Welcome to the latest issue of Denis Poole’s Secret Garden, the page that offers a British perspective on all that’s good, and not so good, in the world of smooth jazz and classic soul.
There can no more atmospheric open air venue for smooth jazz than the Thornton Winery in Temecula CA. Deep in the California wine country, forty miles north east of San Diego on I-15, this working winery combines the production of fine wines with a high quality restaurant and a large open space that, when the crème de la crème of smooth jazz artists come to town, converts perfectly to a concert venue. For several years now the Thornton Winery has played host to smooth jazz greats, usually performing on lazy Sunday afternoons under the heat of the California sunshine.
On June 26 it was the turn of the Benoit Freeman Project to play there in what was, for Thornton’s, one of the less frequent Saturday evening events and what an evening it turned out to be. It has to be said that a night out at the Winery is no cheap ticket. As well as the price of admission the audience is encouraged to purchase wine, strictly by the bottle, to enjoy with the music and to eat from the lavish buffet tables. In a way, this sets the tone for the affluent middle class clientele to enjoy every sensation of the evening, the wine, the food, the sunshine and of course the music.
On tour to promote their latest album release The Benoit Freeman Project 2, the music that these sophisticates of smooth jazz provided was perfect for the occasion. Resplendent in black, and complete with obligatory shades, never have two guys looked more like smooth jazz musicians than did Benoit and Freeman on that evening. Their tight backing consisted of Jamie Tate on drums and Melvyn Davis on bass with the excellent David Pack, a long time associate of Benoit, providing the vocals. Pack also handles the vocals on track #3 of the CD, a tune named ‘Montecito’.
The Benoit Freeman Project 2 is a high quality piece of work and comes ten years after the first collaboration between these two. However that’s not quite true to say. Although The Benoit Freeman Project CD was released in 1994, the two of them were founding members of the Rippingtons. Guitarist Russ Freeman originally planned the Rippingtons as a changing lineup of strong contemporary jazz musicians and assembled the first version of the band for the album Moonlighting in 1986 which featured David Benoit on piano and Brandon Fields, Dave Koz and Kenny G on saxophones. Kilimanjaro, their first album to break into the pop charts followed in 1988. The group were signed to GRP in 1989 with classic albums such as Tourist In Paradise, Welcome To The St James Club and 1991's Curves Ahead all following. By 1993 the Rippingtons had solidified into a steady six-piece group including Russ Freeman, Dave Kochanski on keyboards, Jeff Kashiwa on saxophone, Kim Stone on bass, Tony Morales on drums, and Steve Reid on percussion. Then, in 1994, Freeman hooked up with old partner David Benoit for the The Benoit Freeman Project. Later that year came Sahara which altered the band's billing from ‘The Rippingtons Featuring Russ Freeman’ to ‘Russ Freeman & The Rippingtons’.
Accused by some of having recorded more than his share of forgettable smooth jazz albums in a career that has had more than a few ups and downs, David Benoit can still boast a considerable catalogue of quality work. A GRP recording artist since 1986 his recordings on this label encompass a wide range of jazz styles, from contemporary pop to straight ahead bebop, orchestral, and hip hop. Among the highlights of his discography are 1988's Every Step of the Way, nominated for a Grammy in the ‘Best Jazz Fusion’ category; 1989's Waiting for Spring, which for eight weeks topped Billboard's traditional jazz chart; and 1992's Letter to Evan, a heartfelt tribute to the late jazz piano giant, ‘Bill Evans’.
He has never been afraid to mix things up either. In 2002 Benoit developed an entire live musical tribute to Charles Schulz's beloved comic strip, Peanuts. The show featured a full orchestra, arranged and conducted by Benoit, performing a variety of music, including the melodies composed by the late Vince Guaraldi for the classic ‘Peanuts’ TV specials. Benoit also composed and performed a classical piece for piano and orchestra, The Peanuts Gallery, commissioned by Carnegie Hall and he has since brought the show to various parts of the United States.
He then did a complete turn around with his next release on GRP, Fuzzy Logic, that he describes as 'retro,' a return to what he calls the real boogaloo, grooving, old-style stuff. With a production team on the record that included Rick Braun, and Stuart Wade of Down To The Bone, Benoit, looked to emulate some of his favorite bands such as Tower Of Power and Chicago with a big horn section and by playing a lot of Hammond organ. It worked well.
Back to 2004 and Benoit Freeman Project 2 has already been described as ‘smooth jazz with a brain’. It certainly is not straight ahead acoustic jazz but it isn't an album of mindless ‘elevator music’ either. Most of the tracks, in fact the best of the tracks, are instrumental and often times the rhythms are enriched with an infectious Latin flavor.
The album opens with the excellent ‘Palmetto Park’ probably the best, certainly the most radio worthy track on the record, with a catchy tune and beautiful interchanging between guitar and piano. It’s a pure delight. Track #2 ‘Via Nueve’ incorporates a haunting melody and evokes a sentimentality that can, for those so inclined, make hairs stand up on the back of the neck. Its David Pack's turn to step up to the microphone on track #3 as he provides the vocals on the Freeman composition ‘Montecito’, which he does in a subtle low key and very effective way.
In the live performance more was made of Packs vocals and the audience loved him.
The unlikely appearance on the CD by country heavy weight Vince Gill with the vocals on track #5 ‘Two Survivors’ has been highly acclaimed but didn’t really cut it for the Secret Garden. Much better yet was the guest trumpet playing by Chris Botti on ‘Club Havana’ and ‘Struttin’. This latter tune was particularly well performed live at Thornton’s, albeit without the trumpet solo, and really got the place jumping. A little gem is reserved for the tenth and final track on the album, ‘Waiting For The Stars To Fall’. Its another Freeman solo composition that’s a beautiful, slow and evocative melody, tinged with sentimentality and designed to melt the coldest heart. Its music for lovers.
Benoit Freeman Project 2 is released on Freeman’s own Peak label and Benoit announced in Temecula that as of June 6 2004 he too had signed for the label. In doing so he becomes stable mate to The Rippingtons, Eric Marienthal, Braxton Brothers, Gato Barbieri, Paul Taylor, David Pack, Regina Belle and more. Benoit Freeman Project 2 has already been described by Art Good as one of the smooth jazz albums of the year. It’s beyond dispute that either live, or in the recording studio, Freeman Benoit have the creativity and skill to trigger a special kind of enjoyment and a whole range of emotions. Check this one out soon.
Do you have any comments on what you have found in this months Secret Garden? Do you have a favorite Smooth Soul Survivor that you would enjoy being featured in a future edition? If so please contact the Smooth Jazz Vibes Guest Book or e-mail me on DenisPoole2000@Yahoo.com.Posted by Denis Poole at July 12, 2004 4:08 PM