Daniel Bennett Group – We Are the Orchestra (2018)

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Daniel Bennett is an innovative, quirky musician with a penchant for the off-beat and an unshakeable belief in the power of music. His musical experience crosses genres, but his heart lies in slightly off-piste jazz with a leaning towards playing in the higher registers and a positive attitude. With successful tours and some very decent albums behind him, it might be expected that We Are the Orchestra would be a continuum of 2013’s Clockhead Goes to Camp or 2015’s The Mystery at Clown Castle, but Daniel is keen that this new album is seen as a different beast altogether.

Daniel Bennett’s musical progress until around 2000 was nothing out of the ordinary for a developing, talented musician. After attending Rochester’s Roberts Wesleyan College, he moved to Boston to take his masters in saxophone performance at the New England Conservatory. Along the way, he played and collaborated with artists like bassist Ike Sturm, pianist Joe Santora and drummer Ted Poor. He also worked with Chris Hersch, Jerry Bergonzi and many others.

His compositions were performed at many venues. The first Daniel Bennett Group (with folk guitarist Chris Hersch and bass player John Servo) released 2007’s A Nation of Bears. The trio became a quartet with the addition of percussionist Rick Landwehrm and collaborations followed with notable artists including Bill Frisell and James Carter. Peace and Stability Among Bears followed in 2011.

New York became Daniel’s home in 2010 and there he met more musicians including guitarist Mark Cocheo, bassist Mark Lau, and drummer Brian Adler. They began organizing the “Jazz at the Triad” series of concerts at a theater, and this version of the Daniel Bennett Group have toured in the U.S. and collaborated with others including Charlie Hunter, Steve Kuhn, and Greg Osby. Clockhead Goes to Camp and The Mystery at Clown Castle both received very positive reviews, and the cherry on the cake was when the Daniel Bennett Group was voted best new jazz group in the NYC Hot House Jazz Awards.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: In an earlier talk, Daniel Bennett joins us to discuss his career, his exciting move to New York City, the founding of the Daniel Bennett group and his hopes for jazz.]

Daniel Bennett recently composed and performed the original musical scores for Frankenstein and Brave Smiles at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan. Recent off-Broadway theater performances include the North American premiere of Legacy Falls and a revival of Swingtime Canteen at Cherry Lane Theatre. He was also a key part of and played woodwinds in Blank! The Musical, the first fully improvised Off-Broadway musical to launch on a national stage.

I asked Daniel what made him depart – albeit in a limited way – from the successful formula he had with the last two albums for We Are the Orchestra. “The Hudson Guild Theater commissioned me to arrange and perform opera excerpts for a groundbreaking show called Whitman at the Whitney,” Bennett said. “It was a multimedia production that featured dramatic readings of Walt Whitman’s poetry. We staged the production at the Whitney Museum in New York City. The artistic director, Jim Furlong, asked me to arrange the music in a duo format for woodwinds and banjo. You can imagine the challenge of playing 19th century opera excerpts on saxophone and banjo. Crazy! But I’m not one to back down from a challenge.”

Bennett enlisted Mark Cocheo to join him on banjo, and a new project began to take shape. “After we wrapped the theater production, MP Kuo encouraged me to release an album that featured our opera arrangements and my own original compositions,” Bennett added. “MP Kuo is my long-time producer and friend. She always has great insights! It was a huge challenge for two musicians to record every instrument. I played all the woodwind parts, and even played a piano and percussion on a few tracks. Mark recorded all the guitar and banjo parts. We had to merge the past and the present into a singular sound.”

We Are the Orchestra (Manhattan Daylight Media) is set to be released on Sept. 7, 2018. Mark Cocheo and Daniel Bennett recorded all the wind, string and percussion instruments in order to create the sound of a large ensemble. Daniel adds a final comment about the endeavor itself in the press notes saying: “It was totally insane, but we did it! 

I asked Daniel to explain the music further, pushing a little more for some personal insights into some of the tracks on We Are the Orchestra – why these, why now, when the inspiration came and what made it happen.

“The deepest track on the album is ‘Gold Star Mufflers,'” Bennett said. “We spent a month tracking and mixing that song. You can hear piano on this track. MP Kuo had me add piano at the last minute. I believe it changed the mood of the entire song. My songs modulate key centers frequently. I do this to give myself an interesting canvas to solo over. I think ‘Gold Star Mufflers’ modulates seven or eight times throughout the melody. I use common tones in the melody to link unusual key centers. The listener may not even know that the song is modulating. At least I hope they don’t know!”

Bennett added: “Another song from that resonates is our arrangement of Giuseppe Verdi’s theme from ‘Ernani.’ This was actually the opening theme for Whitman at the Whitney. The melody is so catchy and simple. I am a simple man, so this one really spoke to me! I teach at the New York Jazz Academy in Times Square. I teach students to play simple melodies when they improvise. Modern jazz has been absolutely destroyed by “new-bop” players regurgitating eighth note lines on Instagram. Don’t even get me started on that topic! [Laughs.]”

I told Daniel Bennett that his style is diversifying and he now improvises in a different way from others. I wondered if this was simply how he liked to play, or if there was a reason behind this.

