Daniel Bennett, jazz saxophonist: Something Else! Interview

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Daniel Bennett is a saxophonist originally hailing from the beautiful city of Rochester, New York. He is now based in New York City. The Daniel Bennett Group has released several albums, the latest of which Clockhead Goes to Camp has been something of a success with several very positive reviews.

Rochester may be in New York state but it is a six-hour drive away from New York City and surrounded itself by its own satellite towns. Most kids growing up in Rochester, Daniel explained, have little contact with New York City apart from the occasional school visit. Daniel is proud of his upbringing in such a beautiful part of the United States and describes Rochester as “beautiful” and the surrounding towns as “quaint.”

Daniel now plays a range of instruments including flute, oboe and clarinet but his musical starter might have been the trumpet, had Daniel not been surprisingly tenacious. He explains: “When I was ten years old, my sister took me to the high school jazz band Christmas concert. I’ll never forget it. I heard the jazz band play a rendition of ‘The Pink Panther.’ Chris Oldfield was a high school saxophonist in the band. He was my first musical hero. My sister also made it possible for me to take some lessons with Chris. I was a very shy kid, but I had two older sisters who looked out for me — that always helps! I joined the school band a few months later. The elementary band director thought my lips were not suited for the saxophone. She recommended that I play the trumpet. It was a pretty funny experience. The director asked me to fill out a form and list my top three musical instrument choices. I wrote ‘saxophone’ as each of my choices. They had no choice but to let me play saxophone!”

Once smitten, Daniel took his saxophone to many places: “As a child,” he says “I played the saxophone every waking hour. I used to practice in my closet late at night. I played in the public school wind ensemble, jazz band, marching band, and much more. I learned to play clarinet and flute so I could play in various pit orchestras as well. I taught myself guitar in high school and played in a dozen different rock bands around town. I also played saxophone in church three days a week. As a teenager, I was really hungry to play. I used to play at the bus stop and on street corners. One time, I drove to a local shopping mall with a friend of mine who also happened to be an incredible drummer. We set up our gear and spontaneously played music for the shoppers. People loved it! We played for about 30 minutes before we got kicked out of the mall. I was a pretty gutsy teenager. I played music for people in homeless shelters, rehab facilities, and even played a few concerts at a local psychiatric center. As a teenager, I also played music at Rochester music venues like the Lilac Festival and Darien Lake Theme Park.”

Daniel is eager to get his music to as many people as possible — though now, living in an apartment, his practice sessions have to be quieter to accommodate the neighbors. I asked him the reasons behind this and what he gets from playing.

He said: “I’m blessed when people remember the melodies of my songs. I think people catch on to the simple melodies of songs like ‘Paint the Fence,’ ‘Bear Cub,’ ‘The Old Muskrat Welcomes Us,’ and ‘Nine Piglets.’ People smile when they listen to our music. Our songs are accessible and honest.”

Daniel has a pretty eclectic taste in music and enjoys pop, classical and jazz. He says: “I love the music of the Smiths, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Joy Electric, Ornette Coleman, Keith Green, Foster the People, Paul Desmond, Lee Konitz, Steve Reich, and Bela Fleck. The list goes on and on. I love any song with a great melody. I am equally influenced by Steve Reich’s ‘New York Counterpoint,’ Ornette Coleman’s ‘Skies of America,’ and the Smiths’ ‘There is a Light that Never Goes Out.’ All are masterpieces. I grew up playing in the church, so I love hymns like ‘It is Well with My Soul’ and ‘Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.’ I see no boundary line between any genre of music. I transcribe Paul Desmond saxophone solos every week. I just transcribed his solo on ‘Out of Nowhere.’ Some of his lines could have been pulled from a Bach invention. No joke.”

One thing which is very important to Daniel is his faith and he sees music as a big part of this. Of his philosophy on life, he comments that he is out to “worship God and serve the people.”

