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David Benoit: Straight Ahead to the Top of the Jazz Charts

A strange thing happened to David Benoit earlier this month. He woke up one morning and found he was No. 1.

To be at the top of a Billboard jazz chart was a new experience, even though for more than a decade the 36-year-old pianist and composer had been enjoying an increasingly successful career as a recording artist. Doubly surprising was the nature of the album that did the trick: unlike his previous efforts, which had been praised in the music industry for their pop appeal but where often ignored or condemned by critics, this was a straight-ahead jazz album (“Waiting for Spring,” GRP 9595), with the guitarist Emily Remler as featured soloist.

“It was a total surprise to me,” said the amiable Benoit (pronounced Ben- wah ). “It was just an album we had fun doing, and I had no real expectations as to how it would sell.”

Given the rigidly profit-oriented nature of the record business, ventures of this kind usually are viewed by executives with alarm, or at best are accorded grudging acceptance. Invariably it is the artist rather than the company that comes up with the idea. This was the pattern in the cases of Grover Washington Jr., George Benson, Chick Corea and Rob Mullins, all of whom have made side ventures from pop to jazz during the past year or so.

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Benoit’s situation was typical. “I went to Larry Rosen, who’s the R in GRP Records, and he was a bit surprised; I had to do some persuading. He thought something like this might confuse my audience, but finally he said, ‘Well, if it doesn’t cost too much, and if you can knock it out in one day, go ahead.’

“So I called the drummer, Pete Erskine, and the bassist Luther Hughes, and we actually did almost the whole album in one day, just straight through to two-track, live and spontaneous. We didn’t have quite enough music, so I went in on a second day and made two more tunes, with John Patitucci on bass.”

The participation of Emily Remler, who has a career of her own with several albums on Concord, was simply the result of Benoit’s fan-like enthusiasm. “I called Concord one day to ask for her phone number; I just wanted to call her up and tell her how much I admired her. But when she got to Los Angeles and opened at Vine Street Bar & Grill, she was excited about my idea of having her on the record.”

Jazz and Benoit are by no means strangers. His father, a former guitarist who earned a doctorate at USC and became a psychology professor, had taught Benoit many of the jazz and pop standards when he was a teen-ager. Living in Hollywood, the youngster played at Donte’s and other jazz rooms, mixing contemporary sounds with the Songs-My-Father-Taught-Me repertoire. But after signing with AVI records, a small independent company, he was steered in a more commercial direction.

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“I pursued the fusion thing pretty heavily, and it was nice to know that I was getting so much acceptance with the kind of music I had been recording, but all the time I missed the fun and the freedom of playing regular 4/4 jazz.”

Nevertheless, his career moved ahead on the commercial level as he switched from AVI to GRP, the powerful Dave Grusin-Larry Rosen label. By now he had been experimenting with synthesizers, had conducted for Diane Schuur and other singers, and usually confined his orthodox jazz work to an occasional cut buried in a fusion album.

Once he had completed “Waiting for Spring,” the reaction within the music business was inconsistent. “When Larry Rosen heard the tape he got all excited. But my manager, when he first heard it, said ‘What is this? You’re recording straight-ahead jazz? I’m nervous about this.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s put it out and see what happens.’ ”

What happened was that in short order the managers and attorneys and other business types got around to appreciating Benoit’s work, which included seven of his own compositions (among them the lyrical “I Remember Bill Evans”), along with two compositions by the late Bill Evans, who was his early idol, and a few standards: “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” “My Romance.”

The most enthusiastic supporter of Benoit’s new career turn is his father, Bob Benoit. “I asked him to come to the session, because Emily was going to be on it. At the end of the day I said, ‘Dad, did you bring your guitar? We really should play one of the tunes we did together when I was a kid.’ He hadn’t brought his guitar, but Emily said ‘Borrow mine,’ which he did, and that’s my Dad playing rhythm guitar on the last cut, ‘Secret Love.’

“The odd thing is that Dad recently began studying guitar again, and his teacher is a young guy struggling to get into the music business. One day he said to Dad, ‘Here I am giving you lessons, and I’m knocking on all these doors trying to get a record deal, and meanwhile you’re playing on the No. 1 jazz album in the country!’ And the funniest part of it is that this is the only time in his life my Dad has been on a record.”

Benoit’s success with the jazz album has not connoted any abandonment of his other activities. “I was involved in writing for the ‘Happy Anniversary Charlie Brown’ sound track album that GRP put out, and then I was called in to do the orchestral writing, including 20 strings, for the Charlie Brown TV special, which will be aired during January.

“I have an exciting new band that I’m putting together for a visit to Japan in February. Emily will be with me, and Eric Marienthal on alto sax, Steve Bailey from the Rippingtons on both acoustic and electric bass, and David Derge on drums. So with these versatile musicians I’ll be able to incorporate some of the things from the album.”

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Perhaps the most ironic aspect of Benoit’s new-found jazz acceptance is the typically condescending attitude reflected in some of the reviews by East Coast critics, who, as he points out, have a very traditionalist viewpoint and have blasted him in the past.

“One review started off by saying, ‘David Benoit is the king of Fuzak, or marshmallow melodies; he’s a joke in the be-bop community . . . however, “Waiting for Spring” is a pleasant surprise.’

“I don’t quite know how to react to a heavily qualified statement like this, but I guess after all the knocks I’ve taken over the years I should take it as a compliment!”

* JAZZ LISTINGS: Page 82


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