Sun, 28 Sep 2003

David Benoit: A smooth operator staying true to himself

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Jazz pianist David Benoit felt he had to give a proper greeting to his audience, so he asked for the lights to be turned up.

But it took the lighting person in the Mutiara Ballroom of Gran Melia Hotel, South Jakarta, a few long minutes to figure out the instruction.

So, he went ahead and greeted them anyway.

Benoit has every right to treat Indonesian audiences with due respect; they love the fact that he keeps coming back, with the concert last Wednesday his fourth visit here.

I saw him in Bandung in 1996 when Benoit shared the stage with guitarist Earl Klugh. It was a great concert, and the same can be said for the one last week.

Accompanied by a drummer, a bassist and a sax player, Benoit played with his trademark virtuosity, belting out around 15 songs to an enthusiastic audience.

Kicking off the concert with Snap, an upbeat number from last year's album Fuzzy Logic, he offered up old hits, like Kei's Song, Every Step of The Way and the Charlie Brown Theme, and new ones from the new album Right Here Right Now.

Released last week, the album is Benoit's 23rd recording (the 15th with the noted GRP record label) in his 25-year-career. Yet he says it will be his last with GRP as he has decided to move on.

According to Benoit, management changes have led to the label interfering too much in the creativity process, and it's something that bugs him.

On the morning prior to the concert, The Jakarta Post and a few other local media had the opportunity to interview him on topics such as the trend in major record companies swallowing up smaller labels, the jazz scene today and how he still hopes to win a Grammy.

Here is an excerpt of the interview.

The Jakarta Post: It's the fourth time you've come here. Do you like Indonesia that much?

David Benoit: Well, the Indonesians must really like me (laughs). Yes, I do like Indonesia. A lot of my friends are really surprised that I still want to come, with all the bombings.

But we have to share the music with the world, that's our job. If we stop doing it, that's exactly what the terrorists want. They want us to be afraid.

Terrorism, the 9/11 tragedy -- does it affect your creativity?

I wrote a very orchestral emotional piece, but the record label doesn't want that kind of music (on my latest album). It's a very different kind of time we're in right now. Record companies, they're very conservative, and they want to stick to one, you know, just keep it happy (laughs). So, I'm planning to release this piece of music on my next record, to feature a lot more of my orchestral symphonic music.

Speaking about conservative, is that why Fuzzy Logic is musically different from your previous records?

Actually with Fuzzy Logic I wanted to try experimenting with some funky music, some European music.

The new record Right Here Right Now, I actually wanted to put on some more orchestral music on that album. But the record company said no, I have to be honest. I'd just have to be honest because that's just too bad. But it's also my last recording for that label so I can afford to be a little more honest (laughs).

So, I'm looking for a new record label, the way they used to be -- which was very friendly about artists and letting them do what they wanted. So, I'm looking to get back to that situation.

So, you will no longer be with GRP?

Doesn't look like it. They have, surprisingly, made an offer to have me stay. But I have four other offers from other recording labels. All smaller labels. So, I'm looking at all those offers.

But the most important thing with anybody is letting me be creative, not just fitting into the narrow category of smooth jazz.

Because I've always in my career as, you know, been able to do different kinds of records. So, this is just a recent thing where the record company has changed their rules.

You've been nominated for a Grammy Award three times but never won one. How do you feel about that?

It's a mixed feeling. To be nominated for a Grammy Award is really a big accomplishment in terms of the overall. I'm happy just to be nominated.

But that's one reason for the record company, because if we're just making music that is just really average, there's less chance to win a Grammy. When you win the Grammy, that means you've come up with something that is musically brilliant.

So my song about 9/11 has more chance to win the Grammy than (doing a cover of Herbie Hancock's classic) Watermelon Man (laughs). I mean, I just wanna be given the chance to at least do what I think can get me a Grammy. Although, like I say, I'm happy just to be nominated.

There is that prolonged debate with purists who think that smooth jazz is not jazz. How do you position yourself on that ...?

I'm somewhere in the middle. Being one of the people who started smooth jazz, I need to be allowed to do other things. I like all kinds of music. I'm not a purist, no.

I just don't want to have those restrictions from a record company to do just smooth jazz. I do smooth jazz but it's not enough for me, 'cause there's not enough musical substance in it, you need to do other stuff. It's important to do other things.

You're also working on a play about Marilyn Monroe, right?

Yes, it's a musical called Something's Gotta Give, with 18 songs in it. I hope to get started on that again, that has been a long process. This is in the third year.

I recorded the title song from that musical on the new album, but it was taken off by the record company. They said, "No Broadway show music, this is smooth jazz, stick to that".

Is that what the market really wants or the record company just doesn't want to take the risk?

The large companies just don't want to take risks. The music downloading problem has just killed all the sales in America. And so now they're just so afraid they don't want any music that sounds too far out.

It was very shocking to all of us when the label asked us -- not even asked us, they told us -- to take the song off. There were the calls to the attorney, and I felt the best thing to do was to give me the copyright back in the ownership, so that I could put it out on other record.

Will the unwillingness to take the risk kill new talent?

I guess so, I think it's a big concern. I think part of the problem is that when GRP started it, it was just two men: Larry Rosen and Dave Grusin. They love music and they promoted it.

And then it was butt out, like Universal. And Universal put a guy in there whose only concerned about sales, and not about the music.

That's a trend right now because of these huge corporations buying small labels. They have more control and more power to tell artists what to do.

Do you think the 9/11 tragedy has had such a huge impact on the jazz music scene? You know, like in the 1930s when swing shifted to bebop?

I don't think there is any real influence. It certainly changes the way we live. But I see a lot of artists are going back to the old classic standards, like Diana Krall.

Why is that?

I think people are looking for melody again. I think the rap movement changed music, and in a good way. But it is less melody oriented and more beat oriented, with drum loops and everything.

It's the same in Europe now with popular music called chill music, with this drum beat, jazz sample ... but it's all based on drum patterns.

Do you think the emergence of Norah Jones has really changed the jazz music scene?

I think it's been great, the emergence of Norah Jones. She's bringing back the melody song instead of this just drum pattern, and monotonous drum beat.

Like in Don't Know Why, we can't barely hear the drums (humming the song).. the important thing is that melody.

When I first heard it on the radio, I hadn't heard anything like that for so long. I was like, Wow, who is this?.

Again, she stuck to her beliefs. I think what she's doing is great. I think she sort of started a trend that I'm excited about, OK, let's get back to some songs again (laughs).

That's why I decided to cover her song (on his latest album).

Later that night, Benoit retouched that very song, accompanied by local singer Nina from pop group Warna. It was not a very appropriate choice, given Nina's less jazzy vocals.

Before that, singer Glenn Fredly also popped out on stage, singing Earth, Wind and Fire's seminal hit After the Love Has Gone. Not bad, but the appearance of the two local singers seemed a bit unnecessary.

Still, it was pretty liberating that amid all the tragedy and fears surrounding us here, we still got the chance to watch a world-class performance from a loyal friend. At prices up to Rp 450,000 it was a pretty expensive treat, but it was worth every penny.