At 88, saxophonist Benny Golson has stories to tell

88-year-old saxophonist-composer Benny Golson opens a four-night run at the Jazz Showcase.

You don’t often see standing ovations at the Jazz Showcase, or most any such club, for that matter.

But the large crowd that rose up at the end of Benny Golson’s first set Thursday evening had the right idea.

And it’s a fair bet that the audience was honoring more than Golson’s 88 years, his deep history in the music and a catalog of original compositions that stand as jazz classics.

Of at least equal importance, Golson produced one of the most satisfying shows he has given here in recent memory, his remarkably persuasive playing counterbalanced by his gifts as storyteller.

True, jazz devotees are familiar with Golson’s achievements on tenor saxophone and his expansive between-song patter. But on this occasion, music and spoken word dovetailed quite elegantly, each enriching the other.

This was clear from the outset, as Golson introduced his “Horizon Ahead,” speaking poetically about how jazz musicians spend a lifetime pushing toward an artistic horizon that’s ultimately beyond reach. He riffed for several paragraphs on that theme before finally conceding, “My wife says I talk too much.” And a beat later: “But she’s not here.”

With that, Golson turned to his tenor saxophone and unfurled a rounded, dusky tone as he articulated the main theme of “Horizon Ahead,” then improvised on it creatively. The rush of motifs and intricacy of line he brought to the tune pointed to a musician who, remarkably, still plays as if he has something to prove. Or, more specifically, as if to remind listeners that he maintains control of his instrument and never lacks for air power.

As in the past, Golson was assisted sensitively by Chicagoans Larry Gray on bass and Dana Hall on drums, plus former Chicagoan Michael Kocour playing piano. These musicians know how to anticipate Golson’s approach to tempo and musical form, their contributions bringing welcome texture and atmosphere to “Horizon Ahead,” especially via Kocour’s beautifully weighted touch on piano.

It would be impossible to count all the times Golson has introduced Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” by quoting long-ago TV host Lawrence Welk’s famous mangling of the tune’s title: “Take a Train.” But Golson told the tale with such relish that his extended soliloquy practically amounted to a jazz solo in its own right, the predictable punchline somehow rendered funny once again.

Musically, Golson may have further surprised listeners with how much he had to say with the old standard, the man spinning one ribbon of idiosyncratic melody after another. Bassist Gray’s solo — itself rich in content and musicality — prompted Golson to proclaim “encore, encore” in mid-performance. Gray obliged.

The centerpiece of any Golson set, however, remains a traversal of some of his most famous tunes, and the saxophonist preceded each with a narrative about how it came to be. With some composers, such a moment can become an exercise in self-celebration. With Golson, each tale evocatively re-created a moment in jazz history well worth hearing from the man who made it possible.

So in “Whisper Not,” Golson discussed the title, which he said has inspired endless speculation but, he insisted, has no meaning at all. More important was the way he played it: softly, gently and with that subtle, ultra-hip rhythmic swagger the song demands.

The jazz world was shocked when trumpeter Clifford Brown died in 1956, at age 25, and Golson recalled the shattering moment when he learned the news. That story set the stage for his profoundly expressive ballad, “I Remember Clifford.”

“Every time I play the tune,” Golson told the audience, “I think: What would have happened if Clifford hadn’t died at 25.”

Golson’s slow, solemn, plaintive lament said a great deal about how the tragedy affected him — then and now — and stood as the most searing moment of the night.

Later Golson told the story behind his “Stablemates” before offering a bebop-tinged version of the piece, inspiring a characteristically larger-than-life solo from drummer Hall (who’s director of jazz studies at DePaul University).

When the audience leapt to its feet, Golson couldn’t resist offering a final zinger.

“I know another tune,” he said. “We’ll play it in the next set.”

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

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court

Tickets: $25-$40; 312-360-0234 or www.jazzshowcase.com

is a Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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