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Daniel Bennett: The Bear Truth

Ludwig vanTrikt By

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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 Or is that, at this point, an outdated mode for success in the industry?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?

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