Saxophonist Larry McKenna is the reigning king of Philly swing, but he’s a modest musician and a guy who probably wouldn’t consider himself to be that at all. Though McKenna has been playing and teaching jazz ever since he hit the road gigging in 1959 with Woody Herman’s Big Band, it wasn’t until 1997 that he recorded his first solo CD, My Shining Hour: Larry McKenna Plays Harold Arlen. His workman-like attitude, sheer talent and full-bodied tone has endeared him to countless musicians throughout the Philadelphia area, his is often the first name mentioned when talking about the best tenor sax players in the city.
|photo by Melissa Gilstrap|
McKenna’s latest recording From All Sides is a follow-up to his 2009 release, Profile (Dream Box Media), and builds on McKenna’s gifts as a songwriter and composer, putting music to lyrics by his writing partner, Melissa Gilstrap. In the delightful and incisive liner notes, McKenna explains how the songwriting process and his own ambition as a musician intersected quite organically. Their four originals are brought to life by the stunning Philadelphia vocalist, Joanna Pascale, whose crystalline voice and soulful delivery pulls out the tender, evocative feeling in the lyrics. Even the unexpected inclusion of a Christmas-themed song on the playlist gets a pass thanks to Pascal’s artistry.
Give this tenor player a standard or ballad and that’s when McKenna’s rich bluesy sound radiates outward. Supported by an all-star band of fellow Philadelphians, McKenna plays with the exuberance of an up-and-coming newcomer. The smooth swing on “Everything I Got” percolates over a bubbling rhythmic brook and McKenna’s tenor soars, improvising through the changes with a relaxed and supple charm. To his credit, McKenna’s band restores the 1940’s dance club feel with Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic,” a tune first recorded by Glenn Miller. Most recommended though is McKenna’s arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” which features an endearingly casual tempo, yet gorgeous multi-layered instrumentation. And one more as guitarist Pete Smyser and McKenna’s frontline (flugelhorn player George Rabbai and trombonist Joe McDonough) harmonize beautifully over the lilt of McKenna’s original “Samba De Else.” Whether playing on strong instrumentals or underscoring sweetly rendered songs, Larry McKenna always displays first-class musicianship and consummate urbanity. (12 tracks; 76 minutes)
Labels: Joanna Pascale, Larry McKenna, Melissa Gilstrap, Pete Smyser