Electric bassist Max Bennett doesn’t have a high opinion of a lot of the jazz he hears nowadays--just what you’d expect from a guy who once played with Charlie Parker.
But Bennett isn’t a be-bop purist, by any means. He was an integral part of saxophonist Tom Scott’s groundbreaking fusion outfit, the L.A. Express, back in the ‘70s and has recorded with the Crusaders, Joni Mitchell, Quincy Jones, Frank Zappa and the Four Tops. His own electric outfit, the Maxx Band, plays tonight at El Matador in Huntington Beach.
“I’ve been around long enough to know the difference between quality and junk,” the 63-year-old San Clemente resident said in a recent phone interview. “Don’t get me wrong. There are some great groups out there--the Yellowjackets, the Rippingtons. But there are also groups that have very little substance to offer. I’ve always felt like my band was the genuine article when it comes to contemporary jazz.”
Bennett is the genuine article himself, having come up through the be-bop circles to become a central figure in the West Coast fusion scene as well as one of the area’s busiest studio bassists. Born in Des Moines, Iowa, he played his first big-name gigs with Georgie Auld, Charlie Ventura and Herbie Fields. He was working a Broadway club with Fields in New York on the same bill with Parker and Billy Eckstine when he was asked to back the legendary saxophonist.
“I was just a baby at the time and would go in early to hear the Parker band, which opened the show. And all of a sudden somebody came up and said, ‘Aren’t you the fellow who plays in the next group?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said, ‘The bass player'--it was Tommy Potter--'hasn’t shown up yet. We need you.’ And I was going, ‘But . . . but . . . that’s Charlie Parker!’ So I went out scared to death and played with him before Tommy finally got there.”
Bennett joined the orchestra of composers Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan after leaving the service in 1953, a gig that proved to be his springboard into the Stan Kenton Orchestra, which he secured on the recommendation of drummer Stan Levey. Though he was with Kenton for less than a year (he’s heard on the bandleader’s classic 1955 recording “Contemporary Concepts”), the job led to his relocation to the West Coast.
After a stint with Ella Fitzgerald’s trio and a tour as part of Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic ensemble, which included Dizzy Gillespie and Sonny Stitt, Bennett began a long association with Peggy Lee. The bassist, who later replaced keyboardist Lou Levy as Lee’s musical director, says he was the one who brought “Fever” to Lee’s attention.
“She’s always given me credit for that,” he says. “She’d been talking about looking for that sort of tune, something she needed. And I was working some real funky place on Western (Avenue, in Los Angeles) with Nino Tempo, and this kid came in and sang this tune. I knew it would be perfect for Peggy, so we ran it down and she wrote some of her own lyrics for it.”
(The bassist’s relationship with Lee was renewed last summer when his previous band, Freeway, teamed with a string section to back her during a rare appearance in Pasadena, with Bennett conducting.)
It was during his tenure with Lee that Bennett began assembling an impressive array of studio credits, a list that now includes Frank Sinatra, Michel LeGrand, Barbra Streisand, Kenny Rogers, the Beach Boys, Paul Williams, Quincy Jones, Aretha Franklin and several Motown groups. It was also during his stint with Lee that he began to play the electric bass.
In 1969, drummer John Guerin enlisted him to join the recording of Frank Zappa’s “Hot Rats” album. Bennett subsequently toured briefly with Zappa’s band.
“I was impressed with it--it was the forerunner of what the L.A. Express was going to be, in that contemporary vein of stretching out in a jazz-rock concept,” Bennett said.
The Express got off the ground when Bennett replaced saxophonist Tom Scott’s bassist one Sunday in 1972 at the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach.
“I was playing electric and all of a sudden there was that certain chemistry,” he said. “The next week (Crusaders’ keyboardist) Joe Sample came in and it really gelled.”
The band, then known as the Tom Scott Quartet (with Sample, guitarist Larry Carlton, Bennett and drummer Guerin) moved over to the Tuesday spot at the Baked Potato in North Hollywood and took off. Joni Mitchell heard the group one Tuesday and tabbed it to back her on her “Court and Spark” album and subsequent concert tour. Bennett also began working for the Crusaders on weekends during this period.
After the Express folded, Bennett formed Freeway in 1984 with guitarist Pat Kelley (later replaced by Grant Geissman), saxophonist Sam Riney, keyboardist Emil Palame and drummer Trevor Feldman, son of Bennett’s longtime associate keyboardist Victor Feldman. The quintet made its first appearances at the original Cafe Lido in Newport Beach.
Freeway recorded a trio of albums for the TBA label, consisting mostly of Bennett originals.
“I tried a couple of cover tunes on one of the albums at the company’s suggestion,” Bennett said. “But the tunes that got all the airplay were the ones I wrote. Some guys have a knack for doing cover tunes--Larry Carlton does a wonderful job with them. But that’s not my strong suit. I prefer to do my own thing, I guess.”
Bennett, who moved to San Clemente to be close to another of his passions--sailing--said he writes material at the kitchen table, using only his handmade Tobias five-string bass to chart the chords while working in the melody with his voice. He’s preparing to record an album in December with guests Russell Ferrante of the Yellowjackets, keyboardist Sample and saxophonist Scott.
Though the group’s name recently changed from Freeway to the Maxx Band (in order to avoid confusion with other groups that use “Freeway” in their names), its goal remains the same. Bennett, who writes all of the band’s music, likes a good melody, but said that “there has to be a considerable amount of room for self-expression from the players. The songs can’t just be some structured entities designed to appeal to the masses. I feel the best of contemporary jazz combines the richness of rock with a lot of Latin influence.”
“I’ve been fortunate to play with the best of the straight-ahead players during my career,” Bennett said. “But now I feel like it’s time to move on and do new things.”
The Maxx Band, with bassist Max Bennett, appears at 9 and 11 p.m. tonight at El Matador, 16903 Algonquin St., Huntington Beach. Admission: free. Information: (714) 846-5337.