After 40 years as a contemporary jazz pioneer, piano great David Benoit remains committed to evolving and innovating sonically and rhythmically - bringing the kind fresh stylistic surprises that makes his latest album A Midnight Rendezvous such a compelling, multi-faceted delight. Beyond his trademark batch of lyrical, wildly melodic high octane gems featuring longtime associates like Jeff Lorber, Pat Kelley and John Robinson – and engaging re-imaginings of hits by Maren Morris and old pal Dave Koz – the most exciting aspect of the new collection is that it marks Benoit’s first time ever recording with a big band.
For all the sparkling fun and engaging melodicism and groove that come before them, the three tunes featuring his bold brass arrangements – powerful reworkings of his straight ahead classics “Waiting for Spring” and the cookin’ “Cabin Fever” and the charming, whimsy-filled new tune “Generations” – form the emotional centerpiece of the collection.
With the show billed as David Benoit with the Midnight Rendezvous Big Band, anticipation was high for the CD release party event at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Grill Jazz – which also marked the pianist’s first performance ever at the iconic L.A. venue. But even before the full nine-piece horn section was seated and ready to roar, Benoit reminded us just how he’s stayed so creative and relevant decades after his inimitable, soulful and adventurous vibe set the standard for the sound that evolved into “smooth jazz.”
It’s always been about playing off the energy of his incredible ensembles – and this performance was all about showcasing the fresh dynamics of his explosive new relationships with veteran bassist Roberto Vally (a legendary genre sideman whose subtleties and groove intensity takes everything on A Midnight Rendezvous to the next level) and saxophonist Justin Klunk, who has toured with, among others, pop superstar Ariana Grande. Vally was stellar throughout, his fascinatin’ rhythms poppin’ powerfully and intuitively with drummer Dan Schnell on a repertoire that took us across decades of Benoit’s career, starting in the present (with the lighthearted funk jam “Pioneer Town”) and time traveling delightfully for the still-magical pop-jazz classics “Kei’s Song” and “Freedom at Midnight” and “Letter To Evan,” an easy swinging romp from the early 90s.
During the first half of the show, Klunk’s artful soprano on the Benoit/Vally composed “Long Journey Home” and reflective “@Home” and his alto dazzle on “Vernazza” were tonally on par with the seemingly thousands of great performances Eric Marienthal has done with Benoit over the years.
Shifting then to the dual role of pianist/conductor of the Midnight Rendezvous Band, Benoit delivered on the great promise of the evening in unexpected ways, paving the way for the rousing album numbers “Generations,” “Waiting for Spring” and “Cabin Fever” with sizzling and imaginative arrangements of two exuberant tracks from his 2006 album Full Circle, “Beat Street” and the speedy samba “Café Rio,” which included freewheeling dialogue between the main piano vamp and the fiery horns. The most impactful surprise of the set was the big wow, constantly and intriguingly tempo shifting and boisterous spin through “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” whose arrangement was based on a Phil Wilson chart for the Buddy Rich Big Band.
Before rolling into “Generations” – whose free flowing melody rides over a similar swirl of tempos – Benoit mentioned the inspiration behind the song. It was from a show he once did with fellow pianists Dave Brubeck and Taylor Eigsti. Put together by contractor Darryl Tanakawa, Benoit’s brass ensemble included Klunk and featured blistering sax solos by Brian Scanlon and Mike Nelson.
Now that Benoit’s put his proverbial toes in the big band waters, perhaps we can imagine future albums with more than three tracks – and maybe, a bit down the road, a full album featuring large horn ensemble arrangements of his greatest hits.