MICHAEL BENEDICT JAZZ VIBES
The New Beat
by J Hunter
Yes, I'm well aware of the post-Vernal Equinox snowstorms that have hit us over the years, including the one a couple of weeks ago that turned cars into weapons. But eventually, you just have to take a chance, pop your head out of the burrow, and yell, IT'S SPRINGTIME! LET'S PARTY! And if you're going to party, therefore it follows that you need party music.
Please welcome the latest addition to the list of Great Local Party Discs: Michael Benedict Jazz Vibes' The New Beat. Benedict is better known (on the jazz side, anyway) as a big-band leader who's also played with Pete Malinverni, Loren Schoenberg, and J.R. Monterose. On The New Beat, Benedict steps behind the vibraphone after years on drums, and he leads a tight quintet in a journey through the basics of bossa nova.
It's not that the music is basic; rather, The New Beat is a primer on the seminal composers and pop-culture moments that fueled the bossa craze of the late 50s and early 60s. The recordings of Stan Getz - with Charlie Byrd, and with João and Astrud Gilberto - brought it to the masses, as did the film Black Orpheus, but those were just delivery systems. It all started with a small group of Brazilian songwriters (including Gilberto) whose expansions on samba melded with the West Coast sound to make us dance a little, smile a little more, and get in touch with our inner groove thing.
You can't talk about bossa without talking about Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Benedict serves up three of Jobim's best-known compositions - two as a launch point, and one as an exclamation point. Triste gives The New Beat a sparkling opener, immediately entrancing you with a sultry approach that's subtly enhanced by Mark Foster's drums and Brian Melick's percussion. Melick keeps injecting accents and variations that keep the disc interesting, and he teams with Foster to bring the closer One Note Samba to a wild climax. Pouring concrete on the overall foundation is bassist Linda Brown, who holds the disc steady through every course change.
Desafinado is the bossa equivalent of Stairway to Heaven, in that getting away from the recording that made it famous is practically impossible. Benedict sticks pretty close to Getz' original arrangement, but Benedict's vibes go the other way from the lazy, come-hither tenor that baited the original hook. While Getz's solo flirted with a casual stance on Jobim's best-known work, Benedict's performance glows and echoes with love for the tune's subject. Contrast comes - as it does throughout the disc - from pianist Greg Speck. Along with giving the set a haunting dual-keyboard tone, Speck maintains the energy of Benedict while taking a few miles-an-hour off the overall attack.
At least five Jobim tributes have been released in the last year, and Benedict could have easily followed that path. Instead, he wisely showcases other bossa artists and outlets: Luiz Bonfa's theme to Black Orpheus was key to breaking bossa worldwide, and Benedict reminds us why it was all so alluring. The two tender takes on Gary McFarland - Eye of the Devil and Once We Loved - show Jobim's profound influence on the star-crossed composer. Boplicity is Birth of the Cool-era Miles made intimate. Coltrane may have covered Afro Blue, but it was Cal Tjader's version of the Mongo Santamaria comp that took it to the West Coast, and Benedict revisits that long cool trip; the closing call-and-answer between Benedict and the percussionists gets more feverish with each exchange, and is my favorite moment on the disc.
After a winter like the last one, you deserve to pull the Hawaiian shirt out of the space bag, dust off the margarita mix, and crank up the blender. It's not hot enough for shorts yet, but give it time. In the meantime, The New Beat makes a great soundtrack for that first Saturday night on the deck, or that first moonlight drive.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.