Art Blakey and Betty Carter knew what good is. They hired pianist Benny Green for their bands when he was practically still a kid, and he's remained one of jazz's most joyful players. On Monday night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, that's what he was all about: pure joy.
Opening a weeklong string of Bay Area gigs -- including two nights at Kuumbwa to record a live album -- Green and his trio focused on the pianist's original tunes, which capture the spirit of much jazz made from the mid-1940s to the mid-'60s. However, there's nothing frozen in amber about his pensive midnight ballads or finger-busting bebop numbers. On Monday, the ballads explored the deep intersection of poignancy and hope, while the bebop tunes careened like subway trains around a bend.
Green -- who grew up in Berkeley and recently turned 50 -- has empathetic bandmates: bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington. They know the idiom, love it and keep it fresh, and the trio's next album should crackle: There was hardly an empty seat for Monday's first set at Kuumbwa, where Green first performed while in high school. After moving to New York in the early 1980s, he returned to the club with Blakey, Carter and his own bands. In 1993, he recorded a live album there as a member of Ray Brown's trio.
Excited to be back, he joked that he had just told his recording engineer, "I want to have the audience sounding like on Ramsey Lewis' 'The In Crowd.' " Well, the crowd didn't get that boisterous. Still, it was ready to celebrate.
Green (who moved back to Berkeley not long ago) opened with "Just a Tadd," inspired by bebop pianist and composer Tadd Dameron. What a sound: the rat-a-tatting bombs of Washington's drums; the immaculate, floating swing of Wong's bass lines, which resemble the seams on a fine suit -- easy to miss until you happen to spot their elegance. And Green, who laid it all out: his leaping percussive touch and nonstop bebop flow, his splayed joy-spring chords, Thelonious Monk stabs and gospel voicings.
You hear history in his playing: Dameron, Monk, Bud Powell, Walter Bishop, early McCoy Tyner. His vocabulary largely sidesteps Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock and says "see you later" to Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and other subsequent candidates. You could say that he's locked in time. But to these ears, his eschewing everyone else's influences feels like a revolutionary act. He's an authentic bebop player, part of a vanishing species.
His midtempo "Don't Scat" echoed the melancholy gospel-tinged numbers that Duke Pearson and Donald Byrd played in the '60s. His "Cactus Flower," a bossa nova, began whisper-soft -- Washington is a master of the brushes -- and grew brashly samba-sensuous. "Certainly," which Green recorded 26 years ago on his first album as a leader, embraced the big beats of Blakey and Elvin Jones; the trio sounded great, though the tune might have sounded even greater with a quintet.
Green and Washington have played together for years, and their interaction was key. "Sonny Clark" -- composed by Green to honor another of his bebop piano heroes -- showcased their mazelike interactions, bringing Bud Powell and Art Taylor to mind. Washington is out of that classic mold, crafty and crackling. His solos emerge like card tricks: "What did he just do? How did he do that?"
After "Sonny," the set's sixth tune, Green announced that he expected the audience needed a break -- but he needed to get through four more numbers in order to keep to his plans for the recording.
"We're further along in time than we are in tunes," he said.
"Slow down!" someone shouted.
"I've got to keep stepping," said Green, swiveling back toward the keyboard.
You've got to see this band.
Benny Green Trio
Where/when: Yoshi's-Oakland, 510 Embarcadero West; 8 p.m., June 27-28; $21; www.yoshis.com
Where/when: Cafe Stritch, 347 S. First St., San Jose; 7 p.m., June 29; $22; www.sanjosejazz.org (click on "concerts & events")