Carles Benavent: Jazz, Flamenco and Blues
For many years, Benavent played "off-the-shelf" bass guitars, but for the last decade he has been using instruments custom built by Drodz. It seems only fitting that a musician with such an individual technique should play basses designed specifically for him, and Drodz and Benavent clearly have a strong working and personal relationship. Their relationship started in 2003, when Benavent asked Drodz to make the first of these instruments, a commission which, Drodz says, "was a big challenge for me." It may have been a challenge, but Drodz succeeded, and a day or two before this interview Benavent debuted a new bass, the third designed by Drodz, at his Barcelona Jazz Festival trio concert with pianist Roger Mas and drummer Roger Blàvia. On stage, the instrument both looked and sounded beautiful, and Benavent played it as if he'd owned it for years rather than just a day or two. When asked if he's enjoying his new bass guitar, Benavent responds with a big smile and cries out, "This is the best!"
Visually, the most obvious thing about Benavent's instrument is that it's a five-string. However, while most five-string bass guitars include an additional low string, usually tuned to B, this instrument features an additional higher string, tuned to C. There are other less obvious developments, as Benavent explains. "Before, I had two basses: a standard bass and a piccolo bass. So I thought, 'Why not put both into a single instrument?' Also, it's a short-scale instrument: the body is quite big, but the neck is shorter than usual, easier to reach to the F."
These design features mean that the bass differs in many ways from classics such as the Fender Jazz beloved of many rock and jazz players. "For me, a long-scale bass like the Jazz is very heavy. I call these basses 'wardrobes' because they are so big and heavy. I used to play fretless basses, but when I added the fifth string I went back to using frets, as this is easier for tuning. They are mandolin frets, smaller and narrower than normal bass frets." This gives the precision of a fretted instrument with the fluid sound of a fretless bass. "Yes, that's right. People often say to me that it sounds like a fretless. It's very flexible; I can bend the neck to get a vibrato effect, but the tuning is still stable. It's a very dynamic instrument, which is very important for flamenco. Flamenco is a very emotional music: you can play something very piano, light, then suddenly very forte. I can do that on this instrument. Another characteristic of this bass is that the neck is the width of a four-string instrument's. So the strings are very close, and with a pick I can more easily play fast. For bass guitarists who play with their fingers in the normal way, the strings would be too close."
Un, Dos, Tres ...
Benavent's 2011 album, Un, Dos, Tres ... (bebeyne records), draws together many of his musical influences. The record centers on his own compositions, performed by his trio with Mas and Blàvia. "I had tunes already written; I had ideas that were not yet complete, and I wrote songs especially for the album. One tune written especially is 'Don,' my homage to [percussionist] Don Alias. He liked the conga, the rhythm for dancing."
One of the most immediately engaging tunes is "Bailas?," with its distinctive electric keyboard part. "The title means 'Do you dance?' The keyboard sound is like Herbie Hancock's. In this tune, I think you can see how I compose. I never pretend or say that I play flamenco, but everything I do has a flavor of flamenco. It's inspired by it. This comes from many years of playing with Paco. The rhythms and emotions are special. 'Bailas?' is funky, but you can hear the flamenco feel."
Benavent is particularly keen to relate the tale of how one number came to be on the album. "There is one tune by the great Catalan classical composer Federico Mompou: 'Scenes D'Enfants.' I had a version of the tune, recorded with strings. I have kept the piano very close to the original score, while the bass and rhythm become closer to flamenco."
Benavent is clearly a fan of Mompou"It's a pity that this great musician is not famous like Gaudi," he says, referring to Barcelona's most influential and best-known architectand the tune is undeniably lovely, but there is another reason for its inclusion on the album. "In 1995, I was in a car crash. For a year, I couldn't play; my radial nerve was damaged. When I was in the hospital, a friend gave me a Mompou record and a record of Johann Sebastian Bach's lute music. These two records gave me something I can't explaina comfort, a power. They, along with the unexpected avalanche of phone calls from people who loved me, gave me the energy to recover. So that's another reason why I chose this tune for the album."
The accident may have been serious, but luckily its long-term effects on his playing were limited. "No, it didn't affect my playing. If I was a pianist, I would have been finished. I lost some strength in my finger, for hammering on, but I worked around that. I was lucky."