Thursday, June 15, 2017

David Benoit - The Steinway Sessions (Steinway & Sons 2017)

For three decades, the GRAMMY®-nominated pianist/composer/ arranger David Benoit has reigned supreme as one the founding fathers of contemporary jazz. But, like an actor who has been known primarily for one role, he wanted to show other dimensions of his artistry, influenced by Stephen Sondheim, Burt Bacharach, Dave Grusin and Leonard Bernstein.

“I’ve done records where I had a token vocal tune, all the way back to my first album,” Benoit says. “But I never did an entire record [with vocals]. So the thought here was to do something really different.”

The result is Benoit’s thirty-fifth recording as a leader and his first with a vocalist. 2 In Love, set for release on June 16, 2015 via Concord Records, features Jane Monheit, the GRAMMY®- nominated, cool-toned chanteuse from New York, who burst on the scene in 1998 as the first runner-up in the Thelonious Monk International Vocalist Competition.

“Concord suggested Jane Monheit,” Benoit says. “She was the perfect vocalist. I like to make records a certain way: I prefer to go in live and record it all at once. And a lot of vocalists can’t do that: they need to edit, fix and use auto-tune. But Jane doesn’t need to do any of those things. Many of the keys were difficult, but she sang everything live. Jane also has a background in Broadway, which is another part of my lexicon that I’ve not explored. She was up to the task and easy to work with. She made it a complete, perfect package.”

Along with Monheit, Benoit also enlisted the help of three lyricists: Mark Winkler, Lorraine Feather and Spencer Day. “Mark is my long-time collaborator,” says Benoit. “And I’ve known Lorraine (daughter of jazz critic Leonard Feather) for thirty-five years. Then, there’s Spencer Day: I was really impressed with him. What a nice, young man and fantastic singer. He brought some new blood to the table.” This terrific triad breathed lyrical life into Benoit’s songs and helped showcase Monheit’s considerable skills as an interpreter. “I met them all,” she says. “They did great work and made it very, very easy for me to do my job.”

Supported by an alternating rhythm section featuring drummers Jamey Tate and Clayton Cameron, percussionist Lauren Kosty, guitarist Pat Kelley and bassists David Hughes and John Clayton (of the Clayton Brothers), Benoit and Monheit swing and sing on ten tracks imbued with, to use Duke Ellington’s elegant phrase, “the feeling of jazz” in ballad, mid-tempo, neo- classical-, Latin-, pop- and Broadway-styled genres that range from the bossa nova-buoyed title track to the optimistic, piano-driven “Love Will Light the Way.” Violinist Michelle Suh and cellist Cathy Biagini add their impressionistic airs to the waltz “Dragonfly,” the evocative, 5/4 time-signatured “Something’s Gotta Give” – originally from a play co-written by Benoit and Winkler about Marilyn Monroe – and “The Songs We Sang,” a beautiful melancholy ballad, originally titled “Out of Tune,” about a couple that wrote hit songs and are trying to reignite their magic.

On the ebullient “Fly Away,” Monheit flexes her considerable vocal muscles. “I had a really great time wailing on that one,” she says, “because it’s a style of music that I don’t often get to sing.”

“Barcelona Nights,” is pulsed by an infectious Latin groove, which was inspired by a visit to Spain by Benoit and his wife. “I talked to Lorraine about it,” Benoit says, “and she came up with a beautiful lyric.” On the Pat Metheny-esque “Love in Hyde,” which was previously published under the title “A Moment in Hyde Park,” Benoit showcases his spirited piano prowess. “I recorded it on my second album, Life Is Like a Samba, with a big orchestra. And I always wanted to redo it,” he says. The album concludes a heartfelt solo piano performance of “Love Theme from Candide”/”Send in the Clowns,” by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim, dedicated to the memory of Benoit’s mother, Betty June Benoit (1929–1997).

