Larry McKenna Jazz

Saxophonist, Composer & Arranger

Music Critics

Here are some critical reviews of my CDs "Larry McKenna From All Sides" (2013), "Profile" (2010) and "It Might As Well Be Spring" (2001):



Philadelphian tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna holds what may be, if not a unique distinction, then certainly a rare one of having played with both Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.  In a career spanning six decades he's played with many other leading jazz figures besides but only occasionally has he stepped out as a leader on a recording session. From All Sides is only his fourth CD in all these years. Nevertheless, 74-year-old McKenna's wonderful form on this collection of originals and standards reasserts his credentials as one of the finest balladeers and interpreters of a tune since tenor saxophonist Lester Young.


McKenna starts off at the deep end with a ten-minute quartet exploration of the Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers tune "Everything I've Got." Bassist Kevin MacConnell, drummer Dan Monaghan and pianist Tom Lawton provide swinging support while McKenna's velvety tone caresses and embellishes the melody for almost five minutes. McKenna casts a seductive spell, never repeating himself and giving the impression that he could carry the tune all day. Lawton's response is equally expansive, but in the main, solos throughout the generous 75 minutes of From All Sides are more succinct.


Great chops aside, McKenna's considerable skills as a composer and arranger abound. On Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen's chestnut "That Old Black Magic," and Maxwell Anderson and Kurt Weil's "September Song," McKenna and trombonist Joe McDonough create lush harmonies while guitarist Pete Smyser keeps impeccable, swinging rhythm. On McKenna's breezy original "Side Stepping," tenor, trumpeter George Rabbai and trombonist McDonough's three-part voice provides rich-hued contrast to the individual statements that follow.


McKenna ventured fleetingly into lyric song-writing one his previous CD, Profile (Dreambox Media, 2009) and here he teams up once again with lyricist Melissa Gilstrap on four tracks, interpreted stylishly by singer Joanna Pascale. "The Close Things" and "Friends For A While" are lyrical ballads of old school finesse, with the latter featuring a fine solo from McDonough. "Christmas is Being with You" veers between saccharine nostalgia and blue-toned melancholy but the standout number is "One Falling Tree," a beguiling bossa whose lyrics evoke the poetry of Antonio Carlos Jobim.


Brazilian rhythms also color "Samba da Else," with McKenna, Smyser, Lawton, McDonough, and Rabbai on flugelhorn, all stretching out without disturbing the laid-back vibe of this gently swaying number. The achingly beautiful standard "I'll Never Be the Same" features McKenna, whose whispery lyricism recalls the magic of tenor players Young and Ben Webster; certainly, few saxophonists of today's crop can touch McKenna when it comes to reading a ballad. Two snappier tunes, the swinging "Action Blues" and the bop-inspired "You're It"—both McKenna originals—round out the set.


McKenna is in great form on this impressive recording. He may be in the autumn of his years but the nuance and elegance that color these compositions—not to mention the verve in the playing—suggest not only that the first-call Philadelphian tenor/composer has plenty still to offer, but that he's enjoying a new lease of creative life.

- Ian Patterson,, Dec. 6, 2013


Larry McKenna's tenor saxophone playing is addictive. It's like driving a Maserati: you're probably going to want to take it on the road again and again, because it is so elegant and finely engineered. A product of the late swing band era (he did a turn with Woody Herman Woody Herman band/orchestra), McKenna has kept rigorously on a course that started with Lester Young and culminated with Stan Getz. He has honed that genre to such perfection that today he provides the gold standard.

In this album, McKenna takes his Maserati for a spin that involves a degree of risk. He gathers together eight sidemen and a vocalist (Joanna Pascale), each of whom is a rugged individualist, and strives to make them work together seamlessly. In addition, he offers eight original tunes, four with lyrics by his recent sidekick Melissa Gilstrap, thus taking a leap into composing and arranging, a talent which he has kept secreted in a vault he has previously opened only to a few admiring associates. (He reportedly has sequestered a huge cache of original charts.) McKenna succeeds in bringing all this diverse talent together into a coherent whole, mainly because his own playing is the magnificent jewel that shines through it all, and also because most of the other players work with him frequently and have enormous respect for him. So they adjust. 

