There are many jazz listeners who regard Jazz in the Classroom with a notion of discomfort, as a bad fit for the idiosyncratic nature of this genre at its best as jazz in the bordello -- certainly less fun. The fact that lurking somewhere in a used-record pile might be a recording literally from the classrooms of the Berklee School in Boston, circa 1962, would frighten one with such aesthetics, the equivalent of a blast of Arctic wind followed by a mugging. Such opinions leave no room for details or shading, however. Marvelous jazz can be played anywhere, even in a classroom and even in a school in which wrinkles of any sort are discouraged. Berklee students are said to iron their fake books before turning in to bed at night; the ones from wealthy families send them out for dry-cleaning. Decades pass and plenty changes along the way, not the kind kept in the fake books that have become replaced by compact disc data. Teachers begin studying the wrinkles rather than ironing them out, and it is some of the students on this 1962 recording that are the famous names in jazz generations later, not their teachers. Those who cringe at jazz stage bands would have to admit that the fifth volume in the Berklee School's series of Jazz in the Classroom outings is totally classy in terms of its relation to the pure artistry of the genre. A full tribute to Benny Golson is a great idea in any era since this great composer and player graced stages and recording studios with his presence.
The brevity of the tracks is remarkable and part of the list of immediately noticeable factors involving this recording that also includes slickness, precision, lyricism, stylishness, and a rhythm section recorded so far to the back that it has about as much impact as an old lady sweeping off her front porch steps. "Where Am I," a possible model for Bernard Hermann's title theme for Taxi Driver complete with Dick Johnson's haunting alto, is the longest performance at close to five minutes. This means over the full album there is time for a total of a dozen different Golson tunes, a concept that certainly required intense preparation and rehearsal and results in a tribute fitting to Golson's vast catalog of approaches and emotions.
Digging into these tracks becomes a search for whatever ore an individual player adds, a process that adds greatly to the enjoyment of large bands. Gary Burton, a student at the time of the recording, has had the grandest career of anyone involved in the Golson tribute and has continued his affiliation with Berklee. Also on hand is Steve Marcus, a saxophonist who later became associated with jazz-rock. Best known of the faculty players is the conductor, Herb Pomeroy. Many of the arrangements used come from the students, including trumpeter Paul Kelly, who hails from the coast of North Carolina. There is a pianist from India, Edward Saldanha. Trombonist Mike Gibbs, absolutely superb on "Hasasan's Dream," is from the section of Africa known as Southern Rhodesia in 1962. Drummer Peter Spassov hails from Zagreb, at that point in Yugoslavia but now the capitol of the independent Croatia. All of these geographically diverse forces come together to follow the various Golson road maps, their efforts homogenized by the sort of vapid personality typical to many school jazz ensembles. It is a description that can almost be discounted as a fault, since there is the serious question of what such an aspect would add to a school ensemble. Golson's music is a good fit for such circumstances, anyway. Although hardly a dull academic, he strived for a kind of essential clarity in his music, the other extreme from a composer such as Thelonious Monk or an arranger such as Gil Evans, both geniuses whose output can become entangled in questions of image and personality. It swings, with plenty of room for players such as conga drummer William Fitch to make a difference in the groove. Burton buzzers will recognize even in his youth as a player the gentle intensity of his introduction to "I Remember Clifford" and a similar feel to his piano accompaniment on "Thursday Theme." The latter piece is a feature for Marcus, playing the ballad beautifully on tenor. Johnson and his student Jack Stevens go for a great duel on "Four-Eleven West," Golson's contribution to the genre of jazz tunes based on addresses. Stevens is also the main soloist on the program's concluding number, a Gibbs arrangement of "City Lights."