Checking out up-and-coming tenor saxophonists is often akin to checking out strong man competitions: In both cases you often have strapping and stentorian figures going through their routine(s) while trying to impress by bulldozing through anything in their path. These types of musical displays are often awe-inspiring, whether observed live or on record, and a good number of dazzling tenor exhibitionists have truly earned the attention, ink, and acclaim they've received through such work. But there are also plenty of deep thinking tenor players out there who are making their mark without relying on shows of brute force. Eli Bennett is one such player.
On his debut, the Vancouver-based tenor saxophonist delivers a program that gives pause to admire his writing and fluid improvisational skills. He sears and soars, but the source of his power comes from soul, not bluster and brawn. He lays his soulful sound down in funky territory ("Upside Swagger"), goes from cool to hot in a heartbeat while mirroring the form changes in his music ("Let's Roll"), and casts introspective spells that are at once attractive, melancholy, and intense ("Breakthrough"). He shrieks, cries, flies, dives, and sighs through his horn, putting passion behind his every gesture, be it one of supplication or assertiveness.
Bennett's band mates help to mirror and amplify the emotions that he projects throughout this program. Bassist Jon Maharaj excels in ruminative settings, tapping into the deepest recesses of the heart and mind; drummer Fabio Ragnelli can lay down a groove like nobody's business, whether following a straight course or navigating bends in the road; and D'Arcy Myronuk cooks with the Fender Rhodes and captures the imagination with his piano work. Together, all four players show a high degree of empathy through their engagement with the music on the thoroughly enjoyable Breakthrough.