“Those were my mom’s two favorite songs,” Benoit says. “My friend David Pack (who started the group Ambrosia) introduced me to Lenny, and we worked on a benefit concert at Carnegie Hall. I got to know him a bit. So it was always my destiny to do something with “Candide.” And I felt it would make a nice segue into “Send in the Clowns.”

In addition to his obvious skills as a soloist, 2 In Love also highlights Benoit’s overlooked gifts as an accompanist. “He’s a wonderful piano player,” says Monheit. “He has a great understanding of singers, and that makes him a very good accompanist.” When he was coming up, Benoit worked with singers Patti Austin, Connie Stevens, and Ann-Margaret. But he credits Lainie Kazan as his biggest influence in the fine art of vocal accompaniment. “I was twenty-one when I started with her,” he says. “She literally taught me how to accompany singers.”

Benoit’s work with singers is but one more intriguing aspect of his multi-talented musicianship. He was born in Bakersfield, California, and grew up in Los Angeles. Benoit was bitten by the jazz bug after watching a Charlie Brown special on television and listening to the music of Vince Guaraldi in 1965. “I was already a fan of the comic strip,” he says, “but when I heard that jazz piano trio, that was the defining moment when I decided that I wanted to play like Vince Guaraldi.”

At the age of thirteen, Benoit studied privately with pianist Marya Cressy Wright and continued his training with Abraham Fraser, who was the pianist for famed conductor Arturo Toscanini. He also studied music theory and composition, and later studied orchestration with Donald Nelligan at El Camino Junior College and film scoring from Donald Ray at UCLA. He studied conducting from Heiichiro Ohyama, assistant conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, and furthered his musical education with Jan Robertson, head of the conducting department at UCLA, and UC Santa Barbara symphony orchestra music director Jeffrey Schindler.

After working with Lainie Kazan as her musical director/conductor in 1976, Benoit released albums on the AVI label from 1977 to 1984. He later released several chart-topping recordings for GRP, including Freedom at Midnight (1987), Waiting for Spring (1989) and Shadows (1991), which both topped Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Charts at #5, #1, and #2, respectively. His other noteworthy recordings include Letter to Evan (1992), his tribute to another piano influence, Bill Evans, and Here’s to You, Charlie Brown: Fifty Great Years (2000). Benoit also recorded with Russ Freeman on their album The Benoit/Freeman Project (1994), and on their follow-up collaboration, 2 (2004), which was released on Peak Records. His other recordings for the label include American Landscape (1997) and Orchestral Stories (2005), which featured his first piano concerto, “The Centaur and the Sphinx,” and a symphonic work, “Kobe.”. In 2012, he released Conversation on Concord’s Heads Up International imprint.

Benoit received three GRAMMY® nominations in the categories of Best Contemporary Jazz Performance for “Every Step of the Way” (1989), Best Large Ensemble Performance for GRP All-Star Big Band (1996), and Best Instrumental Composition for “Dad’s Room,” the latter from the album Professional Dreamer (2000). In 2010, Benoit received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Smooth Jazz Awards, and he’s worked with an impressive potpourri of musicians including the Rippingtons, Emily Remler, Alphonse Mouzon, Dave Koz, Faith Hill, David Sanborn, CeCe Winans and Brian McKnight.

Benoit’s film scores include The Stars Fell on Henrietta (1995), produced by Clint Eastwood, and The Christmas Tree, produced by Sally Field, which was voted Best Score of 1996 by Film Score Monthly. He has served as conductor with a wide range of symphonies including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Asia America Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. A long-time guest educator with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, he received that organization’s Excellence in Music Award in 2001. His musical selections have been featured on The Weather Channel and his version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is included on compilation The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz 11 (2008). Benoit also currently hosts a morning radio show on KKJZ 88.1 FM in Long Beach, CA. 

