Pianist Benny Green runs hot and cold with original tunes

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Benny Green

Benny Green (October 5, 2012)

Pianist Benny Green tried something different Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, devoting an extended first set entirely to original compositions.

You'd have to be a fairly accomplished composer, however, to sustain interest in 90 minutes of self-styled tunes, and Green didn't quite achieve that. An Oscar Peterson protégé who certainly knows his way around a piano, Green offered several appealing works, some new, some old. But the weaker ones suggested that Green – and his audience – would have been better off if he had put some jazz standards into the mix, instead.

At his best, Green can produce a well-honed tune steeped in jazz tradition. Virtually every piece Green unveiled referenced 1940s bebop and 1950s hard bop, the man expressing his palpable affection for distant chapters of jazz history. But a little of this affectionate glance at the past goes a long way, especially in original work, which one might hope would be more firmly tied to the present.

Still, there was no denying the craftsmanship of Green's best compositions, nor his ear for how jazz was penned half a century ago or more.

Green and his trio opened the evening with "Harold Land," named for the celebrated saxophonist and redolent of a 1950s aesthetic. The song's catchy, telegraphic main riff proved difficult to resist, if a bit repetitive, and set the nostalgic tone for the rest of the set.

But Green's best music came, by far, came toward the end, with a run of elegantly conceived works. True, they broke no new ground, but they revisited familiar musical ideas with considerable polish and finesse.

In "Sonny Clark," named for the brilliant hard-bop pianist, Green threw off fast-moving lines that seemed to gather momentum with each passing bar. No other piece Green played matched the rhythmic energy and drive of this piece, though one wished some of them had.

Green's "Priestess" proved that he knows how to write a ballad, its pristinely beautiful melody line enhanced by some of the most sophisticated chord-making of the night. The delicacy of Green's pianism matched the subtlety of the tune itself, a high point of the set.

Two other pieces also stood out: the brand new "Old Haunts," built on quirky syncopations inspired by Thelonious Monk; and "Further Away," its lovely melody enhanced by Green's silvery touch on the piano (with atmospheric accompaniment from bassist Ben Wolfe and drummer Kenny Washington).

But several other Green tunes sounded thin and underdeveloped. If Green was trying to conjure the arid atmosphere of the desert in his "Cactus Flower," he may have succeeded a little too well. The piece proved so thin in texture and spare in gesture as to practically fall apart. Compositions such as "The Tenor Blues" and "Certainly" sounded obvious at best, rudimentary at worst. Or maybe part of the problem lay in the way Green played these pieces, his sometimes heavy-handed pianism robbing the music of much-needed nuance and inflection.

Still, the successful pieces were worth savoring, especially the opening passages of the slow blues "Golden Flamingo." Green created an aura of stillness and reverie here, with comparably atmospheric support from his trio. Too bad Green's playing turned so leaden and lumbering as the piece developed.

All of which suggests Green ought to be a bit more sparing in doling out original works and should try to bring more finesse to those he chooses to play. By alternating his best compositions with worthy jazz tunes by others, he would make a far stronger case for himself.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Benny Green Trio

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $20-$25; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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