This recording reflects my musical “coming of age” in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It is an eclectic collection of tunes, but I think if you listen to it from beginning to end, you will find that there is a continuity of musical concept. I first met many of these musicians in that time span, and we have remained friends since.
The year was 1973, in Littleton, Colorado. I was 14 going on 15. I had been working for a little over a year in a 1940’s style dance band, playing the music of my parents’ generation. My mom had to drive me to every gig. I listened to my dad’s record collection – mostly Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington records. My dad loved Johnny Hodges, and his sound on the Alto Saxophone seemed somehow inevitable. I wrote my first arrangement for that band – a version of Les Brown’s “Leap Frog.” I got the trombone parts in the wrong octave, and it was a horrible mess – when the band played it, the whole thing sounded like mud. One of my friends was a trumpet player in that dance band, Brian Bettger, who plays trumpet on this recording. Soon thereafter, Brian got his license and a very cool car (a 1966 Thunderbird complete with factory 8-track stereo), and he became my driver to every rehearsal and gig – even my first dates were in the backseat of Brian’s Thunderbird. Riding in that fine car, he turned me on to the music of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago - I decided to try writing down some of their music and starting a band. I wrote charts like a madman – learning to arrange as I went. Every Sunday afternoon, I would carefully remove all of my mother’s furniture from the living room so that we could have a band rehearsal, and I would return it to its place afterward (if I had damaged even one lamp, that would have been the end of my dream). Soon we had a book sufficient to play a four-hour dance job. Our first gig was in 1974 at a junior high dance, and soon we were playing weddings and bar mitzvahs on a regular basis. The drummer’s father was a prominent saxophonist in Denver – the first working musician I ever met. On a particularly memorable Sunday afternoon, in the basement of their home, he introduced me to two big band recordings that altered my life: Quincy Jones’ “Smackwater Jack,” which became the basis for my first big band arrangements, and Pat Williams’ “Threshold,” which featured Tom Scott - I quite literally wore out two copies of that record learning to imitate his sound. Those recordings inspired me to learn to write arrangements, and to begin developing an identity as a musician. I heard Stanley Turrentine, George Benson, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, all of whom came through Denver in the late 70’s. In college, I came to know Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Michael Brecker, John Scofield and Pat Metheny. The music on this recording reflects all of these influences.
In those early years, I also learned the value of personal connections, and I experienced the magic of making music in an environment of love and support. The freedom to take chances and be creative. Many relationships I have developed with other kindred spirits have endured. The Jeff Benedict Big Band is made up of people with whom I have developed friendships over the course of years. Among the band members are fellow students of music going back as far as junior high school. Many from college and graduate school, and then, some who were students of mine as my teaching career unfolded. My most recent acquaintances in the band go back 20 years, and the earliest ones go back over 40 years. The music I wrote for this project is very difficult – it required a special effort for each of the musicians.
Moonscape is layered on a simple but catchy bass riff accompanied by a reggae-inspired drum groove, reflecting the influence of Michael Brecker and “Steps Ahead.” It is sort of a minor blues with a bridge – a good backdrop for soulful solos by Paul McKee and Jeff Ellwood, and when it finally becomes a shuffle, Dave Askren takes off his shoes, puts his feet up, and cruises to the end.
Ant Dance is so named because it is a groove that might inspire dancing, but in a meter of 9, which is divided as three groups of three. I thought it would be well suited for dancing if one had legs in groups of three. Ants, having six legs, would be well equipped for the task. The inspiration for this tune was the music of Pat Metheny, who is a master of “the build.” It starts low and builds, with an alto solo and then Dave Askren on guitar. The melody returns, and finally Jeff Hellmer plays some beautiful and spacious piano that builds to the end.
I wrote The Weather Is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful when I moved to L.A. in 1989. I was struck by the fantastic weather, and the Hollywood culture that seemed to value style over substance. The edginess of the tune was a counterbalance to the “everything is beautiful” mantra of the L.A. scene. Luckily for me, I have come to know the real L.A., which is an incredibly soulful city – you just have to know where to look for it. Jeff Hellmer takes the first solo, followed by Paul McKee. I first heard these two gentlemen at the Wichita Jazz Festival in 1980. They were playing in a rival college band that won the competition that year. I met them a few years later at the University of Texas, and we have been collaborators ever since. After a ridiculously difficult interlude by the band, you hear from Charlie Richard on baritone. Charlie and I have had overlapping paths since 1984 – I met him when he was playing with the band at Cal State L.A., and we have played together in almost every conceivable manner in the years since. Charlie is the finest baritone saxophonist I have ever known – he plays the thing in a a remarkably fluid manner. This quote sums it up: “Soloing on Baritone Saxophone is like driving a Grand Prix race in a garbage truck.” He makes it sound like a Maserati. The last solo is by Jeff Ellwood, who I first met when he was a freshman at Riverside City College, and who has become a fine teacher and one of the very best tenor saxophonists in L.A.
