The hugely accomplished, award-winning composer, director and performer evokes his smooth jazz roots with new release, Earthglow
By Brian Soergel
Pianist and composer David Benoit has surely squeezed the most out of his 57 years. He’s had a Grammy-nominated career with more than 30 CDs. He directs two orchestras. He’s composed film scores, signed on as music director for famed singers and performed for presidents and other dignitaries. His latest CD, Earthglow, is a return to his much beloved smooth jazz roots and is authentication of his stature as one of the genre’s founding fathers.
Where did it all begin for Benoit? Like most professional musicians, he took to music early––very early. His mother taught him a few runs on the family piano at age 5. At age 7, he remembers creating his first composition to impress his grandmother.
Fast forward a few years, past recitals and piano lessons with respected teachers. Benoit tells a story he swears he’s never told before. “The first time I remember getting payment for playing the piano I was about 14. I hadn’t been playing that long. Anyway, my parents took a vacation up the California coast and we stopped at this little place in Susanville. They knew the owner, who had an upright piano in the salon. I started playing it, people were listening, and someone tipped me 50 cents––and that was the first time I remember being paid to play the piano. A whopping 50 cents,” Benoit said.
A more traditional setting came two years later, when the young pianist was 16 and fronting the David Benoit Trio. They scored their first gig at the Stage Door Coffee House, which occupied the cramped back stage of the L.A. Philharmonic Auditorium. He doesn’t recall what his band was paid, but they played for an audience of 15 or 20 people. Benoit does remember garnering applause for one of his earliest original songs, “When You Were Gone.”
Like most musicians, Benoit continued to grow and expand his repertoire throughout his youth. As a senior at Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, California (Benoit was born in Bakersfield, but at age 8 his parents settled in Hermosa Beach), he played at weekend shows around town. This included solo gigs on his piano and in Top 40 bands. He also scored music for the school’s Broadway production.
By this time, Benoit already knew he wanted to be a professional musician. His training continued with music theory and composition at El Camino College, where he also studied orchestration. He enrolled in a film-scoring class at UCLA. Those early experiences would bear fruit in later years, as in 1995 he scored the soundtrack to the movie "The Stars Fell on Henrietta," and in 2006 realized a dream with the release of Orchestral Stories.
In his early 20s, Benoit took on the role of music director for three actresses who also doubled as singers: Lainie Kazan, as well as Connie Stevens and Ann-Margaret. (In 2005, Benoit produced and performed on a CD by Kazan, who is best known for her role in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding.")
Benoit’s solo career began in 1977 with an album offering a ponderous title: Heavier Than Yesterday. He’d release five more before realizing his popular and artistic breakthrough with 1987’s Freedom at Midnight. Benoit’s debut for GRP Records began an association that would last 16 years. That project included the title track, a song that still enjoys copious airplay today. “Nathan East (of Fourplay) came up with the groove. I had an idea for the chorus, and we put the two together,” Benoit said. “The title doesn’t really have any intrinsic meaning. My manager at the time had a home in Agoura and I was over there one day looking at his book collection. There was one called "Freedom at Midnight," which was about the independence of India.”
Since his solo debut, Benoit’s focused mostly on smooth jazz projects, a genre he’s proud of. He’s not calling himself a genius, but he does throw that word around when recalling musicians who have inspired him the most. “A lot of time, genius is in simplicity. Anyone can, in any field, be complicated and write extremely difficult things. That’s not genius to me, that’s just being intelligent. That’s all great, but genius is being able to somehow, in music at least, come up with something intellectually difficult and brilliant but also simple and popular. There have been a few able to bridge that divide. Vince Guaraldi did it. Miles Davis was pure genius, unbelievably brilliant, but he had a way of playing that trumpet that spoke to the average American––and that’s what Vince did, too.”
For Earthglow, Benoit sought to revisit a comfortable place for him musically. That included speaking to his longtime fans. For the first time in many years, Benoit chose not to recruit outside producers. Instead, he put longtime sound engineer Clark Germain in the spotlight. “I just felt it was time to go back to what my sound was and what worked well for me,” Benoit said. “Clark brought back the David Benoit kind of sound. He’s worked on the last 15 records and is pretty tight into what my sound is and what I’m about as an artist. He was great on second opinions and in the creative process.”
Where does Benoit’s musical inspiration come from? Sometimes it can be as simple as grooving to the radio. Recently, while Benoit was in a barber shop getting his hair trimmed, he heard the song “Unbelievable,” a 1991 dance hit from the U.K. group EMF, playing on the radio. Boom!That fortuitous haircut lead to Benoit’s fashioning of a song for Earthglow also called “Unbelievable,” which is loosely based on the EMF groove. Another tune, the smooth jazz hit “Will’s Chill,” was inspired by will.i.am of the hip-pop group Black Eyed Peas. “I’ve really liked what he’s done as a producer with Sergio Mendes,” said Benoit. “I like his rhythms and grooves. I was listening to ‘The Look of Love,’ what he did with that, and I based a little groove on it. I had no intention of ‘Will’s Chill’ being the title; it was going to be something like ‘Peruvian Sunset’ or ‘Tropical Groove,’ one of those generic smooth jazz titles. But ‘Will’s Chill’ stuck. It was a tribute, just a little nod to him.”
Earthglow also has two songs inspired not by producers, but by cats. Benoit said that those who flip through his catalog will see that he’s reached for feline inspiration previously. One of the new songs, “Brownie’s Gone,” takes its title from the family’s late Siamese cat. Two years ago, Brownie was featured on the Animal Planet show "Housecat Housecall." “Brownie was traumatized after the crew left,” Benoit said. “He got out one day and never came back.” **
**The complete David Benoit story can be found in the September issue of Smooth Jazz News. Pick up your free copy at our radio station affiliates (see radio station page for listings), various concerts, festivals and select Southern California outlets. Or you can subscribe and receive 11 issues of Smooth Jazz News per year, mailed monthly (except January), for $35. Click here to subscribe online today.
For more information on Koz, including his complete tour schedule, visit www.benoit.com.
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1977 Heavier Than Yesterday (Blue Moon)
1980 Can You Imagine (Blue Moon)
1982 Stages (Blue Moon)
1983 Christmastime (Blue Moon)
1983 Digits (Blue Moon)
1986 This Side Up (Spindletop)
1987 Freedom at Midnight (GRP)
1988 Every Step of the Way (GRP)
1989 Urban Daydreams(GRP)
1989 Waiting for Spring (GRP)
1990 Inner Motion (GRP)
1991 Shadows (GRP)
1992 Letter to Evan (GRP)
1994 Benoit/Freeman Project (GRP)
1994 Shaken Not Stirred(GRP)
1995 The Best of David Benoit, 1987-1995 (GRP)
1995 The Stars Fell on Henrietta (Varese Saraband)
1996 Remembering Christmas (GRP)
1997 American Landscape (GRP)
1998 Some Other Sunset (Intersound)
1999 Professional Dreamer(GRP)
2000 Here's to You, Charlie Brown! 50 Great Years! (GRP)
2002 Fuzzy Logic (GRP)
2003 Right Here, Right Now (GRP)
2004 Benoit/Freeman Project 2 (Peak)
2005 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas (Peak)
2006 Orchestral Stories (Peak)
2006 Full Circle (Peak)
2006 Standards (Kind of Blue)
2008 Heroes (Peak)
2008 Jazz for Peanuts (Peak)
2010 Earthglow (Heads Up)