Benny Rubin Jr. Knows What to Say

Benny Rubin cover

KNOW SAY OR SEE / RUBIN: Know. Say. NYC Urge. Flint Water Crisis. Down They Go. Or See. VAN HEUSEN-DeLANGE: Darn That Dream. SILVER: Kiss Me Right / Benny Rubin Jr., a-sax/t-sax; Lex Korten, pno; Adam Olszewski, bs; JK Kim, dm / Benny Jr Music, no number

This is the second release by Benny Rubin, Jr., a saxophonist from Detroit now living and working in New York City. Taking a page from Ornette Coleman (To Whom Who Keeps a Record), he has titled three of the pieces in this album to words which, when put together, form the title of this album.

But Coleman is clearly one saxist who has not had much impact on Rubin. Rather, he draws on a long line of soul, R&B and hard bop saxists for his style. He has a rich, burnished tone which also has considerable brightness and “edge” to it, quite different from that of most tenor saxists working today, and his pieces clearly fit into the style of jazz that was, back in the day, defined as the “Blue Note style”: Gospel and blues-inspired pieces, almost like an instrumental counterpart to the late Ray Charles.

His quartet is also aligned with this style, and I was particularly impressed by bassist Adam Olszewski, whose rich tone and “heavy” style almost sounds like Mingus (although I wonder if he could reproduce this sound in live performance, as Mingus did).

Say opens with a surprise: an extended “outside” piano introduction rife with bitonality and extended chords. When Rubin enters, he plays an extended solo cadenza, albeit one more clearly rooted in tonality, which comes to dominate the track until the 3:16 mark, at which point the rhythm section ups the tempo and begins cooking in its own atonal world. I found it fascinating to hear how Rubin makes a gallant attempt to fit in with this, but after a few bars he is playing more tonal lines over their chaos, eventually straightening the harmony out.

The next track came as a bit of a surprise to me, Jimmy van Heusen’s 1939 song Darn That Dream, which became a #1 hit by Mildred Bailey with Benny Goodman’s orchestra. Here, Rubin reaches clear back to the style of Coleman Hawkins as his model, producing an incredibly rich tenor sax tone and improvising in Hawkins’ linear fashion. One might almost mistake this for a very good-sounding Hawk recording. (Remember, Hawk was not only one of the best swing saxists but also one of the pioneers of the tenor sax in bop.)

NYC is a nicely angular tune, one of the most modern-sounding pieces on the album though still played by Rubin in his soul-based style. Nonetheless, the presents of this and Say on the album show his willingness to extend his basic style into something more contemporary, which tells me that he does have an intellectual curiosity in different styles. Drummer JK Kim is especially goon on this, playing asymmetric beats that never quite fit the more standard 4 being played by the bass. Here, pianist Lex Korten plays an excellent single-note solo that somewhat channels Lennie Tristano (whose influence on the New York jazz scene is still being felt, though poorly acknowledged). Rubin plays one of his most interesting solos on this one, here switching to alto.

With Kiss Me Right, Rubin is clearly in his element, again on alto, in a nice late-bop tune by Horace Silver (another rather underrated pianist and influence on New York jazz of the ‘50s). And again, I found it very interesting to hear how Rubin combines his natural soul-jazz tendencies with a bit of bop style, though he is clearly not trying to emulate or imitate Charlie Parker. Korten plays another excellent single-line solo that skips around the unusual harmonic changes with impunity—he is clearly a first-rate pianist in this style—and Olszewski again shines on the bass. Oddly enough, however, I felt that Kim’s drumming sounded somehow wrong on this track, a bit too aggressive on the snare and so much against the beat that he just didn’t fit into this style.

In Flint Water, Rubin gives us another half-modern, half-straightahead piece, the opening using whole tone steps in its melody line before switching over to a somewhat more conventional bop-styled number. Yet the irregularity of the rhythmic placing of beats within each measure continues even as the leader plays another of his hard-bop solos, in fact one of his best on the entire CD, even including some outside playing and high-register squeals. Korten isn’t too shabby, either.

Down They Go is a very extended composition (11:07 long) that opens with an astonishing bass solo before moving into 3/4 time, with piano and drums entering before the leader comes in at about 1:39 to play the soulful melody on tenor. Eventually things heat up, then cool down around 7:03 for a nice allegorical solo by Korten. The finale, Or See, returns us to the mood and style of the opening track: an out-of-tempo extempore cadenza by Rubin which eventually leads into the tune proper, except on this one the feeling is more bop than soul-oriented. And again, good solos prevail. At 4:34 things slow down for a while as Rubin plays another of his soulful solos, with intermittent passages where Olszewski’s bass picks up the tempo and then returns to the slower pace, but now with an edge in the rhythmic undercurrent. Once again, I thought that Kim spent too much time giving us busy snare drum licks.

This is a truly enjoyable album except for the occasional overplaying by drummer Kim. It shows Rubin as a rather versatile saxist who embraces several styles despite his proclivity towards hard bop and soul playing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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