Monterey Jazz Festival tour touts Berkeley bred keyboard talent
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
BERKELEY -- The 55th Monterey Jazz Festival Tour, the world's longest-running festival of its kind, will be keeping it real when it makes a Jan. 19 stop at Zellerbach Hall.
On keyboard will be Berkeley's own Benny Green, a master pianist whose golden tones and remarkable pedigree hark back to the American art form's founders.
Green's first appearance at the festival was in 1978, when the then-15-year-old student pooled the love of swing he'd picked up from a saxophone-paying dad with his hard-bop moxie and embarked on a lifetime of playing with the best in the business.
Hustling off to New York shortly after graduating high school, Green landed on the bench next to pianist Walter Bishop Jr. Soon after, he toured for four years with Betty Carter, before "arriving" with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers at the age of 24.
"Everything clicked in my life because of Art Blakey," Green says, in an interview from his home in Berkeley. "Having that kind of catalyst set the stage for everything that has come since."
In reality, the set up to a career that includes more than 100 guest appearance recordings (including Betty Carter's Grammy Award-winning "Look What I Got"), leading his own groups and releasing 12 critically acclaimed recordings, started long before he began astonishing audiences and jazz purists with his ability to make a piano croon, shimmer and crackle.
Blue Note heritage is everywhere apparent; especially when he reminisces.
"(Thelonious) Monk is my hero," Green says. "He'd swing so hard -- it still surprises me. McCoy Tyner? He's my second hero. I'd save my allowance just to collect his records. Any time I hear him playing, I feel every note comes straight from his heart."
Green says technological advancement in recording can't match the warm, hip, undeniably metaphysical effect of small group recordings made in the early 1960s.
"I appreciate what is not taking place on those old recordings," he says. "If it makes your toes tap, it's not old. It's happening now."
Rapidly naming pianists he admires -- all of whom play with an economy of notes but whose supersaturated sound bursts from the belly of the piano in robust style -- Green says aging is a mixed blessing.
"Being 50 has given me perspective on the most meaningful things as a listener in jazz," he says. "The challenge is the physical body: it's not as resilient. I've had to re-approach how I touch the instrument. But the more I live, the more I have to play about. It's an odd combo."
Green practices sporadically throughout the day, following his late father's belief that what matters isn't "how many hours," but how the hours are spent.
It's obvious he misses his dad, especially when he insists, "He's with me more than ever now. He gave me this music."
When he needs a break, he watches films -- everything from film noir crime classics to goofy Hollywood romances -- and spends time with his mother, who lives nearby.
"She's my number one priority in life, then the music," he says. "I watch her and appreciate her."
With a new, self-produced CD scheduled for a February 2013 release, Green is hardly slowing his life's tempo, despite praising Berkeley's "calmer than New York atmosphere."
"Magic Beans" (Sunnyside) is his first trio recording of all original music. Artistically, he says "calling the shots" has been his biggest undertaking. Working with supportive musicians and telling stories through rhythm and melodies has awakened his pen.
"I've rediscovered my passion for writing," he says, sounding surprised.
Never having lost his passion for discovery, Green is "working on himself" and trying to "be a good guy and make that central to my music."
The MJF tour is intense, but Green embraces the demanding schedule, suggesting it gives rise to communal interactions that develop humanity and lead to unspoken sensitivity between the musicians.
"The rep is going to expand, things will loosen up, the pacing may change -- that's the spontaneity that's at the heart and soul of this music. We're not shooting any blanks, so I feel confident it will be a kick-ass show," he promises.