When I asked Daniel about his playing and how he feels, he replied: “The Daniel Bennett Group has been performing constantly for the last ten years. We have had a lot of time to build our audience. I formed the band when I was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory in Boston. We have great fans all over the place. I think I feel the most at home in New York City and Boston. But we have had great success in many parts of the country. The Daniel Bennett Group plays every month at Tomi Jazz in midtown Manhattan, and we were the house band at the Liberty Hotel in Boston for five years. We also have the unusual distinction of having played at 18 public libraries in four different states during the last year or so. There are actually quite a few public libraries that have the funding to host concerts and cultural events. We played our Connecticut CD release concert to an audience of 200 people at the Hartford Library last year. Daniel Bennett Group has also crossed over into the musical theater world. I recently composed and performed the score for the stage adaptation of Frankenstein at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan. We are comfortable playing at rock clubs in the east village and also more mainstream jazz clubs and festivals.”

Music, for Daniel is a way of connecting with the audience as well as other musicians and when he plays, he says: “I’m floating on a cloud when I play music. Hopefully, my audience is on that cloud with me! I only write music that entertains my audience. Entertainment is not a bad word. I don’t play music to enlighten or educate anyone. That’s a very egotistical posture for an artist to maintain. First and foremost, I am a servant to my audience.”

The future looks good for the Daniel Bennett Group — and for Daniel, personally. He has just become a proud father and emailed me with the news that Naomi Madison Bennett was born on November 21, 2013 — adding “Woohoo!” Musically, it is as if he is coming into his own, as well.

Daniel says: “Daniel Bennett Group just released our fourth album Clockhead Goes to Camp on the Manhattan Daylight Media label. The disc features Mark Cocheo on guitar, Peter Brendler on bass, and Tyson Stubelek on drums. I’m thrilled that the album is selling really well.” I can vouch for the album personally, as I wrote another of those very positive reviews. Daniel continued: “We recently played a sold-out CD release concert at the Metropolitan Room in Manhattan. Our next album is out in 2014. As for other goals, I would like to compose more music for theater. In the stage adaptation of Frankenstein at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan, which I mentioned before. I played clarinet, bass clarinet, flute, and oboe in the show.”

Music, of course, is important — but Daniel has other interests: “I collect vintage baseball cards and toys,” he says. “I have 80,000 baseball cards in my apartment in Manhattan. I also have 500 vintage GI Joe and Star Wars figures in my closet.”

I asked Daniel how he felt jazz music was sitting right now in the U.S. or elsewhere. His comment was: “My music is accepted and appreciated in the United States. That’s all I care about. I don’t care about the state of jazz. I don’t follow jazz politics in any way, shape or form. Our albums are selling well and our audiences continue to smile! My philosophy is to always lift up and support fellow artists.The Daniel Bennett Group often features guest artists from all genres to share the concert billing with us. We have recently played double-bill performances with Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter Trio, Steve Kuhn, Greg Osby Duo, James Carter Organ Trio, Joy Electric, and Billy Martin. We also have performed with renowned poets like Britt Melewski and Fulbright scholar and poet Rimas Uzgiris. This collaborative spirit is what keeps the music vibrant every day. It’s exciting!”

On a more personal note, Daniel is approachable and affable. He often sends quips and interesting facts — some useful, others useless — and we have developed something of a banter over time. He knows I like free-form jazz but does not hold that against me, and his music continues to develop in interesting ways, exploring different avenues and styles. So, the future is looking good and as Daniel matures both personally and in his music it is refreshing to find a musician who loves what he does and is happy just to be playing for audiences — whatever genre or setting.

Daniel Bennett is refreshingly candid and pragmatic in his approach. He understands that every musician has their place and is blissfully uninvolved or interested in any political movement associated with music. His faith is strong both in the music and God and, while he has breath in his body, Daniel Bennett will continue to play — and, from what I have heard, he is a musician to keep a watchful eye on.

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