Armadillo Research is another tune based on the minor blues. I wrote it when I was in the throes of studying for my comprehensive exams for my doctoral degree. I was in the library at the University of Texas, procrastinating, and I wrote this tune instead of my doing my research. I take the first solo on this cut, followed by the ensemble, and then you hear again from Paul McKee. The last part of the tune features Dean Koba on drums. I met Dean at a rehearsal of the Kevin Mayse Big Band in 1995 (Kevin plays trumpet on this recording), and I convinced him to record with me on my 2nd CD back in 1996.
The Fotomat Song (Someday My Prints Will Come) is an arrangement of the famous Disney song from the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. I was coaching a student combo, and they needed one more tune for their upcoming concert. They had been playing the tune in its original waltz form, but I thought it would be better if we came up with an original way for them to play it. The drummer was burning nervous energy fiddling with a samba groove, so we put those two ideas together. I went to the piano and came up with the intro. They ended up playing it very well - I was inspired to expand the idea into a big band arrangement. One of the best things about students is that they have a way of inspiring creativity. Of course, nobody remembers Fotomat – we used to get our film developed there (film?) – but the obscurity of the reference is part of the fun.
I first heard Phil Woods in 1975 – in the same basement where I first heard Quincy Jones. He was on a Michel Legrand record entitled “Images.” I was so impressed by Phil’s expansive sound that I instantly had a new hero. Two years later, I heard his “Live at the Showboat” record, and I was never the same. In this arrangement, I transcribed Phil’s solo from Cheek to Cheek off of that record and harmonized it for 5 saxophones. I didn’t know what I was getting into - it is an extraordinarily challenging solo to replicate – it requires not only musical dexterity, but a good deal of physical stamina. It is one thing to play the notes, of which there are more than a few, but in order to sound at all like Phil you have to get a lot of sound out of the instrument, which requires a lot of air. It’s hard work to play it on Alto, but Charlie Richard plays the whole thing on the Baritone, which takes about twice as much air. If Phil were still with us, I like to think he would be honored by our tribute to him.
Tom and Jerry is a composition by Sandy Megas, a talented writer and kindred spirit I have known for almost 30 years. Sandy is a talented writer, and this tune fit squarely into the 1970’s theme of this recording. The title refers to Tom Scott and Jerry Hey, who were ubiquitous in the L.A. studios in the 1970’s, and it is solidly in the film music genre in which those two players were so prominent – it would be great theme music for a detective show, I think. I am featured along with one of my first musical partners in crime, Brian Bettger. I think Tom and Jerry would be pleased.
Miles Davis wrote Nardis for a 1958 Cannonball Adderley record called Portrait of Cannonball. I didn’t discover Cannonball until I was in college, but when I heard “Kind of Blue” for the fist time, I was never the same again. My inspiration for this arrangement was the music of John Scofield. I mixed the original swing groove with a funkier section that is sprinkled throughout.
The Mighty Dollar is a composition by David Arnay, who I met when he was a student at Cal State L.A. I was inspired by it’s joyful swagger, and I wanted to arrange it in the style of a New Orleans brass band. My concept included a Tuba as the bass instrument, but Jerry Amoury is such an amazing bass trombonist that I re-imagined the brass band with bass trombone instead. Jerry is one of the finest bass trombonists anywhere – we were both students at the University of Texas. After we graduated, we went separate ways – I became a college professor in Illinois, and Jerry went to Washington DC where he was in one of the top Army bands. I love Jerry’s playing, and I can’t imagine doing a big band recording without him.
Hikky Burr is from the aforementioned Quincy Jones record “Smackwater Jack.” It features Steve Hawk with some wild trumpet commentary as well as terrific solos by Jeff Ellwood and Dave Askren, and some great work by Jonathan Pintoff and the trombone section. Given the outsize influence Quincy Jones’ music has had on my musical career, I wanted to include this as a tribute to him. I met Steve at Texas as well – we were Teaching Assistants in the jazz area, and we shared an office. I knew Steve was going to be a lifetime friend the minute I met him – we just “clicked.” Steve is one of the finest lead trumpet players in the country, and a sterling human being – I am fortunate to have him on this record.
My thanks to all of the great musicians who shared their talent to make this recording, and to all of those whose influence is felt even though they are not here. I sincerely hope that listening to this recording affords you even a fraction of the joy that I have had in the making of it. Thank you for being a part of my musical journey.