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Daniel Bennett: The Bear Truth

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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A good friend of mine once told me that great music should always give you chills down your spine. I took his advice.
Whether considered a member of Generation X or Y, saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist/composer and bandleader Daniel Bennett's career certainly is indicative of how many young artists' careers are ascending with the advent of the internet. But Daniel has a measured cynicism towards balancing live performance with the wonders of tech.

Moreover what is also refreshing about this young musician is his candor. He readily admits to being very raw when his career began in earnest only a few years ago, not even wanting to initially call himself a jazz artist—though he does say he combined the twang of Bill Frisell's with Jimmy Giuffre's dry folkism. When it is observed that his early recordings had a sameness about them, his response was honest and vulnerable. And the recurring motif of using a bear as a theme... is unique and irresistible. You will see.

All About Jazz: Would it be accurate to say that you represent the first generation of jazz artists for whom using the Internet and mixed media—in your case animation—are a given, in terms of using these tools to launch your career?

Daniel Bennett: Absolutely! The Internet has revolutionized every single aspect of music career management and development. However, I constantly push myself to work out my development in the physical realm too! It's so important for jazz players to constantly collaborate, practice, travel, and interact with listeners. Sometimes the Internet can be a negative distraction for artists.

I will say that the Internet has become an amazing tool for marketing. A great example of this is the ongoing concert series that the Daniel Bennett Group curates at the Triad Theatre in Manhattan and the Cambridge YMCA Theatre in Boston. We have recently shared billings at both of these venues with artists like Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter, James Carter, Greg Osby, Billy Martin and Steve Kuhn.

And the amazing thing is that we have never used print advertising or radio to promote any of these concerts. All of our marketing is done online.

We use websites like Facebook, Twitter, Reverbnation, All About Jazz, and countless others. The Internet has also changed the way we sell our music. A working band can now record and produce albums independently and then simply enlist a service like CD Baby to distribute their music to iTunes, Amazon, Rhapsody, Napster, and hundreds of other sites.

However, as I mentioned earlier, a band must have a physical following and real world experience in order to truly be relevant. It's important for artists to remember that music is crafted and perfected in our practice rooms, far away from the allure of the Internet. It's really a delicate balance.

AAJ: Let's delve into your roots.

DB: I grew up in Honeoye Falls, New York, a very small town in the Rochester area. I started playing the saxophone when I was ten years old. My first band director encouraged me to play trumpet. She felt that my lips were better shaped for a brass instrument. When asked what my top three instrument choices were, I marked saxophone, saxophone, saxophone!

Needless to say, my mind had been made up. I remember when my older sister took me to a high school jazz concert. I heard a saxophonist named Chris Oldfield and was absolutely blown away by his sound. Keep in mind—I grew up in the country. We didn't get to hear jazz on a regular basis. As I got older, I joined the jazz band, wind ensemble, marching band, and began playing in music theater pit orchestras at the middle school and high school. I also began taking saxophone lessons from a renowned local composer and woodwind-doubler, Greg Knapp. In 1996, our high school jazz ensemble placed second in the Essentially Ellington jazz competition. I can remember traveling to New York for the finals. It was my first trip to the city. As a finalist in the competition, we performed a piece with Wynton Marsalis. What an amazing experience for a bunch of high school kids from the country!

Around that same time, I began to teach myself guitar. This was probably the most important moment in my early development. I started a rock band, and spent every waking hour writing songs and rehearsing. I still write all of my music from the guitar to this day. I can remember traveling through the cold streets of Rochester with my electric guitar, acoustic guitar, and four saxophones!

We would play in coffee houses, homeless shelters, churches, and pretty much any venue that would have us! I remember driving to a local mall on Christmas Eve. We showed up unannounced, set up our gear and played Christmas songs for people. It lasted about thirty minutes before we were shut down by mall security and escorted off the premises.

Upon graduating from high school, I attended Roberts Wesleyan College, a small Christian school in the Rochester suburbs. I was fortunate enough to study with world-class artists like pianist Joe Santora, Nancy Boone, Michael Landrum, and Paul Shewan, to name a few. I immersed myself in the Rochester jazz scene, performing in all of the top venues and festivals around the city, and also playing in church three times a week!

In 2002, I moved to Boston to attend grad school at the New England Conservatory. I was one of those oddballs who studied both jazz and classical music. I took lessons with Ken Radnofsky, Jerry Bergonzi, and George Garzone. In addition, I performed in an ensemble led by percussion guru, Bob Moses. I was fortunate enough to also perform concerts at the school with Bob Brookmeyer and Steve Lacy.

