It’s the 49th birthday of Benny Green, one of my favorite pianists for many years. I’m appending below the unedited complete DownBeat Blindfold Test that he did with me more than a decade ago.
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Benny Green Blindfold Test:
1. James Weidman, “Bean and the Boys” (from ALL ABOUT TIME, Contour, 1999) (Weidman, piano; Ed Howard, bass; Marcus Baylor, drums) – (5 stars)
It sounded like Lewis Nash on drums. It wasn’t? Wow! Who is the drummer? I was positive it was Lewis Nash, by the ride cymbal, the way he was comping on the snare, the way he coordinated his bass drum with his ride cymbal. I’m actually surprised it’s not Lewis. The song is a Coleman Hawkins melody called “Bean and The Boys,” which is based on “Lover, Come Back To Me.” It was an original treatment with a Latin feel, and I enjoyed it. I liked the way everyone was playing. By the time of the last bridge, on the final melody chorus, the whole group really loosened up, and that was my favorite part of the song. But I enjoyed the whole performance. It felt like the three players were really comfortable with each other and trusted each other, and it was an honest performance. I have no idea who the pianist was. It was musical and had a good feel, but I have no idea who it was. I’m personally not comfortable with the star system, but 5 stars. It was an excellent performance. [AFTER] All respects to Marcus, who’s a great musician, but I thought he might have absorbed some things from Lewis. Like, the very first bar coming out of the melody, the way he played the accent on 1 and 2 on both the ride cymbal and the bass drum, that’s like signature Lewis. I guess that just goes to show, although I still think of Lewis (he’s just a few years older than I) as a young person, that he’s really having an influence on the current scene. Obviously, I thought it was Lewis, and I’ve played with Lewis, so Marcus has absorbed from him. And that’s good. It means he’s absorbing from one of the greatest of today. I should have recognized Ed. I’ve done a lot of playing with him. He’s a great musician.
2. George Cables, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” (from BY GEORGE: GEORGE CABLES PLAYS THE MUSIC OF GEORGE GERSHWIN, Contemporary, 1987) (Cables, piano; John Heard, bass; Ralph Penland, drums) – (5 stars)
I think it’s George Cables. I love George’s playing. I love his personality and it comes through in his playing. He’s a very sweet and gentle soul, a very warm person, and clearly the man knows so much music and he utilizes all this knowledge just to paint a beautiful picture when he plays. My father used to take me to see Dexter Gordon back in the mid-’70s, when George was his pianist. We always knew George was going to be playing piano, because when
we would arrive at the venue, before the musicians came out on stage, there would be a phone book on the piano bench. George used to use one; there probably weren’t so many adjustable benches back then. That was a great reading of Gershwin’s melody, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” from “Porgy and Bess.” I enjoyed the whole thing from start to finish. don’t know who the bassist and drummer were, but it felt like everyone really worked together well. They were very supportive of him. 5 stars. I thought it was gorgeous. [AFTER] I’ve never had the pleasure of working with John, even though I’ve met him. He’s a pro from way, way back, and I’ve always admired his work. I have had the pleasure of playing with Ralph, especially quite a bit with Freddie Hubbard. He has played with everyone who’s been alive in the course of his lifetime. He’s worked with all of them, and it comes through in his playing. He’s a great listener, and his conception is wide open.
3. Cedar Walton, “Latin America” (from LATIN TINGE, High Note, 2002) (Walton, piano; Cucho Martinez, bass; Ray Mantilla, percussion) (5 stars)
That was really hip. The pianist had a beautiful touch, and by the pianistic language, it had to be one of two people, either the man whose language it is, Cedar Walton, or the man who’s the greatest practitioner of Cedar’s pianistic language, Mike LeDonne. Ah, it’s the man himself. Well, all respects to Mr. Walton. Mike LeDonne has absorbed so much of his language, that one — at least this one — has to question sometimes which is which. But it felt like the source, so if it was Michael, it would have been a great tribute to who he absorbed it from. It’s really refreshing. I enjoyed the instrumentation, using the congas instead of a drumset. It’s nice sometimes to hear music played rhythmically without cymbals, like the opening credit music for the new movie “Catch Me If You Can.” It’s nice on the ears. Oh my gosh, Cedar is just one of the hippest ever. The way he touches the piano is completely himself. he has a lot of influence, as do all the masters, but also, as is the case with all the great masters of the music, all those influences serve the end of his own voice. And when you hear him, you know who it is. That piece was beautiful. For many, many years, Cedar has been one of the hippest arrangers as well as pianists. And everything he plays, when he’s improvising, when he’s comping, is an arrangement. It paints a picture. It tells a story. He’s one of the finest of all time. So tasteful, so musical. It’s an infectious feeling. Loved the tune. It sounded like it could have been a standard. Definitely 5 stars.
