Dave McKenna - piano
The criminally under-recorded Rhode Island native Dave McKenna was a phenomenal stride-influenced pianist who never quite gained widespread recognition beyond the fellow pianists, musicians and jazz aficionados who admired him greatly.
His appearance at this Carnegie Hall piano extravaganza, which also included such prodigious ivory ticklers as Eubie Blake, Billy Taylor, Earl Hines and Bill Evans, put him in the most regal company he so justly deserved. McKenna opens with a romp through Charlie Parker's bebop anthem, "Scrapple from the Apple," full of rampaging bass lines, steady comping chords and fluid bebop runs with his right hand, a signature of his "three-handed swing" concept. Next up is the 1930s staple "Sweet Lorraine," played with stride-like lilt worthy of such stride pioneers as Lucky Roberts, Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller or Eubie Blake. You can hear McKenna nonchalantly work a quote from Count Basie's "Blue and Sentimental" into the fabric of this Tin Pan Alley favorite.
For a change of pace, McKenna performs a lovely medley of the Johnny Mandel tunes "A Time for Love" and "The Shadow of Your Smile." To close out his Carnegie Hall concert, McKenna cavorts through a lively rendition of "Sweet Georgia Brown," with left-handed bass lines and stride chords rambling while his right hand simultaneously sizzles through the familiar melody and chords. A rare talent indeed.
Born in Woonsocket, Rhode Island on May 30, 1930, McKenna started out at age 17 in the band of Boots Mussulli. There followed a stint in 1947 with Charlie Ventura's band and in 1950 with Woody Herman's Orchestra. Following two years in the military, he re-joined Ventura in 1953 and subsequently worked with a variety of top jazz musicians including Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Bob Wilbur, Eddie Condon and Bobby Hackett. Since 1967, he worked primarily as a soloist and soon became identified for his Erroll Garner-influenced "three-handed swing" technique of playing a steady quarter note rhythm in the left hand (the equivalent of guitarist Freddie Green's four-to-the-bar strum approach with the Count Basie Orchestra) while alternately laying down walking bass lines, then handling melodies, arpeggiated chord voicings and intricate single note runs with the right hand, all delivered with a flawless time feel.
McKenna recorded for ABC-Paramount, Epic, Bethlehem and Chiaroscuro Records through the '60s and '70s. He debuted with Concord Jazz in 1979 with Giant Strides and continued to record 19 records for that California-based label through the '90s, culminating with 1997's You Must Believe in Swing, a duet project with clarinetist Buddy DeFranco. McKenna's last recording, An Intimate Evening With Dave McKenna, was released on Arbors Records in 2002. He died from lung cancer in 2008.
-Written by Bill Milkowski