If a touch of grey makes a man look distinguished, his full head of hair gone grey makes David Benoit positively aristocratic. The knock on Benoit is he makes music that is pleasant yet not memorable and, at times, is dismissed as being lightweight. It's time to reassess that somewhat harsh appraisal as time has been kind to Benoit, as his playing grows stronger and his ideas more interesting.
Benoit makes it look effortless, but Conversation works hard at making music that is fun but never trifling. "Diary of A Wimpy Kid" is a slightly goofy song that doesn't cross the line into downright silliness. Jeff Golub's rocking solo keeps things bouncing along as Benoit, bassist David Hughes and drummer Jamey Tate bop merrily along to the guitarist's scorching lead riffs.
"Kei's Song Redux is a revised version of "Kei's Song," from Benoit's breakthrough record, Freedom At Midnight (GRP, 1987), dedicated to his wife of 27 years, but serves the dual purpose of illustrating his growth as a pianist and composer over 25 years. "Sunrise On Mansion Row" features a string section and a stately soprano saxophone solo from David Mills. Benoit says, in the liner notes, that "Sunrise" represents where he is at as a composer, "writing pretty stuff, but trying to make it interesting and evocative too."
Conversation is mission accomplished for Benoit; it is ambitious, even as it remains accessible. Benoit puts his classical chops on exhibition as the double trio of the title track gives him an opportunity to stretch his musical muscles. He lays out on the classical trio, turning the piano duties over to Robert Theis, the 1995 winner of the International Prokofiev Piano Competition, and marks the first time Benoit has not played all the piano parts in 35 albums. Eschewing showmanship for its own sake to keep the proceeding concise, not a single song passes the five-minute mark. Too often when artists set out to give their music gravitas, they strive for meaning and achieve only pomposity. Benoit isn't abandoning his jazz roots as the traditional groove of "Let's Get Ready" clearly demonstrates his ability to swing; instead, he's building upon his repertoire and incorporating degrees of classical music into it.
Classy, yet never pretentious, Conversation is a standout in Benoit's long career and should be considered as one of the best recordings of 2012. It is an impressive display of the pianist's talent and a triumphant achievement. Highly recommended.
Napa Crossroads Overture; Feelin' It; Diary of A Wimpy Kid; Kei's Song Redux; Sunrise On Mansion Row; You're Amazing; Q's Motif; Let's Get Ready; Conversation (from Music For Two Trios).
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