4. George Shearing-Jim Hall, “Street Of Dreams” (from FIRST EDITION, Concord, 1981) (Shearing, piano; Hall, guitar) (5 stars)
I love this song, “Street of Dreams.” It was a beautiful rendition. A really telling moment in the performance for me was when the bassist dropped out during the guitar solo, and the pianist walked the bass line in his left hand. Because the pianist’s time feel was so strong with that left hand, it was clearly someone who has done a lot of solo playing. I know very few people that have that relaxed a time feeling when it comes to playing a bass line in their left hand. So I’m going to take a wild guess at who it might have been, based on the fact that he played the bass line so well. One of the only people I can think of who is that adept at playing a left-hand bass line is Dave McKenna. [By the way, there's no bass player.] I love it! See, it felt like there was a bass throughout. There again, an incredible left hand. I’m clueless as to who it was if it wasn’t Dave McKenna, but clearly someone who’s very masterful at using their left hand for time playing. The guitarist’s sound was very familiar to me, but I was never able to pinpoint it. To be honest, of the guitarists who are out there today, there’s only a small handful who I’m well aware of. So it could have been someone who’s outside of my realm of familiarity. But of the people I know of, the one it sounded closest to was Howard Alden. 5 stars. [AFTER] Well, that explains the left hand. Yet I didn’t recognize George by the lines he played in his right hand at all. Beautiful! George has one of the finest touches, and it’s been that way throughout his career. I would have especially recognized him when it comes to playing a solo ballad. I’m a huge fan of his ballad work. He’s really one of my favorites when it comes to playing solo unaccompanied ballads. Honestly, I haven’t really investigated as much of his time playing as I have listened to him playing the ballads. And Jim’s sound has gone through several stages of evolution over the years. To be honest, I’d probably be more familiar hearing one of his older recordings sound-wise, like “The Bridge.” But he’s a great master of music. I’m always thankful to hear a good melody played with a good feeling like that.
5. Roland Hanna, “Afternoon in Paris” (from MILANO, PARIS, NEW YORK: FINDING JOHN LEWIS, Venus, 2002) (Hanna, piano; George Mraz, bass; Lewis Nash, drums) (5 stars)
If that wasn’t Lewis Nash, then I don’t know what. And I thought it was George Mraz on bass. If it’s Lewis Nash and George Mraz, that would suggest that, since a lot of what I heard from the piano made me think of Tommy Flanagan, and that’s a Tommy Flanagan rhythm section, it wouldn’t be that far off to think it’s him. But there some clusters in the left hand that weren’t Tommy’s. But it sounded like someone who had something in common, either had absorbed from Tommy, listened to him a lot, or maybe a fellow Detroit pianist. None of the other Detroit pianists that I’m aware of ring true with who it could have been. But there are definitely some Flanaganisms in the phrasing. But moving on, it was a great tune, a jazz standard, John Lewis’ “Afternoon In Paris.” I especially enjoyed a lot of what Lewis was doing behind the bass solo. He played something of Philly Joe Jones’ during the bass’ first bridge, and then during the last eight of the bass solo he was listening so closely to what the pianist was doing. They played some nice things together. But gosh, I don’t have a clue who the pianist was. 5 stars. [AFTER] So it was a Detroit guy! Well, they had so much in common. Roland Hanna’s passing is a tremendous loss. He knew so much music, plus he got such a beautiful sound from the instrument. I remember going to see “Sophisticated Ladies” on Broadway when Roland Hanna was playing, and the feeling and sound he got from the piano… I remember thinking, “Well, this is probably the closest I’ll ever come to hearing Duke in person.” He so captured that spirit. The solo piano record he made at Maybeck is a real gem.
Tommy Flanagan had such a wry sense of humor. One of the first conversations I ever had with Tommy Flanagan, I told him that I thought I heard a kinship between he and a couple of other Detroit pianists, Hank Jones and Barry Harris. And he sort of looked at me blankly, and said, “No, I wouldn’t say there’s anything to that.” He was pulling my leg. He had a great sense of humor. That was a magnificent performance.
