Tucked away in academia are a number of talented jazz artists who definitely deserve recognition for their abilities. Jeff Benedict is decidedly one of these worthy musicians.
A member of the faculty of California State University, Los Angeles since 1989 and the director of the school's Jazz Studies program since 1993, Benedict is a solid bebop-based alto saxophonist with a robust sound, agile technical facility and fertile melodic imagination. That he has something to say and a swell way of saying it is made manifest by Standard Fare, his latest album for the burgeoning Orange County-based Resurgent Music label.
Benedict's Resurgent debut, 1995's Castle Creek Shuffle, was an attractive assortment of originals. Standard Fare, is, by contrast, a look at classic jazz and pop songs, touching on such favorites as John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and Johnny Green's "Body and Soul."
Colorado Springs, Colorado native Benedict, who has been a professional saxophonist since he was 15, has long revered standards, and enjoyed playing them. Still, he hadn't felt like recording a batch of hem because he wasn't sure what he had to offer that hadn't already been played by some of the greats.
"I had to get over that and see that whatever I have to say is what I have to say," notes Benedict. "If I record 'Body And Soul" it doesn't mean I think I have something to tell Coleman Hawkins. I had no illusion that I would create something as forceful as the originals. Rather, I wanted to offer something in tribute to the people that wrote these songs, and my favorite players" who played them.
In some cases, as with "Giant Steps," Herbie Hancock's "Dolphin Dance" and Joe Henderson's "Recordame," these would be one in the same. For example, pianist Hancock's Iyrical "Dance" was premiered on his classic 1964 Blue Note album, "Maiden Voyage." I always liked Herbie's tunes on that album," says Benedict.
Other numbers that had stuck with Benedict over the years were Ellington's perky blues, "Take The Coltrane," from "Duke Ellington and John Coltrane" (Impulse!); Toshiko Akiyoshi's lilting samba, "Warning: Success Can Be Hazardous To Your Health," which Benedict had played with the pianist/composer when she was a guest at the University of Texas; and Henry Mancini's Iyrical "Days Of Wine And Roses."
Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You" drew Benedict's attention when he saw the superb documentary, "Straight, No Chaser." "There was a clip in the film where this was played and it knocked me out," says Benedict. The Gershwins' "A Foggy Day" gets an unusual treatment. The format varies between a pleasingly edgy vamp and the number's regular chord changes, an arrangement offered by Paul DeCastro, one of Benedict's former students. "It's an example of the great things you can get from students," says the leader.
Rounding out the set are two Benedict tunes dedicated to his wife, Lena: the eponymously-titled number, and the bubbling "Pineapple Head." "This is a happy, carefree piece, written for the way Lena looks when she puts her hair on top of her head," says Jeff.
Benedict's cast of characters was assembled from the large pool of first class musicians that populate Los Angeles and its environs. Trumpeter Steve Huffsteter has played in jazz orchestras led by Stan Kenton, Louie Bellson, Toshiko Akiyoshi (he was a soloist on the debut recording of "Warning" in the mid-'70s) and Bob Florence, and with the small groups of Willie Bobo and Cecilia Coleman.
Pianist Coleman has been active in Los Angeles jazz circles for over ten years, appearing with saxophonist Dan St. Marseille, bassist Henry Franklin and leading her own quintet. She has recorded two albums for Resurgent as a leader, Home and Young And Foolish, and as a sideman on recordings by St. Marseille and Franklin. Bassist Bart Samolis, who also performed on Castle Creek Shuffle, is a member of the faculty at Cal State Los Angeles, teaching acoustic and electric bass. Samolis, and the exuberant drummer Dean Koba, a native of Hawaii, both perform regularly around the Los Angeles area.
"They all played great," observes Benedict, who expected no less.
Jeff Benedict started piano studies at age six in Denver, where his family had moved. At age ten, in fifth grade, he began to play saxophone, though he had wanted to play clarinet because he'd heard his dad's Benny Goodman records.
At age 12, Benedict landed a spot in Joy Cayler's Brass Beat For The '70s, a big band led by a female trumpet player who worked almost every weekend. "I made ten bucks a gig and I learned how to sight read," says Jeff.
Jazz really didn't take a major place in Benedict's life until he was in college at the University of Denver. "I heard Miles Davis' Milestones and Kind of Blue and Cannonball Adderley knocked me out," says the leader. "There was so much joyousness in his playing, his sound. I had never heard anybody play with that much drive." Soon thereafter, Benedict discovered Phil Woods, who remains an influence. Of today's players, he's fully appreciative of Kenny Garrett.
Benedict earned a B.M. in Saxophone Performance in 1980 and an M.A. in composition in 1982 from the University of Denver, and began his teaching career soon thereafter at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. He returned to college in 1986 to study classical saxophone with Harvey Pittel, obtaining his D.M.A. in Saxophone Performance from the University of Texas in 1992.
Of classical music, Benedict observes, "There's no place to hide. You have to dig in. The idiom demands more of you."
Before joining Cal State L.A., he became associated with the Aspen Jazz Ensemble, where he played alongside such notables as Akiyoshi, Woods and Gary Burton and such up-and-coming youths as saxophonist Chris Potter and trumpeter Ryan Kisor.
Among the other ensembles and artists that Benedict has performed with are the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, the Tanglewood Fellowship Orchestra, the Denver Symphony, the HMA Salsa Jazz Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis and Randy Brecker.
As much as Benedict relishes performing, there is something about teaching that touches him deeply. "School provides an opportunity to be immersed in a conversation for the truth in art - it's not always about what will sell and what won't," he says. "You don't have to compromise the music. In a way, it's like a greenhouse for artistic integrity."
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