01 - Kei's Song
02 - Every Step of the Way
03 - Letter to Evan
04 - I Remember Bill Evans
05 - Strange Meadowlark
06 - Dad's Room
07 - Once Running Free
08 - Rainbows
09 - Your Song
10 - Candide / Send in the Clowns
11 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: Journey in a Rental Car 
12 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: I Miss You
13 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: A Solitary Moment by the Ocean
14 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: Lonely Boy
15 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: Scherzo (For Charles Brown)
16 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: Kenji
17 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: Betty's Dance
18 - Etudes for the Contemporary Pianist: Peacock Fallen
19 - Linus and Lucy 

CD 1 Binker and Moses - Journey to the Mountain of Forever (GEARBOX RECORDS 2017)

It may have a portentous title (a genuflection to the spiritual and very influential 1960s jazz of John Coltrane), but the second album by the prize-winning young London sax-and-drums pairing of Binker Golding and Moses Boyd is the diametric opposite of earnest: it’s the seductive sound of spirited improvisers letting off steam. Binker and Moses emerged from vocalist Zara McFarlane’s backing band, and this double-vinyl set continues their duologue – soulful tenor sax sermons plus earthily funky drumming, fusing jazz, hip-hop and grime. It adds an expanded lineup on the second disc, including free-sax pioneer Evan Parker, trumpeter Byron Wallen and harpist Tori Handsley.

The duo’s tracks winningly mix dark, classic Coltrane raptures, infectious hook-rooted rockers and Sonny Rollins-like calypsos (Fete By the River). The larger group sets up thrilling rhythm textures merged from Parker’s seamless soprano lines and a chatter of snare drums and tablas; there are atmospheric guitar-like harp figures, and dramatically spontaneous two-tenor tussles for Golding and Parker. The no-frills, no-edits production only adds to the incandescent immediacy.

Disc One: The Realm of Now

1. The Departure
2. Intoxication From The Jahvmonishi Leaves
3. Fete By The River
4. Trees On Fire
5. The Shaman’s Chant
6. Leave The Now Behind

CD 2 Binker and Moses - Journey to the Mountain of Forever (GEARBOX RECORDS 2017)

Disc Two: The Realms Of The Infinite

1. The Valley of the Ultra Blacks
2. Gifts From The Vibrations Of Light
3. Mysteries and Revelations
4. Ritual Of The Root
5. The Voice Of Besbunu
6. Echoes From The Other Side Of The Mountain
7. Reverse Genesis
8. Entering The Infinite
9. At The Feet Of The Mountain Of Forever

Brian McCarthy, Justin Kauflin and more mix Civil War history with Jazz

Brian McCarthy Nonet - The Better Angels Of Our Nature (June 13, 2017)

On The Better Angels Of Our Nature, McCarthy arranges Union and Confederate folk songs and original music for his Nonet featuring several Clark Terry alumni

“Saxophonist Brian McCarthy takes a progressive approach to straight-ahead jazz, demonstrating a strong command of the jazz saxophone lineage.” — John Barron, Jazz World Blog

“[McCarthy] touches those roads Joshua Redman travels on with a fresh footing. This band excels at building anticipation… exciting.” — Fiona Ord-Shrimpton, All About Jazz

Looking back on the most divisive moment in American history (no matter how much the current day seems ready to claim that title), saxophonist Brian McCarthy finds the roots of jazz in Civil War-era songs and spirit. On his new album, The Better Angels Of Our Nature, McCarthy pairs insightful new arrangements of vintage wartime folk songs with vibrant new compositions for his skilled Nonet to explore the clashing inspirations and enduring influence of the war that turned brother against brother in a battle over the soul of America.

Due out June 13 via Truth Revolution Recording Collective, The Better Angels Of Our Nature takes its title from the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address. The speech, addressed in large part to the citizens of the Southern states, was offered in a spirit of reconciliation and hope for reunification with the seceded Confederacy. McCarthy’s music locates the better angels at the heart of music representing the North, the South, and the African-American slaves who weren’t considered full citizens but whose fate hung in the balance of the brutal conflict.

A self-professed Civil War history buff, McCarthy found the era an ideal subject for the large-scale project that grew out of a Vermont Arts Council Creation Grant. The war has long served as the starting point for the Jazz History class that McCarthy teaches at Johnson State College, as “a time before jazz existed, but a time that was crucial to its existence.” As he explains, “Jazz came from the African-American experience here in America. Out of the darkness of terrible slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow came this really beautiful art form. 

