On Heroes, his latest Peak Records release, five-time Grammy nominated pianist/composer arranger and producer David Benoit celebrates 30-plus years as a recording artist by putting fresh, exuberant spins on classic songs by legendary pop, rock and jazz artists whose brilliance inspired his own.
While paying homage to jazz piano icons Dave Grusin, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Horace Silver and Dave Brubeck, on Heroes he also lets those fans in on an exciting little secret--he's an unabashed lover of pop and rock music who was equally influenced by The Beatles, Elton John, Michael Jackson and The Doors. Benoit's re-imaginings of ten instantly recognizable hits by this array of artists paint a vivid portrait of the artist's own unique multi-faceted artistry.
Focusing more on intimacy, on Heroes, Benoit rediscovers his roots with a self-produced collection that features his Steinway piano surrounded by the engaging ensemble work of his regular touring band: acoustic and electric bassist David Hughes, drummer Jamey Tate, percussionist Brad Dutz and special guest saxophonist Andy Suzuki. The only other instrumentation is a string quartet featuring members of the Asia American Symphony-which Benoit has conducted for the past seven years-on a lush and poignant, classical flavored take on "She's Leaving Home." The pianist has long credited The Beatles 1967 landmark Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band-which included that track--as an album that changed his life.
"The process of choosing the songs, arranging them and recording the music on Heroes," Benoit says, "gave me a wonderful opportunity to pay tribute to artists like these who engaged my musical sensibilities throughout the years. The tracks chart the course from my childhood growing up in L.A.'s South Bay through my first professional gigs and even into my career as a jazz artist. I've done so much work over the years as an arranger, composer and conductor that it was nice to get back to my real bread and butter and make a true piano record.
"These songs are really a part of me and such a joy to play," he adds. "Being in the studio working with longtime friends was a very comfortable situation. I've covered Brubeck and Evans before, and ‘Blue Rondo A La Turk' is as much a staple of my live show now as ‘Linus and Lucy' once was. Oscar and Horace touched most pianists from my generation, and I'm a huge fan of Dave Grusin and was signed to his GRP label for many years. Beyond that, some of my other choices may surprise people, and that's exciting to think about. Listening back to some of these gave us goose bumps, and I want listeners to share in that excitement and magic that we felt in the studio. One of my favorite Peanuts strips has Charlie Brown walking into Schroeder's living room as Schroeder is listening to the stereo in a huge overcoat. Charlie Brown asks, ‘Schroeder, why do you have an overcoat on? His reply: "Because I get chills listening to Beethoven. That's the power of music."
Listening to Heroes is like taking a whimsical stroll through key consciousness shifting changing moments in Benoit's life. He considers Grusin's "Mountain Dance" one of contemporary jazz's finest compositions, and breaks from the traditional melody at one point for some lively improvisation with his core trio. Heroes' first single is "Human Nature," the hypnotic John Bettis-Steve Porcaro tune that was part of the historic Quincy Jones produced Thriller album and later covered by Miles Davis. Benoit's been an Elton John fan since his senior year in high school, and in recent years has come to appreciate John's talents as a pianist as well as an artist. On his recording of "Your Song," Benoit adds a jazz touch that captures the beautiful timelessness of the song's melody. As one of the first rock bands to incorporate rich keyboard textures into their music, The Doors captured the teenage Benoit immediately; he learned "Light My Fire" when he was 15, and his haunting and hypnotic arrangement does Ray Manzarek proud.
For "Never Can Say Goodbye," which he remembers playing on the Fender Rhodes at one of his first paid gigs when he was 17, Benoit creates a percussive Ramsey Lewis styled arrangement. After "She's Leaving Home," which gives listeners a glimpse into Benoit's other thriving career as a classical composer/conductor, he digs into the powerful traditional jazz influence of Horace Silver (on a coolly swinging, bass-driven take on "Song For My Father") and Oscar Peterson's "You Look Good To Me."
A lighthearted revisit of Bill Evans' "Waltz For Debby" keeps alive the tradition Benoit started when he recorded the song on 1985's This Side Up; he paid full homage to his hero on 1992's Letter To Evan. Before closing with a percussive piano/sax jam through Brubeck's "Blue Rondo A La Turk," Benoit spices Heroes with the album's one original composition, "A Twisted Little Etude," that draws directly from Brubeck's inimitable style.