Carles Benavent: Jazz, Flamenco and Blues
Of all the instrumentalists in contemporary music, only a handful have become game changers. Jazz trumpet has Louis Armstrong, rock guitar has Jimi Hendrix, jazz saxophone has Charlie Parker. Flamenco bass guitar has Carles Benavent. Benavent's fluid, melodic and emotive style of playing is as beautiful as it is distinctive. Developed initially from a love of the blues, his playing has, over the years, enabled him to extend his reach into rock and jazz fusion as well as flamenco. In the jazz world, he's enjoyed a particularly fruitful relationship with Chick Corea, and, as he puts it with characteristic modesty, he played "for 10, no 15, minutes" with Miles Davis.
Benavent was born in Barcelona in 1954. He still lives in Catalonia and gave this interview in a Barcelona restaurant, accompanied by luthier Jerzy Drodz, who designs and builds Benavent's bass guitars. Drodz was on hand to translate some of the more complex questions and answers and to contribute information about the construction and development of Benavent's instruments.
At the age of 13, Benavent began to learn the bass guitar, deciding on that particular instrument for one simple reason. "I had a friend at school who played electric guitar, but I thought the bass would be easier because it only had four strings. That's the reason I chose the bass, really. But I started to learn by copying the playing of Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix: by copying guitarists, not bass players."
This autodidactic approach resulted in the development of Benavent's individual playing style: using a pick and the fingers of his right hand to pluck the strings while his left hand moves between chords and single note patterns, in a way that is closer to that of an acoustic guitarist than a typical electric bassist. As he grew up, Benavent began to learn other styles of music, but the fundamentals of his playing technique were firmly established. "I started with the blues when I was about 13 or 14. Flamenco and jazz came later." Exposure to new musical genres even led the bassist to wish for a change in nationality: "Three or four years after the blues, I discovered Brazilian music, and I wanted to be Brazilian," he says, laughing. "I also started to play mandolin, playing Spanish and Mediterranean musicnot flamenco but other styles."
Although Benavent's early influences were guitarists, one bassist did have an impact on his thinking. "I always played four-string electric bass guitar. Then I heard Jaco Pastorius. Wow! I decided to lose the frets. I first heard him on a Weather Report record. These recordings of Jaco's are just incredible; he affected everyone." Benavent's playing style remains distinct from Pastorius,' however. "We are different because I started to play by copying guitarists."
The two bassists never met, but Pastorius was aware of Benavent's playing. "A few years ago, I recorded a Pastorius tune, and I called his widow, Ingrid Pastorius, to ask permission. She said yes and told me that Jaco knew me, knew my work with Paco and [flamenco singer] Camarón De La Isla."
Benavent attended a music conservatory, "to study double bass rather than musical theory," as he puts it. His growing involvement in flamenco meant that his ability to play by ear was of equal, if not greater, importance than an understanding of theory. "Flamenco is very much about playing by ear; it's the way the guitar techniques, el cante [the song] and the dances are transmitted from father to son. It's a shared language. You don't need to see notes; it's very much about feelings."
By the early '70s, Benavent was establishing his career, making his first album as a member of the Catalan rock band Máquina!. En Directo (Diábolo, 1972). He's recorded consistently since then, with bands such as jazz-rockers Música Urbana and in collaboration with artists including De La Isla, flamenco guitarist Josemi Carmona and jazz pianist and arranger Gil Goldstein. He's also released seven solo albums, beginning with his self-titled debut in 1983 (Nuevos Medios).
In the early '80s, he began two long-lasting musical collaborations, with de Lucia and Corea, that would see him touring worldwide. He speaks of both men with a genuine warmth and affection. "Paco is one of the finest flamenco musicians. I was impressed by his dynamic quality when I first met him. He can go from very, very, sweet, soft tremolo to the sound of a machine gun in less than a second without losing the tempo, the pulse. This emotional control is one of Paco's finest qualities. This is one of my goalsto control emotions in my playing."
Benavent performed with de Lucia for 21 years, from 1981 to 2001, playing bass guitar and mandola and developing his own approach to flamenco bass guitar. His relationship with Corea began thanks to de Lucia. "Chick has a great affinity with the music of Spain. He's loved Spanish music for many years. We first played together in Japan. I was touring with Paco, and Chick was there with [bassist] Eddie Gomez, [drummer] Roy Haynes and [saxophonist] Michael Brecker. We played together for an encore. A year later, in 1982, Chick asked Paco if he could add me to his band. Paco was touring with [guitarists] Al Di Meola and John McLaughlin, so he said, 'Sure, that's OK.' Chick called me. For me, this was incredible. I went to Los Angeles, and we made the first record together, Touchstone (Stretch Records, 1982)."
This relationship has lasted 30 years so far. "Yes. Chick is a very kind man, a close friend. He's very stimulating and supportive, too." The pair last appeared on record in 2006, on Corea's The Ultimate Adventure (Stretch Records) and Benavent and Carmona's Sumando (Nuevos Medios), when Corea guested on the Carmona tune "Soleó." Two days after this interview, the pianist and bass guitarist were reunited on the stage of Barcelona's Palau De La Musica (pictured above), when Benavent joined Corea's trio as a special guest, playing with Corea, double bassist Christian McBride and drummer Brian Blade to a mesmerized audience in a sold-out venue.
Possibly, Benavent's briefest musical collaboration took place in Montreux in 1991, when he joined Davis and [producer] Quincy Jones on stage, to quote Benavent once again, "for 10, no 15, minutes" at the end of the concert. The occasion was Davis and Jones' appearance at the Montreux Jazz Festivalone of Davis' last live appearances prior to his death later that yearand Benavent performed on two Gil Evans tunes, "The Pan Piper" and "Solea." "Gil Goldstein was the man who suggested getting me to play bass on them. Quincy agreed," says Benavent. The performance is part of Miles and Quincy Live At Montreux (Warner Brothers, 1993).
Davis died in September, 1991. Could Benavent's working relationship with the trumpeter have developed if circumstances had been different? Benavent is sanguine about the idea. "Who knows? I would have liked to work with him more. Miles never did the same thing for long; he never stopped being creative, brave. Flamenco is very interesting for a musician like Miles. When I met Miles, I spoke to him about it. He knew about Paco; he was aware of the style."