Thanks to the sound engineer, Glenn Ferracone, himself a seasoned drummer, the recording has the presence and spontaneity of a live performance reminiscent of Rudy Van Gelder’s iconic studio recordings of greats like John Coltrane and other pioneers of the hard bop era. The standards, "Everything I've Got," "That Old Black Magic," "September Song," and "I'll Never Be the Same" swing brightly and include marvelous improvisations by virtually all the players. The piquant lyrics of Melissa Gilstrap are set off nicely by McKenna's understated melodic turns. And McKenna's instrumental originals, "Samba de Else," and "You're It," are beautifully arranged to include subtle interplays among the diverse musicians. 

Both the horns and the rhythm section are virtuosos at the top of their game. Special notice should be given to George Rabbai, the great bebop trumpeter, who plays with his usual quickness, sensitivity and panache, and Joe McDonough, one of few trombonists capable of the lush, smooth sound of Urbie Green who nevertheless achieves the clever phraseology of Frank Rosolino. The combined styles of McKenna, Rabbai, and McDonough, along with the four McKenna/Gilstrap songs, provide the unique flavorings that make this album stand out in the crowd. - Victor L. Schermer,, Oct. 9, 2013

An elder statesman of Philly jazz, Larry McKenna possesses an embracing, velvet tone that is the definition of timeless. The dozen tunes on the undersung tenor great’s new album — only his fourth release as a leader — combine standards and originals in a classic style that could date from any time in the last 50 years. But McKenna’s elegant, direct playing shrugs off questions of time simply by delving into the heart of each song. He’s supported by expressive vocalist Joanna Pascale and a rotating cast of fine local players, including trumpeter George Rabbai, pianist Tom Lawton and bassist Lee Smith, all of whom provide their own tasteful contributions. But the spotlight is firmly and deservedly on McKenna, who has avoided it for too long.   -Philadelphia City Paper, Shaun Brady

Saxophonist Larry McKenna is the reigning king of Philly swing, but he’s a modest musician and a guy who probably wouldn’t consider himself to be that at all. Though McKenna has been playing and teaching jazz ever since he hit the road gigging in 1959 with Woody Herman’s Big Band, it wasn’t until 1997 that he recorded his first solo CD, My Shining Hour: Larry McKenna Plays Harold Arlen. His workman-like attitude, sheer talent and full-bodied tone has endeared him to countless musicians throughout the Philadelphia area, his is often the first name mentioned when talking about the best tenor sax players in the city.

McKenna’s latest recording From All Sides is a follow-up to his 2009 release, Profile (Dream Box Media), and builds on McKenna’s gifts as a songwriter and composer, putting music to lyrics by his writing partner, Melissa Gilstrap. In the delightful and incisive liner notes, McKenna explains how the songwriting process and his own ambition as a musician intersected quite organically. Their four originals are brought to life by the stunning Philadelphia vocalist, Joanna Pascale, whose crystalline voice and soulful delivery pulls out the tender, evocative feeling in the lyrics. Even the unexpected inclusion of a Christmas-themed song on the playlist gets a pass thanks to Pascal’s artistry.


Give this tenor player a standard or ballad and that’s when McKenna’s rich bluesy sound radiates outward. Supported by an all-star band of fellow Philadelphians, McKenna plays with the exuberance of an up-and-coming newcomer. The smooth swing on “Everything I Got” percolates over a bubbling rhythmic brook and McKenna’s tenor soars, improvising through the changes with a relaxed and supple charm. To his credit, McKenna’s band restores the 1940’s dance club feel with Johnny Mercer’s “That Old Black Magic,” a tune first recorded by Glenn Miller. Most recommended though is McKenna’s arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “September Song,” which features an endearingly casual tempo, yet gorgeous multi-layered instrumentation. And one more as guitarist Pete Smyser and McKenna’s frontline (flugelhorn player George Rabbai and trombonist Joe McDonough) harmonize beautifully over the lilt of McKenna’s original “Samba De Else.” Whether playing on strong instrumentals or underscoring sweetly rendered songs, Larry McKenna always displays first-class musicianship and consummate urbanity. (12 tracks; 76 minutes)    -Nick Bewsey, ICON Magazine, Nov. 2013



