"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."
- Philadelphia Inquirer
"Tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna has good taste, a fine tone, and immaculate instincts, but he hasnít 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 manís 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.' McKennaís 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 'Iíll Close My Eyes' and 'Two For The Road.' The bossa styled performance of Porterís 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."
"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."
"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."
- 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 minutesÖand 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."