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David Benoit: American Landscape

Robert Spencer By

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Genial smooth jazz pianist David Benoit weighs in with what he calls "a true labor of love." American Landscape is dedicated to his mother, who died just as it was completed. Benoit explains that his mother loved "American music": Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and Stephen Sondheim. Presumably American Landscape 's tunes are situated within this tradition and draw upon it. Certainly on "Max's Boogie," Benoit's chords recall the characteristic early twentieth century harmonies of parlor favorites like "Under the Bamboo Tree." However, the "Boogie" of the title is very much in evidence, and Benoit has not surprisingly tricked out this number, and the others, with the most modern of MOR arrangements.

The London Symphony Orchestra provides the strings. On five of the nine tracks, "American Landscape," "If I Can Believe," "A Personal Story," "Mr. Rodriguez' Opus," and "Speed Racer," Benoit adds Nathan East on bass, John Robinson on drums, Pat Kelley on "fretted instruments," Eric Marienthal on soprano and alto saxophones, and Luis Conte on percussion. On the other four, "Max's Boogie," "Lost in Tokyo," "Saying Goodbye" and "Rue de la Soleil," Ken Wild replaces East, Carlos Vega stands in for Robinson, and Dean Parks plays guitar in place of Kelley's fretting. Bela Fleck (banjo) and Tommy Morgan (harmonica) joins for two tracks, "American Landscape" and "Speed Racer," and Poncho Sanchez for one ("Mr. Rodriguez' Opus"), where his congas are augmented by some earnest trumpet from Jerry Hey.

As befitting its dedication, American Landscape tends toward the introspective. "If I Can Believe" is calmly resolute; "A Personal Story," delicately regretful like a Gershwin ballad; and "Saying Goodbye," a piece Benoit wrote during the last stages of his mother's illness, brims with affection and resignation. Benoit's playing on these is flawless.

Exceptions to the introspections include "Max's Boogie," "Rue de la Soleil," and "Mr. Rodriguez' Opus." "Speed Racer" abruptly turns into a hoedown, fires stoked by Fleck and emphasized by the strings. Marienthal stands out in "If I Can Believe" and elsewhere, on soprano. Otherwise the spotlight belongs to the leader: His piano rings with Tyner-esque energy on "Mr. Rodriguez' Opus"; elsewhere Charlie Brown and Snoopy would find a good bit to dance to, although Benoit's chords are not quite as tasty as Vince Guaraldi's. On "Speed Racer" he teases us with a few blue notes, but generally stays with solid, genial, competent, (shall we say) vanilla chording.

Sally Field (of all people) calls this disc a "magnificent adventure" in her brief liner note. If you're a fan of David Benoit's smoothly executed smooth music, you'll like this one — you'll really like it.

| Record Label: GRP Records | Style: Contemporary/Smooth


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