Since launching his recording career in 1977, David Benoit’s expansive career as a contemporary jazz pianist has included over 25 solo recordings. The multi-talented performer’s releases This Side Up, Freedom at Midnight and the Grammy nominated Every Step of the Way are considered influential genre classics. Among his other Grammy nominations are those for Best Instrumental Composition (for “Dad’s Room,” from 1999’s Professional Dreamer) and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance (for the GRP All-Star Big Band). He is also a well respected film and television composer and has conducted symphony orchestras throughout the U.S. and Europe.
On his Heads Up debut, Benoit finds a fascinating way to celebrate his 35th year as a recording artist: having a Conversation with a rich array of jazz and classical musicians, modern and legendary composers and…even himself as he pays loving homage to his wife of 27 years with a gentle orchestral reworking of his classic 1987 radio staple “Kei’s Song.”
JazzMonthly: The title Conversation is intriguing, referring to communication. There are many ways to interpret it—you to your audience, you with the many artists and styles that have influenced these tunes. What does that word mean to you, and why was that the best term to describe this album?
DB: There are several conversations going on with the different musicians that appear on the album. The title came from the last movement of “Music For Two Trios,” a piece that I was commissioned to write for the Laguna Beach Arts Festival for the Ahn Trio, a classical trio of Julliard musicians from Korea. I hired Robert Theis, who won the International Prokofiev Piano competition in 1995, to play on it, and this marks the first time I didn’t play all the piano parts on my own record. I’m having many different conversations on the album, including an interesting one with Jeff Golub’s rock guitar on “Diary of a Wimpy Kid,” another with a sax player I never used before, David Sills and the “Napa Crossroads Overture” with (former Ambrosia frontman) David Pack, which started out as a conversation around the piano.
JazzMonthly: The nine tracks seem to draw from many different genres. How did the album come together? Was there an overall concept going in or did one develop along the way – or is it just a bunch of random amazing tunes?
DB: I didn’t have a concept coming into it, it was more “let’s start here and see where it goes.” I knew I wanted to continue the vibe of the song “Botswana Bossa Nova” from my last album Earthglow, which was bossa with a little groove. The album is pretty short at nine songs, but that’s in keeping with these times where long CDs aren’t that popular anymore. I just wanted all of the nine tunes to be strong. I redid “Kei’s Song” as a nod to my past, and the new material is a mix of groove oriented stuff and more traditional compositions. I got inspired by many different things. I heard a tune at K-JAZZ (KKJZ, the Los Angeles area station where Benoit is a morning deejay) called “Boogie Woogie Bossa” from Quincy Jones and the motif of that tune directly inspired “Q’s Motif.” I wanted to do the theme to “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” because it reminded me of Vince Guaraldi, who everyone knows is one of my heroes. What was great is that Heads Up really trusted me as a veteran artist to just do my thing. They just said, “Do what you do,” and I did!
JazzMonthly: Did you develop this album differently than some of your others? How so?
DB: I think I was just less specific about the vibe this time. On Earthglow, I was making an effort to do a Bossa nova Euro groove, and another recent album, Heroes, was about me paying tribute to great artists I looked up to. On Conversation, I kind of harkened back to the approach I took to albums like Freedom at Midnight, where I just started writing and let it become what it needed to be. I brought back the orchestral element as well, though this time the budget and scope was smaller.
JazzMonthly: I know you say you like Sunrise on Mansion Row as one of your favorites. Tell me about that tune and how you wrote it.
DB: It’s got a romantic classical French vibe that started with me on piano. It’s one of the songs I wrote without keyboards or computers. It’s what I call “pianistic,” and it was influenced by my love of French classical composers like Debussy, Satie and Ravel. Simply by fooling around on the piano I felt like I created the musical equivalent of a French impressionistic painting. The title came later and refers to the imagery of the mansions in New Orleans’ French Quarter area in the morning – after a night of partying, it’s the peaceful time of reflecting at sunrise.
JazzMonthly: “Kei’s Song,” which you wrote for your wife and recorded first on Freedom at Midnight, has become one of your great standards. Why did you decide to revisit it and how did you approach making it recognizable yet a bit different?
DB: The song is pretty solid as it is, so I didn’t want to totally reinvent or discofy it! The first few notes are almost identical to the original, but I brought Pat Kelley in on guitar to add a charm and beauty to it. Also the orchestral intro I use now was not on the original. Over the years, I kept thinking about bringing it into the 21st Century. Kei and I just celebrated our 27th anniversary, and I had wanted to revisit it for a while, so why not now? Overall it has a smaller string section than on the original, but there is a big modulation in the middle where strings take over that is unique.