If tenor saxophonist Benny Golson hadn't played a note Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, his 90-minute opening set would have been worth the price of admission, and then some.
For Golson, at 85, reminisced so poetically, knowingly and often hilariously about his long life in jazz that listeners could savor the oratory as much as the music.
How many musicians are around anymore, after all, who can offer anecdotes about playing alongside an inexperienced, teenaged saxophonist named John Coltrane? Or tell the inside story of how a jazz classic such as "Along Came Betty," one of several Golson signature tunes, came to be written?
When Golson is in as loquacious a mood as he was on this evening, listeners hear nothing less than a living, breathing history of the great American art form, told by a man who has witnessed (and contributed to) a large chunk of it. Moreover, Golson's tales unfold like ingeniously constructed jazz solos, unpredictable in their details but inevitable in their outcome.
"My wife says I talk too much," Golson told the audience, as he launched into his series of tales. "But she's not here tonight."
And, oh yes, one more thing: Golson played his saxophone with considerable grace, poise and invention throughout his first set. A comparatively low-key player who places the emphasis on the music rather than on himself, Golson dealt mostly in the bebop language of his youth, but with a silken tone and elegance of phrase reflecting the gentlemanly demeanor that long has been his trademark.
He opened with "Horizon Ahead," which instantly attested to the enduring beauty of his tone and seamlessness of his phrasing. From the outset, Golson established an easygoing rapport with a high-powered band featuring Chicagoans Dana Hall on drums and Larry Gray on bass plus former Chicagoan Michael Kocour on piano. Visiting soloists don't always find themselves with pick-up bands of this caliber, and no one seemed more struck by their work than Golson himself.
"You always have one show-off in a band – but three?" Golson quipped.
Golson's "Jump Start" does not rank among his most celebrated compositions, but it's certainly one of the more intriguing. The saxophonist built the piece on what musicians call a chromatically ascending line, and he made the most of this idiosyncrasy, taking the tune into strange and unexpected harmonic directions.
Some of the most satisfying music of the evening emerged in Clifford Brown's "Tiny Capers," which was conceived as a response to James P. Johnson's landmark "Carolina Shout." Golson often returns to this piece, and this performance explained why: The tune inspired the saxophonist to unreel angular, edgy lines with plenty of twists and turns, updating both the original and Brown's alternate theme.
It would be difficult to overstate how much Kocour, Gray and Hall added to the proceedings. For starters, it was a pleasure to hear once again Kocour's crystalline touch, harmonic sophistication and melodic invention, which reminded at least one listener of what we lost when he took a teaching position in Arizona several years ago.
Bassist Gray produced expansive, copiously creative solos throughout but particularly in Coltrane's "Mr. P.C." And drummer Hall remains a dramatically effective soloist and accompanist, the power and scope of his playing tempered by its control and precision.
Rarely in contemporary times has Golson found himself in better company in Chicago.
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 and 8 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court
Admission: $20-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com