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.
This time around we feature the work and the comments of a real up and comer on the music scene. Which scene is more difficult to define as the music of Rhian Benson has variously been described as ‘neo soul’ ‘the next big thing in soul’ and ‘a mélange of R & B, soul, jazz, reggae, hip hop and world beat’.
The Secret Garden was in San Diego to check Rhian out at a KIFM supported promotion she was doing at Borders Books and Music. A few weeks later, when she visited England to perform at Ronnie Scott’s and the Jazz Café, and also to open for Macy Gray, we caught up with her to talk about her music and her career so far. We started by asking Rhian why it is so important to her to break into the UK market. After all she is based in the USA where a huge market awaits for her radio ready music, she tours there, and has had her debut album on release there for almost eight months.
‘In a lot of ways’ she explains, ‘its about personal reasons. It’s where this whole love affair with music began. I started out by doing open microphone sessions in London and then, quite implausibly, I was approached by the people setting up what was then a brand new label, DKG. We were all in at the ground floor of the venture together and although for a British based artist it would have been the norm to attempt to become established at home before turning to the USA market, for me all that happened in reverse. I was invited to move to LA where one thing just led to another. I also like playing to UK audiences’, she continues. ‘They connect with an artist and demonstrate amazing depths of loyalty’.
When we asked Rhian about the wide range of musical styles and genres she touches on over the 13 tracks that make up her album she was very clear in her views.
‘I want my fans to take from the music whatever they find’ she says. ‘People have come up to me after a show and compared me to Phyllis Hyman. Others have likened me to Stevie Nicks. That’s all OK. I don’t particularly want to categorize. I enjoy embracing a mixture of styles. Probably the defining factor of all the tracks on the album’, she adds, ‘is that they are very groove based tracks’. The collection of musicians that played with me on the album guaranteed that. Ultimately that’s what audiences are looking for, the opportunity to groove with the music’.
Gold Coast is her debut album that features the vocalist interpreting 13 songs that she wrote and co-produced with James Poyser (Lauryn Hill, the Roots, Jill Scott) and Bob Power (D'Angelo, A Tribe Called Quest, Erykah Badu). Her warm, jazz-influenced vocals are a natural result of her strong musical heritage and by being nourished and encouraged by the profusion of music and musicians that surrounded her during her upbringing in Africa, India, and England. Gold Coast opens with ‘Words Hurt Too’, a sad ballad about the insensitive remarks that can cause a great relationship to go wrong. Benson's sensitive interpretation truly captures the essence of heartbreak. On ‘The One,’ you can feel the sincerity in her voice. Benson also makes her listeners aware of her exceptional songwriting skills. Her creative use of metaphors makes her songs extremely simpatico especially on such songs as ‘Stealing My Peace of Mind’, ‘Invincible’, and ‘Gold Sky’. Benson closes the set with ‘Spirit’, a peaceful Ashanti ballad that delivers a sense of serenity, encouragement, and assurance to those seeking their way in life. Her voice is calm and assuring as she sings in the Ghanaian language over soft guitar chords and emotional string arrangements. Joined by world-class musicians including Roy Hargrove on horns, Ndugu Chancler on drums, Alphonso Johnson on acoustic bass, and many others, Benson has brought an uncomplicated innocence to her music.
That this diversity knows no bounds is well demonstrated by the hip-hop remix of her US top ten urban a/c hit ‘Say How You Feel’. It was decided to use the success of the single to widen appeal to other audiences. Rhian got together with another up comer in the world of soul, Dwele, who added a verse. It happened that Dwele and Slum Village shared the same management and the project developed from there with all three artists collaborating. The outcome is impressive and can be checked out at Rhian’s own excellent website www.rhianbenson.com.
Rhian went on to talk about her involvement with the BET channel on US television and her role of hosting their lifestyle and music show titled Gold Coast.
‘It all came about’ she explains ‘with my connections with BET Jazz. They asked me to perform in my home country of Ghana as part of the Ghana Jazz Festival. From there and from my connections in that country the idea for the program developed and as well as using it as a showcase for new music performers it has also proved useful in helping dispel some of the myths about Africa and its image as being a loose connection of war torn states littered with starving children. This is not how I remember Africa’, she recalls ‘and I think its important to provide that balance to show people that the country is, in the main, a well organized and well functioning economy’.
The show airs to a worldwide audience in excess of 70 million and a new series is being planned for the end of 2004.
The Secret Garden asked Rhian about her appearance at the JVC Jazz Festival in Miami where she played on the same bill as Kenny G. How was it, we wondered, to meet the smooth jazz legend and did she perceive any differences in how smooth jazz audiences enjoy their live music.
‘Kenny was awesome’ she reflects. ‘I found him very attentive and complementary about my music. He took time to check out my set and even gave me a big shout during his session on stage. Its very unusual for a headliner to do that’. On the vibe generated by the audience she comments that ‘the one thing smooth jazz audiences are looking for is high quality music. Outside of that they welcome variations in styles’. She cites the ability of Chris Botti, who she has worked with, to mix smooth jazz with eastern influences and straight ahead pieces all to the rapture of his live fans.
‘All in all’ Rhian says ‘I look forward to the opportunity of reaching out to more smooth jazz audiences’.
Rhian continued by talking about some of her musical icons past and present and what the next couple of months have in store for her.
‘People like Dinah Washington, Nina Simone and Bob Marley have been huge factors in my musical heritage’ she says. ‘The way his fans felt the spirit of Marley was amazing and his influence, as well as that of others, always inspires me to be more courageous with my music’. Of the current crop of superstars she singles out Sade as someone she would love to emulate. ‘To go away for eight years and return with a new album to find all her fans are still out there waiting for her is truly incredible. She is just always in control of the process’ she observes. ‘Every step of the way and without ever the need to compromise’.
For someone who started out in Ghana, moved to India, back to Ghana then The London School Of Economics, Harvard, London and now LA, one would think there would be no one place in the world that would hold any special attraction. However the date she is scheduled to play in Cardiff on August 1 2004, as part of the Big Weekend Festival, promises to be very special indeed. Her mother is Welsh and Rhian will be appearing on the same bill as a band she has been a big fan of over the years, The Brand New Heavies. ‘Its going to be really thrilling’ she says ‘and I am sure to be a little star struck too’.
After that, and an appearance at the Jazz Café the following week, the next big event will be the UK release of Gold Coast in September. The album has already enjoyed pre release airplay on Jazz FM 102.2 as their featured album of the week. It is no surprise that the first UK single from the album will the album version of ‘Say How I Feel’.
For someone who’s life and career is on so much of an up curve The Secret Garden just had to find out one thing about Rhian Benson that was not perfect. The answer came in the gastronomic delights of LA. Hard as she tries she has been unable to find a really great Indian restaurant in the city, a further reason for making her frequent visits to the UK that much more enjoyable. Californian restaurateurs please take note.
Rhian Benson is clearly a performer with a future. Gold Coast is a tapestry of differing flavors and moods all rooted in the groove and mounted upon a soulful jazz foundation. She thanks and is grateful to those who have already allowed Gold Coast into their lives and looks forward to reaching out to smooth jazz fans wherever she is able to connect with them.
Mark September in your diary and check out Gold Coast.
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 24, 2004 3:23 PM