bygone days and not an anxious, clumsy attempt to bring them back. Bouncing merrily from register to register, he spins a sweet, sometimes-in-octaves solo that hints at the kind of pianist he could become should he ever get his nose out of the Rodgers and Hart songbook.
If this recording has a redeeming quality—not a big if, but certainly a medium-size one —it’s the consistently thrilling playing of McBride. While Carl Allen is stuck in the sad, lounge drummer’s role, occasionallysneaking a nifty kersplat with the brushes but otherwise playing straight man to Green’s other straight man, McBride hums and saunters and gallops and flourishes.His walking on their uptempo“Ain’t She Sweet” is nothingshort of fabulous, tremendouslyarticulated and unclichéd in its shifts from low octaves to high. There’s real humor in his playing, too, and his arco solo on “Me and My Baby” is a model of taste—wry, restrained, and righteous, marred only by Green’s plodding hey-guys-I’ll- cover-the-bass-line accompaniment. Local jazziacs were much atwitter over McBride’s performance last week with Joshua Redman, and as he’s only 21, he surely sounds like the most promising bassist to come along in some time.
Meanwhile, Green garners kudo after kudo. Oscar Peterson recently awarded him a Canadian prize from the Glenn Gould Foundation as most promising young pianist. Any young turk worth his salt pork would recognize such acclaim as almost the kiss of death, for if there’s a retro blowhard more square than Peterson, he’s an undiscovered talent. Green may look good in the suit, and no doubt all the awards are pretty on the mantel. But Benny G and Kenny G are only a consonant apart—and those jazz-lite stations are getting more “progressive” all the time.