David Benoit: All that jazz and more

It was not the kind of thing that happened to him very often -- at least not back then.

Three decades ago, David Benoit was a Los Angeles jazz pianist in his 20s, with two albums on a small label. He played birthdays, bar mitzvahs and small nightclubs as he struggled to make a living.

But when he was invited to the Philippines to perform in 1981, everything changed. "Somehow over there I was a superstar," Benoit, now 56, recalls with a laugh. "They had all the paparazzi waiting at the airport; it was just like out of a dream."

His song "Take a Look Inside My Heart," largely ignored in the U.S., had become a hit on Filipino radio. "They started screaming when I played the opening to the tune," he said, still a bit incredulous as he sat in a hotel restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. "So for many years, I was this sort of legendary figure there."

In a way, Benoit's career has come full circle. Though best known as a successful if controversial jazz-fusion artist with 30 albums and five Grammy nominations, he is now quietly in his eighth season as music director of the Asia America Symphony Orchestra. And there's a connection to his arrival in Manila: On Saturday, a Filipina who grew up with his music and became a star -- Lea Salonga -- will sing in an AASO concert at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center's Aratani/Japan America Theatre.

Salonga, best known for her longtime role in "Miss Saigon" in London and on Broadway, covered Benoit's "Land of the Loving" during her early career as a singer. (Interestingly enough, the song has since been used prominently in Philippine Department of Tourism commercials.) Saturday's concert will open with Benoit conducting "Symphonic Dances" from "West Side Story" and present Salonga mostly as a Broadway artist, concluding with Benoit accompanying her on piano.

It is the 65-piece, Rolling Hills Estates-based orchestra's sole full-scale concert of the season. Yet its eclectic mix of genres seems an appropriate way to spotlight Benoit's growing, albeit not well known, interest in classical music.

Lighthouse dawns

Benoit was born in Bakersfield, a place associated more with the country music of Buck Owens than the jazz or Asian themes that would shape his adulthood. But Benoit's early years were informed by his parents' tastes -- his mother's love of Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, and his father's fondness for jazz, especially guitarists like Tal Farlow.

When Benoit was 8, his family moved to Hermosa Beach, home of the legendary jazz club the Lighthouse. As a teenager in the '60s and early '70s, Benoit was not much moved by the Rolling Stones ("not enough melodic content for me") but saw gigs at the Lighthouse that made him want to commit himself to jazz.

Although he was drawn to the piano, the instrument's more intellectual and bebop-oriented masters such as Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Lennie Tristano didn't interest him much. He was attracted instead to Ramsey Lewis, Oscar Peterson and Vince Guaraldi -- players he describes as "melodic, crossing over, with a lot of popularity."

In the '70s, while much acoustic jazz was caught in a strongly avant-garde phase, he began playing and recording what would soon be called "smooth jazz," a term he's come to hate. "If I hear that one more time . . . ," the sunny, laid-back Benoit says with mock anger. "I helped to kind of define that format. But my influences are all over the place."

He also regrets the way the jazz fraternity split into opposing camps, each with its own record labels, Billboard charts, radio stations and self-contained audiences. (Fans of "straight-ahead" jazz often denounce the work of Benoit, David Sanborn and George Benson.) Benoit hates to take sides and calls the rift "a divorce that wasn't very friendly."

Mainstream jazz, meanwhile, has become "too serious, too intellectual, too studied. Ironically, I always thought of jazz as being happy music -- going back to Dixieland and its earliest origins. It's supposed to be about the player and his feeling, not that he studied for eight years and knows every Miles Davis solo."

Classical music couldn't have come back into his life at a better time.

Nuptial nudge

Benoit's move into classical music and Asian themes came from the same source: his wife.

Touring Hawaii as a sideman in 1983, he met a young Japanese woman, on vacation, who'd studied to become a concert pianist. As the two got to know each other, Kei Sasako turned Benoit on to classical music, and he was excited by pieces like Chopin's intricate Ballades and Brahms' bittersweet Intermezzos. Playing these pieces helped unlock some of his early passion for classical music, which had included not only his mother's Copland records but also his own teenage interest in Frank Zappa's orchestral music.

After Benoit and Sasako were married, he began to compose a symphony, "Kobe," in 1989. "It was about my mother-in-law, growing up in postwar Japan," he said. Benoit's wife, then on the board of the Asia America Symphony Orchestra, suggested the group perform his piece at a fundraiser, and the group asked him to conduct it as well.

Although he had done some conducting from the piano for Vegas diva Lainie Kazan, "it was the first time I'd ever been on a podium," he said.

Benoit neither broke any bones nor cost the orchestra any subscribers. When the orchestra found itself later without a conductor, in 2001, it asked Benoit to take over. "I didn't take a salary the first year; I said, 'Let's see what happens,' " recalled Benoit, who founded the group's youth orchestra when he came on board. "I've had some great moments, I've stumbled a bit. But basically had a great time."

Meanwhile, "Kobe" went on to have a richer life than that of most new compositions. Conductor Kent Nagano, who later served as music director for Los Angeles Opera, admired Benoit's jazz and brought "Kobe" up to the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, the small but prestigious group he conducted through this season. "Kent is the hugest influence on me," Benoit said, "getting into classical music."

For his part, Nagano recalls hearing Benoit's music on Bay Area radio, adding that Benoit contacted him first. "David had been working on a piece and wanted some advice on how to orchestrate it and cold-called me," Nagano says. "I don't know many people with such a keen sense of curiosity, as well as drive. I found he had far more than one dimension."

The two, who each spent their childhoods surfing on the California coast, became friends, and Nagano helped Benoit and his wife adopt June Koko, a girl from Japan who is now 8. The pianist also composed part of "Manzanar: An American Story," the orchestral piece Nagano organized to commemorate the World War II internment of Japanese Americans.

As a conductor, Benoit admires the cool, Gallic perfectionism of Nagano. But his heart is closer to the school of passion represented by Leonard Bernstein, occasional wrong notes and all.

"There were a lot of raggedy moments in [Bernstein's] conducting," Benoit said. "He was going for the big picture, emotion and fire and excitement."

Still, Benoit tries not to assert himself too fully when he's got the baton. "There's nothing worse than seeing a conductor over-conduct."

Learning curve

As Benoit gets deeper into classical music and keeps his jazz career going -- he will spend four nights at Tokyo's Cotton Club this summer -- he's hoping to compose more. He's especially moved by the work of French composers such as Ravel and Fauré.

The difference between jazz and classical composition, he said, is vast, and not just because of the much larger number of instruments in a symphony orchestra than in a jazz trio. "When I write a jazz piece, so much of it is improvising -- you just write the head, mostly. With classical, everything has to be written out."

This summer, he will experience another aspect of the cross-cultural bonds that helped jump-start his career. At Disney Hall July 10, he will lead his orchestra and more than 400 singers -- some local, some from Japan -- in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which is popular the world over, but an absolute totem in Japan.

Still, he finds many aspects of classical music, especially orchestration, daunting. "It's so new to me, this whole classical thing," he said. "It's like I'm still in school."