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Monday, July 12, 2021

Benny Rides Again

From the Music Vault Dept.: We just enjoyed a performance in my town by Dan Levinson and His Palomar Trio with superb vocalist Molly Ryan – their first live gig since the start of the pandemic shut-down. Which got me nostalgic for a big-band appearance Dan and Molly – and fellow Palomarians Mark Shane (piano) and Kevin Dorn (drums) – made in the area in 2009.


DOESN’T IT SEEM LIKE ONLY YESTERDAY when Benny Goodman and his band scored such a success at the Palomar Ballroom that the Swing Era officially started? All right, then. Maybe I live in a different era. But whatever your perspective, music of the late 1930s was characterized by the punchy, brassy arrangements of the likes of Fletcher Henderson, himself a bandleader, and Jimmy Mundy, and played by the bands of Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and many, many others.

Dan Levinson
Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Performing the tunes called for tremendous virtuosity, and gave us a generation of players still revered for their skill. It’s something of a shock to realize that there’s a current generation of musicians able and eager to play in that style, and can bring to life music heretofore trapped on decades-old recordings.

Clarinetist Dan Levinson is a musical chameleon whose specialty is channeling styles as far back as the ’teens. His heart seems to be in the ’30s, though, and he plays music of that era both with a small group (his Swing Wing) and large ensembles like Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks.

For this event, he fronted James Langton’s New York City All-Stars, a fifteen-piece band sporting the caliber of player Goodman would have been delighted to hire. The program opened as Goodman would have opened it, with a short, rousing “Let’s Dance” that he took almost immediately into “Bugle Call Rag,” a Mundy arrangement that quickly showcased many of the individual players.

A swing concert needs a canary, and Levinson has found the surest way to keep a very talented singer at hand – he married her, he told us, a year ago. Molly Ryan has a crisp, versatile voice that she can style as needed, deftly tossing off Helen Ward specialties like “You Turned the Tables On Me” and “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” or capturing Peggy Lee’s saucy intensity on “Why Don’t You Do Right?”

It took a couple of numbers for the group to really coalesce and play as one, which I suspect was more of a function of the sound system than of the players, who have long histories together. The amplification was poorly applied, neglecting the brass while punching up the reeds and piano, and nobody made any effort to correct it as the concert continued.

Jon-Erik Kellso is one of the best trumpet players working in the swing style, and proved it as he blew his solo on a Harry James specialty, “Life Goes to a Party.” Kellso was an inspiring presence throughout the 90-minute concert, also taking terrific solos on “Stealin’ Apples,” “One O’Clock Jump” and more.

But it was trumpeter Dave Brown, a fixture in the Broadway pits, who took the Ziggy Elman solo on “And the Angels Sing,” a nice piece of showmanship.

Levinson’s set list was consistently Goodman intensive, but not necessarily drawn from Goodman’s late-‘30s band. “Georgia Jubilee” was from a 1934 session in which BG was a sideman (along with Coleman Hawkins), while “Bashful Baby” saluted Goodman’s stint in Ben Pollack’s orchestra, with Langton laying aside his sax to effortlessly recreate the Scrappy Lambert vocal. And Levinson took an extended solo on this number by combining what Goodman recorded on two surviving takes – that’s dedication!

And, in a nod to a later Goodman group that recorded for Columbia in the ’40s, the band played “Clarinet a la King,” a brilliant Eddie Sauter chart that showed the group at its tightest. (There was some competition in the sound system with wind gust across the microphones, causing enough of a roar for guitarist Matt Munisteri to ask, “Is Armageddon coming?”)

Swing-era guitarists tended to be neglected, but Munisteri was a quiet powerhouse throughout, taking a long-overdue solo in “Stompin’ at the Savoy.”

Sporadic outbreaks of dancing early in the program gave way to a continuous stream of jitterbugging, egged on by Levinson, whose always tasty solos seemed to work the same terpsichorean magic as did Goodman’s.

The concert peaked, as one would expect, with drums-and-brass feature “Sing, Sing, Sing” – or the first half of the number, anyway – and drummer Kevin Dorn was right on top of the Gene Krupa tradition, capturing the intensity without slavishly imitating the solos. The only other drummer I’ve seen do it as well was Connie Kay, which puts Dorn in excellent company.

And high praise, too, to pianist Mark Shane, who sounds like Fats Waller, Count Basie and Joe Bushkin rolled into one.

The concert ended – again, per tradition, with Gordon Jenkins’s “Goodbye” – and we stepped from the Steel Pier in 1939 back into Washington Park.

Benny Goodman 100th Birthday Tribute
Dan Levinson, clarinet, with the James Langton New York City All-Stars
Washington Park, May 10

Metroland Magazine, 14 May 2009

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