“This may sound crazy, but I compose all of my music from the guitar,” Bennett revealed. “I have never composed a song on the piano. I strum chords on my guitar and sing melodies. The melody is the most important thing for me. When I feel the melody is strong, I pick up my saxophone and bring the song to life on my horn. It’s not an overnight process. I have to tour for a year before the songs feel natural on my wind instruments. I suppose many of the original melodies just transpose a little high on the saxophone. Maybe it’s a happy accident. The alto saxophone does have a beautiful human quality in the high register. I was classically trained at the New England Conservatory; Ken Radnofsky was my principal teacher. I spent many hours with Ken playing high notes in front of a tuner.”

On his classical training: “I don’t always discuss my classical training in interviews,” he said. “I think people get the wrong idea about me. I’m really a street artist at heart. I learned to improvise by playing in church three times a week. I also played on street corners and bus stations with friends in high school. But the classical training really helped to focus my sound. I’m really the product of my life experiences.”

I also asked Daniel how he felt about We Are the Orchestra. Was he confident in the slight change in direction? Give me what you hearts tells you, I said.

“My focus is to worship God and serve the people,” he replied. “You and I have spoken on this topic in the past. I am really just a servant. I recently made a decision to stop describing my musical style. It’s much more fulfilling when the listener can describe the music on their own terms. Most of the time, the audience is so much smarter than the musicians. I often float from the jazz world to the rock world, and all points in between. When I perform at the Blue Note, I am perceived as being jazz artist. When I am playing at Herb Alpert’s Vibrato Club in Los Angeles, people see me in a different light. You may hear us at a rock club in Brooklyn and have a whole different perspective. 

So, now we know: Daniel is a musician of many talents and many different perspectives. It is up to the listener how to interpret him.

“Loose Fitting Spare Tire,” the opening track on We Are the Orchestra, is trademark Daniel Bennett, with a lilting mesmeric meter from the start. What is different is the guitar work and this is intrinsic to the sound which pervades across the track. Mark Cocheo slots like a glove into Bennett’s melodic musical lilts and steadfast tempo throughout. The parts where both players are in full flow are a gorgeous light, frothy mix of interesting sounds – until the sax develops the theme even further, improvising around the central chords and taking it higher.

To be honest, there is always a danger on tracks with such a steadfast walking trait that they can become a tad background-ish, but there is no chance of that here. The solos are really good and well worked from both players, and the talent displayed more than makes up for the mind chill which might threaten to settle in.

“I’m Not Nancy” rolls along with many characteristic traits which are in the music of Clockwork Goes To Camp A repetitive theme is enhanced by frequen diversions off to improvised sections and solos. A banjo adds a different sound, which is welcome here and flute is exceptional in its clarity and explorative ways of playing with the theme.

“Gold Star Mufflers” again sets off with a repetitive theme which is worked, transformed and improvised in parts with those key modulations coming eight times, as Daniel explained earlier. There are some more-than-decent sax lines and a drum rhythm which makes the track different and hypnotic at times. “Theme from Ernani” is gorgeous – simple as that. The Verdi composition is given the Bennett twist, and this works. The multi-layered, deeply textured layers of this arrangement are both engaging and well worked by both musicians. A simple man, my foot: The mind is led down various paths during “Theme from Ernani,” in a good way.

Bennett often has a strongly animalistic theme going on, and that continues here with “Refinancing For Elephants.” The track is enjoyable, heavy on the woodwind lines and easy on the ears. The piccolo over the top is fun and flighty, with the steadfast guitar rhythms offering anchorage and weight. “Inside Our Pizza Oven” is a wondrous piece of Eastern-influenced rhythms and unexpected contrasts. The variations in rhythm, tempo and both players’ countering of each other is nigh on perfect. This is a stand-out track in every way, from the delicate and well-balanced themes to the improvisation inserted, the odd disharmony, and the listening and communication which is clearly going on even though the tracks are layered separately. The only problem is this track is far too short.

Verdi’s “Theme From Il Trovatore” is well worked and made the duo’s own – almost! Verdi might have a fit with what the boys did here, but it is engaging, enjoyable if somewhat unfathomable. A lovely rhythm is established and maintained right through, and the ascending parts with both in harmony contrast beautifully, as the sax takes the vocal lines to a different place. “Carl Finds His Way” is quirky, using Daniel Bennett’s well-established formula of “rhythm, repeat, rhythm, change, rhythm, repeat with a return to the expected” – apart from the amazing guitar work which is prevalent in this track.

The album’s PR material describes We Are the Orchestra as a “bold departure” for Daniel Bennett, but what strikes me actually is that it’s not. He has his own style which is so much a part of the way he writes he can no more veer wildly in another direction than an elephant (maybe the one above) can hide in a thimble. This is Bennett through and through, from the magnetic pull the higher registers seem to have for him, to the patterns he creates in most of his own compositions – but this is good.

We Are the Orchestra is listenable, well structured, dramatic and lyrical. It is held together tightly, and it’s also individual enough to warrant separation from what has gone before. Daniel is developing in a forward manner, and it’s a good direction. We Are the Orchestra maintains his humor, his goodness and honesty, keeping those traits which are so Daniel Bennett. There is no genre or box to slot his music into and neither should there be: It is appealing and falls way way short of ever getting boring.

Sammy Stein

Sammy Stein

The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
Sammy Stein
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