Although he is only 37 years old, pianist Benny Green seems to have been around a lot longer. Could it be because, during those 37 years, hes played with the likes of Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Freddie Hubbard and Ray Brown (on quite a few albums for Telarc, no less), as well as on a number of albums under his own leadership? Or maybe its because Greens style so closely resembles that of Oscar Peterson (who, seemingly, has been around forever)? Whatever the reason, one can be forgiven for forgetting his age on listening to this disc, his Telarc debut as a leader. Green weaves a sound that demonstrates his love and understanding of music that seems far beyond his years. Naturally, performed mostly in a trio format, reunites Green with guitarist Russell Malone and bassist Christian McBride, who both joined him on Blue Notes These Are Soulful Times last year. The group runs through five Green originals and one cut, "Grooveyard," by Carl Perkins (the West Coast jazz pianist, not that other guy). Green goes solo on three standards, Duke Ellingtons "Love You Madly," Wayne Shorters "Lester Left Town," and "Learnin The Blues" by Delores Vicki Silver.
Obviously, Green arrived at this session with loads of experience to draw on -- and it shows. Just listen to the fun he has playing "Love You Madly," or to his interplay with the group on "Captain Hook," where he takes his turn soloing, comping and interacting with each of the others in ways that belie his tender years. (None of these guys is older than Green.) Green knows just when to push, when to lay back, and when to join his compatriots. He never uses his incredible talent just to show off -- instead he exploits it only when he has something to say, such as in his solo on "Learnin The Blues."
McBride and Malone are perfect complements to Green. Both have prodigious talent, and they never make a false move. McBride, who, it seems, is in demand by everyone these days (a fact that should tell you just how exceptional a musician he is), really shines in trio settings such as this one. I have a number of trio discs that include him, and all are made better by his presence. On Naturally, its easy to follow his bass work at all times, so you can hear just what it is that makes him such a sought-after accompanist. And while Im ashamed to admit Ive not heard that much of Malone, I did enjoy his work on the soundtrack to Robert Altmans Kansas City. He has a nice, understated way of playing that fits in well with Green and McBrides virtuosity. Just take a listen to his comping on the Green original "Russellin" (written in Malone's -- big surprise, huh?) Lovely.
Sonically, Naturally is right up there with the best from Telarc. Greens piano is centered in the soundstage and very clearly recorded. It has just the right size, relative to the rest of the trio, not being confined to one channel or spread out over the whole soundstage. Malones hollow-body electric guitar is to the right and rear, yet obviously in its own space, with just the correct amount of electric purr and wooden-body acoustic. However, it is McBrides bass that really shines here. You can hear his fingers plucking the strings, the slapping sound of the strings hitting the finger board, and the deep rumble of the large wooden cavity of the basss body out of the left channel.
I thought it might be instructive to compare Naturally to These Are Soulful Times. TAST was engineered by Jim Anderson (a man whose credentials need no elaboration) direct to two track (digital?) using 24-bit technology, while Naturally was recorded, as usual, by the always superb Jack Renner, using Sonys DSD process, which Telarc has adopted for most of their new releases.
Given the difference in the two labels recording styles, there were significant, but not major, differences between the two discs. Malones guitar has more of the hollow-body sound on the Telarc disc than on the Blue Note. Its the same with McBrides bass, which sounds not quite as deep or full, and has more string sound than body, on the Blue Note. Greens piano sounds fine on both discs, but just a tad more real on the Telarc. The only place the Blue Note seemingly tops the Telarc is in the way it captures low-level detail, a fact I attribute to its direct-to-two-track recording process. The Blue Note also sets the musicians further back into the soundstage than the Telarc, but thats just a matter of taste. Having heard both, Im becoming a bigger and bigger fan of the DSD recording process.
What may be most telling is the amount of listening time Ive spent with each of these recordings. Ive been spinning the Telarc disc a lot since I received it, and yet, until I did this comparison, I hadnt given the Blue Note a whirl in months. Now, that might have something to do with the musical content (the Telarc seems to touch my soul better than the Blue Note), but its also, I think, because the Telarc sounds more like the real thing, making it easier for me to close my eyes and suspend disbelief. Bravo Telarc and Benny Green. You have a winner, Naturally.
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