“PROFILE" (Dreambox Media 2010)

"Philadelphia-based tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna is known for his gorgeous sound, the unparalleled beauty of his balladry, and his fluid, bebop-inspired improvisations. Profile showcases McKenna at the height of his interpretive and improvisational powers. 

Profile consists of a well-chosen set of familiar and lesser-known standards, and originals. It's a blowing session anchored by a heavyweight rhythm section: pianist Tom Lawton never ceases to amaze with his abundant technique and endless stream of ideas; bassist Kevin MacConnell underpins the session with his ringing sound, rock-solid time, and flawless intonation; and drummer Dan Monaghan combines sensitivity and responsiveness with a propulsive energy. Honey-toned vocalist Nancy Reed joins the quartet to sing Cole Porter's 'I Love You,' and McKenna's collaboration with Melissa Gilstrap, 'Perhaps This Wintertime.'


The session kicks off with McKenna's 'You Know It's Me,' a bluesy, medium tempo shuffle. McKenna's note-perfect solo - not a chord change missed, not a phrase out of place - is typical of his playing throughout. Hanging ever so slightly behind the beat, McKenna intersperses refined bebop licks with blustering blues riffs. His improvisations are often fiery and passionate, sometimes quiet and tender, always logical and inventive.

On this session's barn-burner, 'You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To,' McKenna's fleet fingers sprint effortlessly through its fast-moving chord changes, with the saxophonist and Lawton displaying their bebop roots in agile, back-to-back solos.


The centerpiece of this CD is 'Perhaps This Wintertime,' McKenna's first ballad composition to be married to lyrics. The task went to Gilstrap, a Philadelphia lawyer who is known to both classical and jazz musicians for evocative drawings of performers which she inks from her seat at jazz clubs and concert halls (her artwork gracing the cover of this CD). Gilstrap's poignant, yearning lyrics about a lasting love that may never come are affectingly sung by Reed. With the addition of McKenna's caressing solo, this achingly beautiful performance emerges as the session's most personal statement.


Of all the stellar music on this CD, if one track demonstrates how years of study, performing, and life with its peaks and valleys have yielded a jazz great in McKenna, it would be by Leslie Bricuisse and Henry Mancini's closing 'Two For the Road.' Few musicians understand the art of the ballad like McKenna, as he proves in this tender, unembellished, sweet send-off. Now in his seventies, McKenna honed his craft in the heyday of modern jazz; a voice of that penultimate era that can be heard in the saxophonist's elegant lines and phrasing, breathtaking tone, shimmering vibrato, and swinging sense of time. For jazz that is simply beautiful, there's no need to look any further than Profile."

- All About Jazz


 "Tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna could well deserve a place among giants like Lester Young, Stan Getz, and Zoot Sims as a lyrical player whose artistry, precision, and interpretive capacities almost always exceed expectation. As Philadelphia DJ Bob Perkins states, in his liner notes to McKenna's Profile, 'With Larry, the quality goes in before the McKenna name goes on.'


...The city is blessed to have a gentleman of his capability bringing his cohorts to new levels of perfection. When McKenna shows up with a group at any given club date in Philadelphia, he appears reserved, still, and almost self-effacing. When it comes time to play, however, it is as if the Pied Piper has arisen from the dead. His playing is hauntingly beautiful and his mastery of the jazz idiom is peerless.