McCarthy designed the music of The Better Angels Of Our Nature for his nine-piece ensemble, largely composed of longtime collaborators dating from his days at William Paterson University, many of them fellow alumni of legendary trumpeter Clark Terry’s band. Pianist Justin Kauflin (whose relationship with the late CT was documented in the moving documentary Keep On Keepin’ On), tenor saxophonist Stantawn Kendrick and trombonist Cameron MacManus all spent time under the jazz icon’s wing, a shared experience that McCarthy says left them all with “a deep appreciation for history. It was awe-inspiring just to play with him, but there were times when we’d just be hanging out and hearing stories about Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Pops. I realized that he was living jazz history.”

The band also features trumpeter Bill Mobley, one of McCarthy’s teachers and compositional mentors at WPU, along with baritone saxophonist Andrew Gutauskas, one of McCarthy’s earliest friends and collaborators at the school. Saxophonist Daniel Ian Smith is a professor at McCarthy’s wife’s alma mater, Berklee College of Music, while drummer Zach Harmon is a recent transplant to McCarthy’s native Vermont who suggested bassist Matt Aronoff as an ideal rhythm section partner.

Many of the compositions on The Better Angels Of Our Nature date from the Civil War era, in transcendent new arrangements that discover richly emotional harmonies in music from a most disharmonious time. The album begins with Harry McCarthy’s “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” a song adapted from a traditional Irish tune to tout the Southern cause. The saxophonist (no relation) undergirds the piece’s brisk, patriotic swagger with a darker undercurrent evoking the “oppressive foundation of the Confederacy.”

Julia Ward Howe’s familiar “Battle Hymn of the Old Republic,” built on the melody of the Union’s marching song, “John Brown’s Body,” couples the optimistic spirit of the Northern cause with a tinge of mournfulness, hinting at the profound loss entailed by the years-long struggle. Equally well-known to modern ears, “I Wish I Was In Dixie’s Land” was most likely originally penned as a parodic minstrel song before being co-opted as a Southern anthem. McCarthy’s raucous rendition returns the song to its African-American roots with blues and gospel accents and a ferocity inspired by the audacious rebelliousness of Frederick Douglass.

The spiritual “Oh Freedom” becomes a lush chorale for the horn section, while “Weeping, Sad and Lonely” is given an elegiac treatment better suited to Charles Sawyer’s autumnal lyrics than Henry Tucker’s upbeat original setting. Bonus track “All Quiet Along the Potomac To-night” sticks close to John Hill Hewitt’s 1863 setting of Ethel Lynn Beers’ poem recounting the First Battle of Bull Run. One crucial fact turned up by McCarthy’s research was that George Frederick Root’s “Battle Cry of Freedom” was equally important, with slightly altered lyrics, to soldiers on both sides of the conflict. While both original versions were sung to the same tune, McCarthy heightens the divide by splitting his arrangement in half, each reflecting an opposing take on the source.

McCarthy’s original compositions try to imagine the mood and atmosphere of the period when these songs were written. “Shiloh” is a gorgeously aching ballad highlighted by the composer’s yearning soprano, while the title track is a musical interpretation of Lincoln’s first inaugural address in three sections: the driving, no-nonsense opening section, “The Lawyer,” captures the President’s most rational arguments for the Union; the chaotic “The President” depicts the burdens of leading a nation divided; while the tender “The Person” is a portrait of Lincoln the humanist, whose rhetoric soared to embrace the better angels of an embattled public’s natures.

Since graduating from William Paterson University, Brian McCarthy has played a key role in the jazz community of his native Vermont, where he lives just outside of Burlington. He released his acclaimed leader debut, This Just In, in 2013, and plays regularly with his own ensembles and alongside trumpeter Ray Vega. He is a member of the faculty at the University of Vermont, teaches at Johnson State College and is director of bands at Saint Michael's College.