© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
"Larry McKenna fits into the category of a jazz musician's musician.
I've had the extreme pleasure of playing on the same bandstand with Larry on several occasions.
One of the traditional things in jazz playing, or the interpretation of the jazz language, is the ability of a player to repeat a musical message/statement or 'riff' exactly the way it was 'laid down' by the creator/innovator of the 'riff rhythm-wise and linear-wise When a player is capable of doing this perfectly he becomes known as one who can 'read'... Please believe me, Larry McKenna can read his a** off.
Larry is destined to become one of Jazz's all-time outstanding soloists, if he isn't already."
— Clark Terry
"Larry McKenna can flat out play - in the tradition of Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, and John Coltrane. He certainly has something to say!"
— Jon Faddis
"His sound and feel immediately remind you of Stan Getz. His articulation and harmonic sense conjure up Sonny Stitt -but he has forged a style of his own. Larry McKenna becomes recognizable as - Larry McKenna.”
— John Marchese
"Larry is a world-class musician from Philadelphia. He captures the soul of Jazz."
— Buddy DeFranco
Many of you frequent visitors to the site may remember a relatively recent posting to the blog under the title of “Larry McKenna - A New Discovery” which had as its lead-in the following quotation:
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
This feature is an extension of that piece as since its writing I’ve been on a quest to find more of Larry’s recorded music and I’ve managed to come up with five albums, all of which are reviewed below.
In a very early blog piece on Seattle-based pianist Jack Brownlow which I subheaded - “A Hometown Favorite” - I described these locally based musicians [as opposed to those who gain national or international prominence] as follows and I am returning to the description because I think it fits Larry McKenna to a “T”:
“Every town has one.
Whether its Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Reno or Seattle.
Somewhere in these cities, there is an exceptional Jazz musician who is mainly known only to those familiar with the local Jazz scene.
For whatever reason, these local Jazz musicians don’t travel, preferring to stay close to home while working the occasional club date, party or benefit.
Every so often, a group of local admirers cobble some schimolies together and produce a compact disc to put on display their local favorite’s talents.
These fans know that their player is special and want portable accessibility to the music while at the same time doing their bit to document it for posterity.
Until the advent of e-commerce, the “distribution” of such recordings often consisted of making it available for sale on a card table that was staffed by someone before and/or after gigs or performances.
When you’ve listened to a lot of Jazz, you can usually tell when someone is special.
You hear it first in the phrasing and with the ready expression of ideas while soloing.
Jazz soloing is like the geometric head start in the sense that you never catch up.
When you improvise something it’s gone; you can’t retrieve it and do it again.
You have to stay on top of what you are doing as Jazz is insistently progressive – it goes forward with you or without you.
People who can play the music, flow with it. Their phrasing is in line with the tempo, the new melodies that they superimpose over the chord structures are interesting and inventive and they bring a sense of command and completion to the process of creating Jazz.
These qualities help bring some Jazz musicians to national, if not, international prominence. Deservedly so. It’s not easy to play this stuff.
We buy their recordings, read articles about them in the Jazz press and attend their concerts and club dates.
But throughout the history of Jazz, be it in the form of what was referred to as “territory bands,” or local legends who never made it to the big time or recorded, or those who only played Jazz as a hobby, word-of-mouth communication somehow managed to inform us of the startling brilliance of these locally-based musicians.
Such was the case with pianist Jack Brownlow who for many years was one of the most highly regarded Jazz musicians in the greater-Seattle area.”
And such is the case with tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna who over the course of his 60 plus year career has chosen to remain in the greater Philadelphia area.
Not surprisingly, too, many of Larry’s recordings as a sideman are also with Philadelphia-based Jazz musicians.
Let’s begin with Larry’s 1997 My Shining Hour CD on Alanna Records [ACD 5570] on which he performs ten songs by Harold Arlen in the company of Bill Shilling who is both a guitarist and a pianist, bassist Dom Mancini and drummer Butch Reed.
The album is a tour de force from start to finish and the Harold Arlen repertoire may have a lot to do with it because I would challenge anyone to find five better songs to improvise on from The Great American Songbook, anywhere.