6. McCoy Tyner, “Blues For Fatha” (from JAZZ ROOTS, Telarc, 2000) (Tyner, piano) (5 stars)
I’m pretty sure that was my very first pianistic hero, McCoy Tyner. By the time I was 13, I owned every McCoy Tyner record. He was the first pianist I heard who I really wanted to play like. It took me years to realize you can never learn to play like anybody else. But he’s one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice that, in this case, you could tell who it was before he even finished that first chorus of blues. There’s very few people you can recognize in a very few notes like that. I want to get this recording, because it’s beautiful to hear the way he gets dynamic contrast from the piano using the pedals, and he brings so much sound, so much color. When I started playing with Art Blakey, one thing I didn’t realize until I was on the bandstand with him was that from the outside looking in, you’re aware of all the power, which is the case with McCoy Tyner; but when you’re actually up on the bandstand who has that much depth, you realize that part of what brings the effect of the power are the dynamics at play. It’s not that everything is big or everything is loud, but there’s a lot of shape to the music. It’s really beautiful to hear McCoy in a solo setting, and it’s so very exposed — all the beautiful color he’s able to bring from the instrument. Any time I’ve ever heard McCoy Tyner play, any recording, any performance, there is never the slightest air in the expression that he’s thinking about record sales or what kind of review he’s going to get, or competing with someone. It’s such a spiritual offering from McCoy. Every note he plays, he’s playing straight from his heart, and through this honest offering, you can understand that without even knowing the human being. He allows you to feel who he is. And I feel that’s the greatest thing that any musician has to offer, beyond technical ability or style, is to know who you are, away from the arena of music, and then to bring that to your music, as McCoy does. 5 stars.
7. Hank Jones, “Rockin’ In Rhythm” (from ROCKIN’ IN RHYTHM, Concord, 1977) (Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Jimmie Smith, drums) (5 stars)
I hope I’m right about this one. I’m pretty sure that’s from the record with Hank Jones and Ray Brown and Jimmie Smith. Thank God. I wouldn’t want to get those guys wrong. What was interesting is that’s actually a record I own, and hadn’t listened to for a while, and I was listening from a whole different perspective, rather than from the onset putting it on, knowing who I was hearing. So it was very interesting how I gradually actually realized who it was. I wouldn’t have been able to recognize Jimmie Smith specifically, but once I thought it was Hank and Ray, I remembered that they’d played this. First of all, Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm” is such a great song. Now I can remember having heard it when I originally listened to the record, and at the time I appreciated the authenticity with which Hank played Duke’s harmonies on the melody. But I swear, I was listening from a whole different place this time. It was very interesting. I didn’t recognize Ray until he played his bass solo, and at the time he played the bass solo… When you’ve around someone that much… For four-and-a-half years he stood 2 feet away from my left ear. So that’s a sound and feeling that’s entered my body. So I thought, well, if this isn’t Ray Brown… It’s like when I heard Cedar Walton earlier and thought of Mike LeDonne. I said, “Well, the greatest practitioner of Ray’s language is John Clayton, so it’s got to be one of these two guys.” But I still wasn’t sure until I thought about it. Then I thought, “Man, this just reeks of Ray Brown’s DNA, so it’s got to be him.” Then I realized what record it is.
Anyway, it’s beautiful. Actually, the first thing that reached me about the music was the drums. Such a beautiful and relaxed quarter-note from Jimmie Smith, when he was playing on the hi-hat, when he played the ride cymbal. Very rare to hear that, especially today. This recording is about 25 years old now. Beautiful music. Again, with Hank Jones, I didn’t recognize him at first, but the pieces started to fit together. And the first thing that reached me that made me think of Hank was his left hand — the voicings and the rhythmic placement, and the way he actually connects one chord to the next. Hank is one of the greatest masters of the pedals in history, and he uses those pedals to get the widest palette of sound of different colors from the instrument I’ve ever heard, and also just to make connections smoothly. In fact, to me, that’s what technique is, moreso than the ability to play fast. Technique is the ability to play smoothly. And Hank’s the greatest, as Oscar Peterson would attest. 5 stars.
