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."
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."
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."
Benavent's current projects continue to reflect his wide range of musical interests. "I have three more projects as well as my trio with Roger and Roger. I have another trio, Benavent-di Geraldo-Pardo, with Jorge Pardo, who plays sax and flute, and Tino di Geraldo on drums. We've known each other for a long time. I form part of Lobi, a project of Stéphane Galland, the drummer with the band Aka Moon. It features musicians from different countries: Stéphane from Belgium; Misirli Ahmet, a percussionist from Istanbul; accordionist Petar Ralchev from Bulgaria; and Magic Malik on flute, from from Guadeloupe. Tigran Hamasyan played piano on the album. I also have the Carles Benavent Ensemble with Roger Blàvia on percussion, Joan Sanmarti as guitarist and arranger and a string quartet of two violins, viola and cello."
After a long and very enjoyable lunch, the interview with this talented yet modest musician drew to a close. Benavent's love for his music and for his friends and colleagues had come over incredibly strongly as he talked, but one statement seemed to encapsulate his approach to his career: "I have had good opportunities in my life. I've been a lucky man, but I always try to be prepared so that I can take the chance when it comes."
Carles Benavent, Un, Dos, Tres ... (bebyne records, 2011)
Carles Benavent, Quartet (bebyne records, 2009)
Carles Benavent and Josemi Carmona, Sumando (Nuevos Medios, 2006)
Chick Corea, The Ultimate Adventure (Stretch Records, 2006)
Carles Benavent, Fénix (Nuevos Medios, 1997)
Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Miles and Quincy Live At Montreux (Warner Brothers, 1993)
Gil Goldstein, Zebra Coast (Blue Note, 1992)
Camarón de la Isla, Calle Real (Polygram, 1983)
Carles Benavent, Carles Benavent (Nuevos Medios, 1983)
Chick Corea, Touchstone (Stretch Records, 1982)
Paco de Lucia, Sólo Quiero Caminar (Polygram, 1981)
Música Urbana, Música Urbana (Edgisa, 1975)
Máquina!, En Directo (Diábolo, 1972)
All Photos: Bruce Lindsay