Smooth jazz is derided among jazz purists, and often justifiably so. It too often sounds slick, commercial, processed, calculated, empty of content. Jazz pablum. But at its best Winelight-era Grover Washington and George Benson's Breezin' come to mind it can be just what you want to hear with a glass of wine by the fire. At the very least, smooth jazz can be thanked for introducing many to the jazz world who might never have made the journey otherwise. And some may eventually move on to Kind of Blue, Giant Steps, Bill Evans Live at the Village Vanguard.
One of the better smooth jazz artists is pianist/composer David Benoit. He's got chops, knows how to please an audience, and he's helping keep the great Vince Guaraldi's memory and music alive. Benoit's career got a kick start with the success of his driving version of Guaraldi's "Linus & Lucy," the catchiest of the Charlie Brown tunes. He recently released a Guaraldi tribute CD Here's to You, Charlie Brown 50 Great Years (GRP, 2000). Benoit is also a fine composer, scoring several post-Guaraldi Brown specials himself, and writing the lovely ballad "Kei's Song."
Benoit's March 22 show at Yoshi's provided much of what's good about smooth jazz: lively, tuneful, exciting, crowd-pleasing. Playing with a trio of electric bass, drums and sax, Benoit began with three of Guaraldi's Charlie Brown tunes: "Frieda," "The Red Baron," and "Charlie Brown Theme." Benoit's power at the keyboard was particularly evident on the theme, a gentle, tuneful swing in which he dug into the keys with two-handed chordal soloing, using the whole keyboard. It was also on display on a bluesy solo on "Blue Rondo a la Turk," its driving 9/8 rhythm taken at a breakneck clip. Another tune featured octave runs.
Many tunes began moderately loud and built to climaxes that revved the crowd but got a bit too loud for my taste. The instruments were close-mic'd and at times over-amplified. Some of that's good, perhaps even a lot, but after a while the ear needs relief. I yearned for one tune where the amplification would be turned down or off while Benoit played solo piano for five or ten minutes. "Kei's Song," which was performed delicately by the trio, would be great to hear on solo piano. Generally, subtlety was in short supply while Benoit focused more on the loud, upbeat, smooth-jazz crowd pleasers. This is music that plays well, and perhaps better, out of ampitheater loudspeakers than the more listening-oriented acoustics of Yoshi's jazz club.
But Benoit gave them what they came to hear: some hits, some Charlie Brown tunes, something smooth, something rocking, and a few ballads. It couldn't have ended better than with the encore, another Guaraldi hit, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind," with Benoit faithfully rendering the Floyd Cramer-like country piano figures appropriated by Guaraldi. Packing 11 tunes into a 75-minute set, no one could feel shortchanged. Benoit definitely is not coasting on his name or rep.
Would I have preferred a straight-ahead jazz set from Benoit? Sure. He showed in one of his pieces, the title tune from the CD Waiting for Spring (GRP, 1989), that he's an accomplished straight-ahead composer and player. Benoit told a story before that tune, alluding to the constraints record execs can try to pin on artists. "My record company said, 'A straight-ahead jazz album? Forget it, stick with smooth jazz.' It was eight weeks at number one on the jazz charts." But my guess is that Benoit will keep playing the favorites, the crowd pleasers, and keep packing them in again and again and again around the world. And what's wrong with that?
Dave Roberts has been a professional writer for more than a decade in newspapers, magazines and high-tech. He's a student of jazz piano, and writing a book, Tips From the Jazz Piano Pros, consisting of interviews with jazz pianists that focus on the art and craft of playing jazz piano.
If you are a professional jazz pianist or know of one who would be interested in participating, e-mail him at DaveRobertsJazz@cs.com. Also, if you are a Bay Area (or northern California) jazz musician, let him know what you're up to: CDs, shows, Web sites, etc.
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