8. Donald Brown, “The Sequel” (from SEND ONE YOUR LOVE, Muse, 1992) (Brown, piano; Charnett Moffett, b; Louis Hayes, drums; Mulgrew Miller, composer) (5 stars)
The melody was so beautiful. You know something that made this really pleasurable to listen to for me was the way the three musicians worked together. It’s so refreshing to hear the pianist and drummer were not afraid to take a lot of chances. The bassist supported them. The bassist had their back all throughout. So there were a lot of times when the time feel could have gone haywire potentially if the bassist had stopped supporting them. But he didn’t. He had their back throughout. So it was really nice to hear the pianist and drummer really going for things, and you had the sense that they didn’t necessarily even know where it was going to lead, but they were playing as they felt in the moment, and that made the performance a joy to hear. It felt like it was a bit of an adventure. The melody seemed rather familiar, but I don’t know specifically what it was. I’ve heard the melody before. Sounds like a pianist could have written it, because of the orchestral nature. The only person who would come to mind as a composer…it has a quality that reminds me of Ahmad Jamal, but I don’t know who actually wrote it. Help me out. Oh, it’s Mulgrew’s song. I didn’t recognize any of the players, but I enjoyed them. 5 stars.
9. Herbie Hancock, “Embraceable You” (from GERSHWIN’S WORLD, Verve, 1998) (Hancock, piano)
Definitely Herbie. That’s another one of the few pianists who has such a distinctive voice. This is probably from the Gershwin album. “Embraceable You.” 5 stars. Beautiful song. Herbie Hancock is someone I have to be very selective about going to hear in live performance, because if I have a show coming up in close proximity, he can give me nightmares. What he does is so beautiful, yet for a pianist, it can be almost overwhelming to experience that in person — the expansiveness of Herbie’s imagination and just the freedom and abandon that he brings to his genius. He puts so much thought and soul into every note he plays. He’s a true inspiration to all of us. He’s one of those rare individuals who comes along and opens music up for all the generations to come. I’m very grateful for what he’s done for music. It’s a rare treat to hear a solo piano performance from Herbie. Boy, if I had any say in the matter, I’d love to hear him record an entire solo album sometime in the future, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that wish. It would be so beautiful to listen to and learn from for all time. He’s one of the geniuses in our midst. We’ve lost so many great masters in the past few years, and it’s wonderful that we have Herbie Hancock with us.
10. Teddy Wilson, “My Heart Stood Still” (from THREE LITTLE WORDS, Black & Blue, 1976) (Wilson, piano; Milt Hinton, bass; Oliver Jackson, drums) (5 stars)
That was beautiful! I love that song, “My Heart Stood Still.” I could tell it was an old-timer right off the bat, because clearly the pianist knew the melody so well. He sounded like someone who grew up with the song, not someone who learned it after the fact; someone who grew up with the song as a pop tune during that generation. Another way I could tell it was an older player is I felt so much life and humor in the performance. Clearly, this is someone who has done a lot of living. I’m not sure who it was. The only element of vocabulary that I recognized was that it sounded like someone who enjoyed Teddy Wilson. But outside of that, I definitely don’t know who it was. The bass and drummer are great. The drummer is a master; he’s very responsible with the time at that bright tempo. 5 stars. [AFTER] Okay! Well, I would say Teddy Wilson enjoys Teddy Wilson. This must have been a later performance. Teddy’s one of my favorites, but I haven’t listened to a lot of his later work. I’ve mostly heard his earlier recordings. He’s one of the people that really brought what had come before his generation pianistically into a more contemporary kind of focus through his use of subtlety and touch and pedaling. Both Teddy Wilson and Nat Cole were largely influenced by Earl Fatha Hines, but each took that influence and personalized it, and became two of the formative voices of modern piano. All the greats we know today, people like Hank Jones and Oscar Peterson, owe a great deal to Teddy Wilson along with Nat Cole and Art Tatum, for laying the foundations of modern jazz piano.
11. Paul Bley, “Ida Lupino” (from PLAYS CARLA BLEY, Steeplechase, 1991) (Bley, piano; Marc Johnson, bass; Jeff Williams, drums; Carla Bley, composer) – (5 stars)
I enjoyed that. That was a different kind of painting! That’s a very pretty melody. I’ve heard it before. Is it a pop song? From the simplicity of the melody, it sounded like something that would have words to it — like it was a poem. Gosh, I don’t know who wrote it. “Ida Lupino”? I’ve heard it before. I don’t know who the musicians were. The drummer had the most familiar sound of the three musicians. But they worked together so well, I wonder how much discussion there was about an approach or direction to the song, or if they just let it happen. There was this mood, this dark feeling from the very beginning, and they really stayed with it. At first, it was a beautiful sort of suggestion of a sort of undefined mood. But they stayed with that train of thought and let the idea sort of blossom throughout the whole performance. 5 stars because it was an honest performance. By “honest” I mean that I felt the humanity of the musicians coming through. It was lovely.