Fittingly for a man of modesty, McKenna has only released a handful of albums, but they're always memorable. It Might As Well Be Spring (Dreambox Media, 2001), an album of romantic ballad standards, delivers a bouquet of magical phrases which the saxophonist seems to gather up like fragrant roses. Profile consists of more diverse tunes, some fast, some slow, some original, some standard fare; a sampling of McKenna's broad range. Profile's centerpiece is 'Perhaps This Wintertime,' a song he co-wrote with lyricist Melissa Gilstrap that's destined to become a jazz standard. It's beautifully sung by Nancy Reed...McKenna, of course, provides Reed with a soulful accompaniment and choruses to sweeten the brew...


McKenna mixes ballads with tracks like the bebop-informed originals 'You Know It's Me' and 'Is It Over My Head?' - the latter an answer to the question, 'How Deep is the Ocean?,' from which McKenna borrowed the chord progression in a nod to the style of Charlie Parker. 'You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To' and 'Out of Nowhere' further emphasize the bebop style. Not surprisingly, McKenna's finessed execution of rapid runs is virtually flawless.


A further highlight of this fascinating and listenable album is pianist Tom Lawton. Another incomparable international-level musician who plays locally for the most part, Lawton exceeds even his usual self on this recording, surely inspired by McKenna's emphasis on the evocative aesthetics of which jazz interpretations are capable at their very best."
- All About Jazz


"...(A) defining Philly tenor...McKenna takes top billing here with a big creamy tone and a sure hand through the changes...reliably soulful, and he's always secure . . . McKenna's foil is pianist Tom Lawton, along with a polished rhythm section of drummer Dan Monaghan and bassist Kevin MacConnell. Lawton is so pure he could be playing with white gloves. . . . The focus rests on standards, though McKenna offers two originals, including the boppish 'Is It Over My Head?'...

...(T)here's a tinge of Latin with 'Tres Palabras' and three Cole Porter tunes, including 'I Love You,' with singer Nancy Reed sitting in.  It all makes for a cocktail moment. This is honed mellowness."
- The Philadelphia Inquirer


"Tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna has good taste, a fine tone, and immaculate instincts, but he hasn’t let any of these things hold him down...On the opening blues-with-altered-changes-here-and-there, McKenna made me think of the late Fathead Newman without making me feel that he was trying on another man’s suit. 'Tres Palabras' is an aural caress; 'Is It Over My Head' suggested a tough evocation of Lucky Thompson and Major Holley. Nancy Reed is touching on 'Perhaps This Wintertime,' hip and forthright on 'I Love You.' McKenna’s playing is natty and emotional at once, as in his opening chorus on 'Two For The Road.' And the other members of the quartet are just delightful as soloists and ensemble players; the CD is beautifully recorded."
- Cadence Magazine


"Musicality runs deep in saxophonist Larry McKenna's veins. He kick-starts his exceptional album Profile with a swinging up-tempo tune, 'You Know It's Me,' an original that showcases his buttery-toned tenor and quick-witted agility. Like other great jazz musicians...McKenna loves harmonious tunes that blossom through invention and you have to hand it to McKenna for putting together an ace supporting band - bassist Kevin MacConnell, drummer Dan Monaghan and, especially, pianist Tom Lawton who shares the leader's affinity for appreciating the art of a song. The tunes are tailor-made for McKenna's sensitivity, which is why he includes three by Cole Porter, as well as Henry Mancini's 'Two for the Road;' the melodies marry beautifully with McKenna's horn and Lawton's elegant accompaniment. Two tunes with vocalist Nancy Reed are also standouts with fine work on 'Perhaps This Wintertime' with music by McKenna and original lyrics by Melissa Gilstrap.


...(C)hances are you'll get buzzed hearing Larry McKenna...this guy knows his stuff. The nuanced ballad 'I'll Close My Eyes' demonstrates an emotional complexity that lesser musicians wouldn't have a clue about. Lean and affable, the ten tunes on Profile go by much too quickly and you're left wanting more. McKenna is a class act and so is his record. Park yourself and listen up."
- ICON Magazine


"Tenor saxophonist McKenna is a long standing fixture of the Philadelphia jazz scene. He presents here eight tunes in standard quartet format and two others featuring vocalist Nancy Reed. The material is mostly familiar, including three tunes by Cole Porter, a blues, 'Out Of Nowhere,' 'Two For The Road,' 'Tres Palabras,' and an original melody to the chord changes of 'How Deep Is The Ocean.'


