Friday, June 8, 2018

Larry McKenna - A New Discovery

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Instrumentally and compositionally, Larry McKenna is a major voice in the World of Jazz. I’m just sorry that it took me so long to hear it. In my case, it was an error in omission; be careful not to make it one of commission in your case. You’ve been warned: Larry McKenna is one bad dude; be sure to check him out at your earliest opportunity. You’ll be glad you did.
- The editorial staff at JazzProfiles

The title of this piece may seem a bit strange to those Jazz musicians and fans in the greater Philadelphia area who have been listening to tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna for almost 60 years, but I encountered his outstanding playing for the first time at a May 2018 Los Angeles Jazz Institute [LAJI] tribute to Woody Herman and it knocked me out - totally.

The occasion of my first experience with Larry’s music was in a performance by the current day Herdsmen at the LAJI Woodyfest. In the heyday of the Swing era, most big bands had a band-within-band in the form of a small group such as Tommy Dorsey’s Clambake Seven, Artie Shaw’s Gramercy Five and the Benny Goodman Quartet. These smaller groups gave the guys in the band a chance to rest their chops, provided a contrast to the roaring sound of the larger group, and also offered certain soloists a chance to stretch out.

Larry along with Bobby Shew on trumpet headed up a quintet that played songs associated with Woody Herman’s small group - The Herdsmen - and his big, rich, singing tone and fluid ideas impressed just about everyone who attended this session.

Who was this guy?

To my ears Larry sounds like a combination of Zoot Sims, Al Cohn and Stan Getz or as Stan once put it when asked about the best approach to tenor saxophone: “Zoot’s swing; Al’s ideas; my sound.” That formula strikes me as a perfect description of Larry McKenna.

Thanks to a panel discussion that followed the performance by Larry and Bobby’s quintet at which both Bobby and Larry participated along with Alan Broadbent and Gary Anderson, I learned that Larry had been on Woody’s band for six months in the late 1950s before returning home to Philadelphia for the start of a long career of playing and teaching in that city.

I reached out to Larry with the idea of doing this feature about him for JazzProfiles and he was very amenable and kindly send along two CDs so that I could better familiarize myself with his Jazz stylings. All of Larry’s recorded music is available via Amazon in both CD and streaming formats. Larry also has a Facebook Page -

What I found most engaging about Larry’s playing was his emphasis on melodic improvisation; he sings through his horn. He strings the lines of his improvisations together in a horizontal manner without a lot of emphasis on harmony and harmonic substitutions.

Larry’s penchant for the melodic is very much in evidence on his 1999 CD, It Might As Well Be Spring [Dreambox Media DMJ 1056] as in addition to the title tune, Larry offers renditions of 10 more songs from the Great American Songbook including: Make Me Rainbows, So many Stars, April Showers, Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most, One Morning in May, You Must Believe in Spring, Skylark, How About You, I’ll Remember April, and Spring Is Here.

Johnny Adams offered these details and comments about Larry’s background and his approach to the music in his insert notes to the recording:

“Philadelphia has always been famous for producing outstanding
musicians: Stan Gerz, Benny Golson, John La Porta and...Larry McKenna.  As a teenager Larry joined his high school jazz band and got familiar with the Philly Jazz scene by performing and making a mark with his tenor saxophone. In 1959, his first big break came when he spent six months on the road with the Woody Herman Band as a member of the sax section.  His unlimited technique and beautiful soft-edged rone has graced the Al Raymond All-Star Big Jazz Band, Michel Legrand, and Frank Sinatra. In the early '60s, because of his fertile musical mind, he began teaching ac Temple University, West Chester University and Philadelphia Community College. In 1997, McKenna recorded his first CD as a leader, "My Shining Hour" (a tribute to Harold Arlen), producing something so original and compelling that the moment we hear it we recognize Larry's signature sound and style.

Most jazz musicians present one kind of image: they look a certain way, they perform a certain way. you put on their music and always know what to expect; not so when you listen to Larry McKenna. Take the ballad in jazz;  it’s where you find McKenna trying to connect with the listener, packing as much feeling and warmth as possible into every note, a vehicle for him to express the emotional side of his playing. ...

Larry is a melodic improviser, and jazz is rooted in song:  his vox humana has the magical ability to bend his horn and shape his artistic needs, to make it an extension of his own personal voice.  It is this magic at which Larry McKenna is a Merlin. In listening to this record, you need only think about the names of the tunes. Each has a particular message.”

As a note in passing, on this CD, Larry is ably assisted by Jason Shatill on piano, Pete Colangelo on bass and Jim Schade on drums.

Larry also sent along his self-produced From All Sides CD which features vocalist Joanna Pascale as a special guest on songs written by Larry and Melissa Gilstrap along with a host of excellent Jazz musicians who reside with ready access to the greater Philadelphia area.

Larry offered his own thoughts as to the significance of this recording which was made in 2012:

“This recording has allowed me to display my musical ambitions 'from all sides’ - as a saxophonist, arranger, instrumental composer and, more recently, songwriter. During my long career as a musician, I have composed and arranged many instrumental pieces for various ensembles, but it was not until 2007 that I tried my hand at writing "singable" songs with lyrics. At that time, Melissa Gilstrap encouraged me to write my first instrumental ballad. We had become friends after meeting the year before at Ortlieb's Jazzhaus in Philadelphia, where I was performing and she was drawing the musicians from her seat in front of the bandstand (as she did for the portraits in this package),  When I saw her drawings, her artistry immediately impressed me. I later discovered that her talent crossed over into music, poetry and photography - all on top of her full-time career as an attorney.

I didn't throw myself into this songwriting endeavor, but one night I got an idea for a melody. In half an hour, I completed a 48-bar tune that I felt had real possibilities. Melissa thought it was quite nice, so I persuaded her after some coaxing to write a lyric to the tune. I was confident she would find her muse, having been witness to her creative abilities.

When I read her lyric two weeks later, I felt that my tune had become complete. It was as if the tune had needed something. Now it was an actual song. What a thrill!

This song, Perhaps This Wintertime, was well received when debuted by the wonderful vocalist Nancy Reed on my "Profile" CD  in 2009. I'm doubly pleased that it has since been performed and recorded by The Hot Club of Philadelphia with Denise King and sung by other top jazz vocalists on both coasts.

Once engaged in songwriting, I started to think about my next recording. I wanted to devote a large portion of the repertoire to my (and Ms. Gilstrap's) original works. This led me to apply for a grant from the Philadelphia Chapter of the American Composers Forum. To my great delight and encouragement, I was awarded a 2012 Subito Grant to help support this CD featuring five of our collaborations (four vocal tunes and one instrumental) plus three of my original instrumentals.

Since composing that first song, I've found there's no set pattern to my songwriting process, except that music has preceded lyrics. Each composition seems to come in a different way and from a different place….

Now I'm thinking about what project comes next. Maybe something with an orchestra or a chamber group. I'd like to expand my range. Who knows? More original songs, for sure. In any case, I hope the music on this CD proves to be interesting, thought-provoking and enjoyable.”
Larry McKenna, June 2013

Having recently become familiar with Larry’s music, I can’t emphasize enough how brilliant it is from conception to execution and I recommend it to you in the highest terms.

Instrumentally and compositionally, Larry McKenna is a major voice in the World of Jazz. I’m just sorry that it took me so long to hear it. In my case, it was an error in omission; be careful not to make it one of commission in your case. You’ve been warned: Larry McKenna is one bad dude; be sure to check him out at your earliest opportunity. You’ll be glad you did.

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