This was a very stressful time in my life. I can remember playing in the NEC wind ensemble and then running off to a jazz performance with Bob Moses. I was playing some pretty serious classical music from the likes of Pat Harbison, Ibert, Dahl, Desenclos, and Glazunov. At the same time I was performing in improv classes with Jerry Bergonzi, Ken Schaphorst, and Bob Moses. I also studied microtonality with the late-great Joe Maneri. I thank the Lord that I made it out of NEC in one piece!

AAJ: Do you view yourself as a jazz artist?

DB: Most people would categorize me as a jazz artist. That works for me. I actually perform jazz standards on quite a few gigs. I have been labeled as the experimental folk jazz guy, but I actually love playing standards as well. To me it's all just music! All I care about is entertaining and uplifting my audience. I don't follow jazz trends at all. A good friend of mine once told me that great music should always give you chills down your spine. I took his advice. I won't listen to music or write music unless I get chills! I really mean that.

AAJ: When you came to New York, did you have in mind following the traditional jazz route of being in a noted band as a sideman? Or is that, at this point, an outdated mode for success in the industry?

DB: Wow, great question! I believe that every artist should hone their skills by playing as a sideman. Being around older, experienced musicians is so crucial! Unfortunately, the apprenticeship model is dying. But I really do think that it's important to constantly learn from the older generations.

Most people would probably be surprised to hear that from me. People seem to think that I write music in a vacuum. Nothing could be further from the truth. I constantly challenge myself to play sideman dates in as many different settings as possible. I spent three years playing in a world-renowned Armenian folk-jazz ensemble called Musaner. The group was comprised of some cutting-edge veteran musicians from the Boston area. We toured Italy and Switzerland and played some great shows around New England. I learned a lot during that time.

AAJ: Who were the veteran Boston cats that you worked with?

Daniel Bennett Group—The Legend of Bear ThompsonDB: Musaner had some amazing players I got to work with while I was in Boston. Ken Field was the lead alto player in the band. Ken also leads the renowned Revolutionary Snake Ensemble. The group had a rotating cast of top rhythm section players. Mike Rivard of Club d'Elf would play bass on some gigs, along with Blake Newman. Blake is one of my favorite bassists to work with. I still hire Blake whenever I am playing in Boston. He has been on the Boston scene for close to 20 years.

In addition to my work with Musaner, I was able to work with other veteran musicians, like bassists Bruce Gertz and Bruno Raberg. Another great Boston player is pianist Michael Shea. Michael and I performed together a few times and we used to jam somewhat regularly during my last year in Boston. Michael is a true journeyman and Boston legend. I learned a lot from him.

I think my biggest thrill was sharing a double bill with legendary Boston saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. As I mentioned earlier, Jerry was also my teacher at the New England Conservatory. My band performed with Jerry's trio at the Cambridge YMCA Theatre back in 2007. I think I studied every single note that came out of his saxophone during that concert! Jerry is also one of the kindest and most gracious people I have ever known.

AAJ: Very few relatively new artists come out with a series of thematically related recordings as the first pieces of their discography. Please talk about each of your five recordings. And what is this Bear thing all about—could you please explain that for our readers?

DB: Our debut album was We are Not Defeated (Tri-Head, 2004). It was really a crash course in our early folk-jazz concept. At that time, our music had a very raw quality that leaned towards folk rock more than jazz. As time progressed I began composing songs that featured more improvisation and a more balanced fusion of jazz and folk. Keep in mind I had no real reference point for this music. Very few prominent saxophonists have ventured into the American folk realm. Jimmy Giuffre is one of the few saxophonists who dared to explore folk music pretty extensively. Oddly enough, I think Ornette Coleman also has a certain folk twang in his sound.

I developed the bear concept in the winter of 2004. I had ten compositions that were ready for release, and a very active trio that consisted of Chris Hersch on acoustic guitar, John Servo on bass and myself on alto sax and flute. I have a real love for visual art, specifically cartoon animation. I wanted to create a concept where an artist would develop a storyline based on the music. I teamed up with Timothy Banks. Timothy has done work for Cartoon Network and a host of other great companies. I created a world of fictitious bears and let Timothy take the story in his own direction, and the result was A Nation of Bears (Bennett Alliance, 2007).
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