The insert notes to this CD deal with the incredulity of how and why such an amazingly talented player like Larry can remain so obscure for so long outside local Philadelphia Jazz circles by asking the rhetorical question:
“How can a musician that is so hugely talented, admired by all the great names that request his presence to play when they pass through his city, held in awe by all of his contemporaries, whose name, when uttered, evokes whispers of respect from his peers; how can this great jazz sax player not have achieved the international fame garnered by lesser talents with some extremely curious habits?”
But I suspect that Larry’s answer may be similar to the one I got from the Los Angeles based tenor saxophonist when I asked Harold about his decision to quit the legendary Clifford Brown - Max Roach Quintet and return to Los Angeles for family reasons, he said: “Do you know how often I get asked that question? I have no regrets. For the last 45 years I’ve been in the California sunshine near my family and friends. Going on the road is a drag, nothin’ but hard times. The work here has been all right over the years and I’m happy sleepin’ in my own bed at night.”
Larry, like Harold, enjoys the comforts of home cooking and over the course of his career, he has played his share of Jazz gigs with some excellent home grown Philadelphia Jazz musicians, make a decent living teaching in the local colleges and universities, teaching privately and working the occasional casual gigs including, I would imagine, lotsa weddings and bar mitzvahs.
There’s nothing wrong with, the late writer, Ray Bradbury, approach to Life - “You make yourself as you go.” I wonder if playing Jazz in familiar surroundings away from the pressure of Making It! with all that entails leads to the serenity, beauty and contentment that I hear in Larry’s playing [and Harold’s, too]?
The proof for this assertion as far as Larry is concerned is the music on My Shining Hour. I mean how can you go wrong improvising on: My Shining Hour, As Long As I Live, Out of This World, Somewhere Over The Rainbow, I’ve Got The World On a String, Come Rain Or Come Shine, Let’s Fall in Love, Get Happy, Sleepin’ Bee and It’s Only A Paper Moon?
As San Francisco Jazz DJ Johnny Adams offered:
“An album of this quality does not come along very often. A wonderful surprise of warmth and melodic grace on Over The Rainbow. Ballad playing of this caliber is superb and exceptional, but there it is. Some superb moments in Come Rain or Come Shine with the rhythm section breathing softly. The Harold Arlen songs bubble with exuberance and versatility. Light, easy swinging Jazz. There is a big surprise in store in listening to Larry McKenna.”
My Shining Hour was also reviewed on All Music by Alex Henderson who had this to say about Larry and the music on this recording.
“As a recording artist, Larry McKenna was definitely a late bloomer. The tenor saxman had been a fixture on the Philadelphia jazz scene for decades, but sadly, he went unrecorded for much of his career. McKenna was in his 50s when he finally recorded his first studio date as a leader, and the CD's excellence pointed to the fact that he should have started recording 30 years earlier. Focusing on songs by the great pop composer Harold Arlen, McKenna offers the type of inspired, passionate hard bop that he'd been playing in Philly clubs for so long. Philadelphians who'd seen McKenna live greeted his studio versions of "Out of This World," "I've Got the World on a String" and "It's Only a Paper Moon" with high expectations, and the saxman clearly lives up to them. "Over the Rainbow" and "Come Rain or Come Shine" illustrate his excellence as a ballad player, while "Let's Fall In Love" gets a rare bossa nova makeover. My Shining Hour made one wish that McKenna (whose competent backing includes pianist/guitarist Bill Shilling, bassist Dom Mancini and drummer Butch Reed) would make up for lost time and start doing a lot more recording.
Larry McKenna is one of the leading jazz saxophonists in America . He is an instructor of jazz theory, harmony , and saxophone at the Community College of Philadelphia. He has numerous advanced private students, many who are well-known professional musicians.
Larry has performed as soloist with jazz stars such as Woody Herman, Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, Buddy DeFranco, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Bootsie Barnes , Frank Sinatra and many more.
Larry McKenna can be heard on other CDs including Don Glanden, Sudden Life (Encounter Records); Al Raymond & Buddy DeFranco, Born To Swing (Hindsight Records), and Something Big ; Woody Herman, Crown Royal (Laserlight Records). His latest, It Might As Well Be Spring is available from DreamBox Media. He has published many jazz-oriented arrangements for school concert bands which can be purchased from Northeastern Music Publications.