...there is a good deal of life in the best of the record. McKenna plays well at all tempos here but functions as living evidence to support the belief that ballad playing improves with age. It is difficult to think of a young tenor player who handles ballads as well as McKenna, especially on the less familiar 'I’ll Close My Eyes' and 'Two For The Road.' The bossa styled performance of Porter’s less often heard 'Dream Dancing' also showcases his ability to bring the most out of a tune by showing how to maintain a relaxed presence and still be expressive.


The rhythm section provides fine, sympathetic support for McKenna and some interesting solos as well. The music is very well recorded and the CD is attractively packaged. Listeners seeking quality saxophone music...would be wise to seek this one out."

"IT MIGHT AS WELL BE SPRING" (Dreambox Media 2001)

 "McKenna shows on his second album as a leader the skills and stylistic mannerisms that earned him a spot in the 1959 Woody Herman band and the high esteem of his home city's Jazz community.

Spring-associated songs, including some of the most attractive of the genre, comprise the vehicles for McKenna's smooth-toned, expressive playing.

Throughout this nicely varied set of ballads, Latins, up-tunes, and a quick waltz, the tenorist displays a fine Four Brothers tone, an easy sense of swing, and the overall surefootedness of a seasoned veteran."
- Cadence

"Velvety...all romance...His big, smooth tone opens with a plaintive 'Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most' and never gets derailed...McKenna and his mates dare to play pretty and get away with it. When he plays 'You Must Believe In Spring,' it's with conviction."
- The Philadelphia Inquirer

"Larry McKenna, the tenor sax treasure of Philadelphia...strongly melodic, swinging and sometimes charmingly innovative...the truth is, he is incomparable!

...On his new CD, he makes the tunes all sound brand new...It is probably the best jazz CD produced in Philadelphia this year."
- Phila. Metro

"Although the tenor saxman is quite capable of playing fast and aggressively, his romantic side prevails on this CD...the veteran tenor man always sounds like himself on this excellent release."
- All Music Guide

"McKenna seems to understand that standards from the American songbook provide the appropriate material, with kinetic undercurrent and an emotionally satisfying synthesis of lyrics and melody, for the presentation of his style, warm and fluid and sometimes with an unexpected bite.

While McKenna's quartet mixes up the standards on this CD--the pulsating 'Bluesette' introduction of 'One Morning In May' contrasting with, for example, the unembellished soulfulness of 'Spring Is Here'--his personalized approach to mining the gems buried within a song remains the constant element throughout.With a slight vibrato, a sudden loosening of embouchure, a breathy softness from easing off a note or the crafting of warm and comforting lower tones, McKenna's sound is one, like those of the saxophone masters, that remains after the CD has completed its 57 minutes…and then draws in the listener for repeated play. McKenna concentrates not only on the song, but also on the sound of his instrument. Rather than filling in sustained 4- or 8-beat notes with a distracting flurry, McKenna lets the beauty of the tone sustain interest in the ideas contained within the phrase.

'So Many Stars,' in particular, seems to highlight the strengths of McKenna's style as he persuasively invites one into the tune, instead of arresting the listener with an stentorian assertion. Even the key in which the tune is played seems to have been chosen carefully to showcase McKenna's range, from the alto-like delicacy of the higher notes to the reassuring cushioning of the lower ones, as if he were modulating his voice for the effect of a subtle but dramatic point.On the other hand, McKenna proves that he can swing, albeit in effortlessly floating movement, on tunes like 'April Showers' or 'How About You.' With maturity, confidence and sensitivity, Larry McKenna has recorded a memorable CD that reminds listeners how emotionally effective the saxophone can be in evoking a wide range of complex and deeply felt responses from listeners."