Music arranged by Larry McKenna has been played on the Tonight Show, with Johnny Carson, and in the movie Birdy , starring Nicholas Cage, in which he played and appeared. Larry resides in Philadelphia , Pennsylvania .
My next encounter with Larry was on John Swana’s Criss Cross CD - John Swana and The Philadelphians: Philly Gumbo Vol.2 [Criss Cross CD 1260].
John is a wonderful trumpet player and has been among my favorite players for many years, but somehow, while I have all of his “New York” Criss Cross CDs, I missed the recordings he made for the label with “The Philadelphians.”
Fortunately, Criss Cross keeps most of its inventory active and much to my delight a copy of Philly Gumbo 2 made its presence immediately felt with ten sensational tracks played by a sextet of Philly-based musicians led by John that also includes Larry and Bootsie Barnes on tenor sax, Sid Simmons, a pianist whose work I was familiar with through his association with Valery Ponomarev, Micke Boone on bassist and organist Joey DeFrancesco’s long-time drummer Byron Landham.
Here are some excerpts from C. Andrew Hovan’s insert notes about the recording with a special emphasis on Larry’s appearance:
“It seems like a lot of up and coming trumpeters these days go for the bop stylings of Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw as their main influence. Far fewer look to players like Art Farmer or Kenny Wheeler for inspiration. That's what has made watching the development of Philadelphia trumpet man John Swana so fascinating over the years. While he has the chops needed to communicate in the high-octane language of be-bop, his tone and use of space suggest that players such as Farmer and Wheeler, both highly melodic improvisers with dark and burnished timbres, have inspired him.
Quite possibly one of the most talented and underrated trumpeters of his generation, Swana continues to grow with each new Criss Cross outing, his tenure with the label going back to 1990's Introducing John Swana (Criss 1045). Still content to make Philadelphia his home base, Swana returns to the fold once again with a conclave of Philly's finest jazzmen for a spirited follow up to the 2000 release Philly Gumbo (Criss 1203). Swana continues to cultivate friendly working relationships with all the musicians who make this return engagement the winning accomplishment that it is. With a twist that seems to up the ante even further, John adds tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna to the returning cast of characters.
"I've known Larry since 1980 or '81," says John about a gentleman who served as a valuable mentor to the trumpeter in earlier times. "He is a legend in town, knows a million tunes, and people are always asking him about changes and melodies. I had a beginning jazz theory class with him when I started college and he taught me everything I needed to know theoretically to start my journey into jazz."
Sharing the solo space with fellow tenor man Bootsie Barnes, McKenna also contributes to a beefy front line, Swana's harmonies making the threesome sound much larger than shear numbers suggest. "I've heard Bootsie and Larry play together on several occasions and they have always had a great chemistry together," explains Swana. "I also wanted to do something with both of them because I always felt that they should be heard and their playing be better documented. So when the first record did well, I decided I wanted to do a sequel with Larry added."”
In 2005, Larry appeared as a featured guest on Craig Raymond and The Next Generation Big Band Present Straight Ahead [Star Satellite label] which has as a subheading:”Featuring One of America’s Outstanding Lyrical Jazz Tenor Saxophonists.”
This big band has been around for decades, previously under the direction of the current leader's father, Al Raymond, and has recorded over twenty albums, the last several under Craig Raymond. The aptly titled Straight Ahead features tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna along with some of the finest East Coast musicians from the Philadelphia, Atlantic City and New York areas. Unlike the average album with eight to twelve tracks, Straight Ahead includes a generous seventeen, swinging big band charts. Saxophonists Grant Whisler [nine] and McKenna [three] provide the majority of the arrangements. Besides these two artists, Raymond's band also features Mike Brignola on baritone, Count Basie trombonist Al Grey, British pianist Pete Jackson and a special guest, clarinet master Buddy DeFranco.
In a way, this is a return for Larry to his early association with Woody Herman’s big band and reaffirms that whatever the setting, McKenna is “locked and loaded” and ready to swing.
Larry returned to fronting his own group with the 2009 self-produced CD Profile [Dreambox Media DMJ-1125] on which vocalist Nancy Reed is featured on two tracks, one of which teams Larry up again with lyricist Melissa Gilstrap for the poignant ballad - Perhaps This Wintertime?
I can’t do better in describing the music on this recording than what Bob Perkins offers in the following insert notes to the recording so I thought it best to share them with you “as is.”
Bob is a Jazz radio host on WRTI, a member supported public radio station in Philadelphia and a Jazz columnist for ICON Magazine.
“At one time jazz music had a musician known as The President, saxophonist Lester Young - called so because "Prez" was said by some to play the instrument like no other. Another tenor saxophonist, Paul Quinichette. adopted Young's sound so closely thai he was dubbed The Vice President.
Years after these two tenor titans held office, there came a fellow named Larry McKenna who also plays the tenor horn like no other; but since the titles of the lop two posts in the land have been ascribed to other jazz men, how about proclaiming Larry the tenor sax Secretary of State, or maybe Speaker of the House?
If you are one of Larry's fans, you may agree; if you're new to Larry's music, get ready to join the fan club.
Larry entered the world with exceptional musical ability which he enhanced by playing beside jazz greats like Clark Terry and Jon Faddis, backing top vocalists like Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme, and touring with Woody Herman's Orchestra. He also earned a reputation as a fine music educator at several area universities and continues in demand as a teacher today. These rich experiences helped shape the mature jazz artist performing now.
In my 45 years in broadcasting — many spent hosting jazz radio programs — I've never heard anyone play with more feeling and warmth and make it look so easy. Larry can play at blistering speeds and not work up a sweat, and he has few peers when it comes to massaging the heart with ballads.
The CD you hold contains standards written by several of America's top tunesmiths like Cole Porter, Henry Mancini, and the team of Edward Heyman and Johnny Green. PROFILE also debuts original material composed by Larry, including "Perhaps This Wintertime," a ballad with lyrics by a multi-talented musical collaborator. Melissa Gilstrap. This song is interpreted by Nancy Reed, an internationally renowned chanteuse who can make good new material sound like vintage stuff.
Larry stacked the deck on PROFILE by bringing in fellow Philly-area musicians: pianist Tom Lawton, so good that even fellow band members bow when he enters a room; bassist Kevin MacConnell, equally at home in a symphonic orchestra setting as in a jazz jam session; and behind the drum kit, Dan Monaghan. first call on important gigs for both instrumentalists and vocalists who sing his praises.
Larry McKenna's PROFILE is really more than a profile; il is a full portrait-in-sound. capturing a jazz veteran who is still at the top of his game and who, like vintage wine, gets even better as time goes by.
With Larry, the quality goes in before the McKenna name goes on.”
Last, but not least, Larry is featured on pianist Fred Wackenhut’s This I Dig of You, on Art of Life Records with Darryl Hall on acoustic bass and Nick Ciminale on drums.
The recording features three tunes often favored by Jazz musicians - This I Dig of You by Hank Mobley, Too Young to Go Steady by Adamson & McHugh and Manege by Bernard Peiffer - in addition to two original compositions by Fred Wackenhut, Clayton Road and Freddy's Bounce. All of the songs are arranged by Fred Wackenhut. It was originally recorded and engineered by Don Antonelli on April 21, 1996 at Alameda Studio in Broomall, Pennsylvania with 24-bit digital mastering by Paul G. Kohler at Art of Life Studios in Ridgeland, South Carolina in January 2010.
Fred’s and Nick’s playing was new to me although I had heard Darryl Hall previously on recordings by Rosario Giuliani and Jimmy Greene
The band's chemistry creates a great blowing platform for Larry and he certainly takes full advantage of it with a roaring solo on Mobley’s title tune and is his usual excellent balladic self on Too Young to Go Steady.
The distinguished writer on all things Jazz, Whitney Balliett, once described Jazz as the “Sound of Surprise” which is a fitting description of my reactions to the brilliant Jazz sounds that emanate from Larry McKenna’s tenor saxophone.
But after spending the past couple of months listening to him perform in a variety of settings I’ve moved from “surprise” to fascination as I marvel at what a wonderful player he is.
Here’s three of video montages set to tracks from Larry’s My Shining Hour and Profile CDs and John Swana and The Philadelphians: Philly Gumbo Vol.2 to provide you with an opportunity to check out what he has to offer.