Centering his always-vibrant melodies on a special Hamburg Steinway from Germany at Ocean Way’s Studio B, where he recorded many of his classic albums, the pianist perfectly blends old school and modern sensibilities working with a crew of his favorite musicians and three of contemporary jazz’s most successful producers: Jeffrey Weber (who produced seminal and still hugely popular late 80s Benoit CDs This Side Up, Freedom At Midnight and Every Step Of The Way), Paul Brown (smooth jazz’s top hitmaker, with over 40 #1 radio hits to his credit) and famed keyboardist (and longtime Benoit friend) Jeff Lorber.
“After doing over 25 albums, there’s always the great question I ask myself regarding what comes next,” says Benoit, who made his Peak Records debut in 2004 with Benoit/Freeman 2, a dual project with label co-owner Russ Freeman. “Where do I go to find new energy that can take me to places I’ve never been? I thought it would be interesting to try a mixed approach, working with these three great producers on different tracks. I hadn’t worked with Jeff Weber since 1994’s Shaken Not Stirred and thought it would be fun to relive the kind of magic we created when smooth jazz was first getting started.
“It’s always fun to collaborate with people you already feel comfortable with,” he adds. “While I’ve been friends with Paul Brown and Jeff Lorber for years, and have always loved their work with other artists, we never actually recorded together. The challenge for me was working under different guidelines with each. With Weber, it’s a much looser, just play and see what happens approach. He takes my passion and lets me run with it. With Paul, every detail is very specific and he keeps everything under strict control. Lorber elected to do more traditional smooth jazz production, with some interesting harmonic turnarounds, and that was cool with me, too. It was really incredible to start from the standpoint of three different approaches. But for comfort and continuity, I worked with some of the same musicians and kept the piano and the studio the same throughout.”
After nearly a decade of collaborating with artist/producer Rick Braun on such hit albums as 1999’s Professional Dreamer (which featured the Grammy nominated tune “Dad’s Room”), Fuzzy Logic (2001) and Right Here, Right Now (2003), Benoit’s first instinct in getting back into the smooth jazz swing of things was to return to his roots—and that meant calling Weber, whose trademark is taking an organic, live in the studio approach. This time, the two used Pro Tools for occasional overdubbing, but the vibe is still raw and vintage “old school” when compared to most of today’s genre recordings.
The six Full Circle songs produced by Weber feature the powerful ensembling of a mix of musicians who have been playing with Benoit on and off for most of the pianist’s career: drummer John Robinson, bassists Nathan East and Brian Bromberg, percussionists Luis Conte, Alex Acuna, guitarists Oscar Castro-Neves, Pat Kelley and Paul Jackson, Jr. Harkening back to Benoit’s 1991 album Shadows, Full Circle kicks off with the joyous, heavy grooving samba “Café Rio,” a vibe that carries over to the next Weber-produced original, the alternately moody and funky “Six PM,” which features key solos by Braun, saxman Andy Suzuki and another old pal, flutist Tim Weisberg.
Weber also lent his expertise to the gentle acoustic piano-chamber music flavored “Katrina’s Little Bear” (inspired by the story of a boy who lost everything but his teddy bear in the hurricane), the quirky and whimsical, percussively chorded “Yusuke The Ghost,” the thumping funk meets minor key moodiness (with a taste of chill) of “Monster in the Attic” (a “story song” inspired by Benoit’s five year old daughter June) and the closing track “Random Starlight,” which features that trademark Benoit mix of swift energy and elegance.
After helping make superstars out of artists like Peter White and Boney James and scoring hits for veterans like Larry Carlton, George Benson and Al Jarreau, Paul Brown was eager to lend his own soulful Midas touch to the Benoit experience. Brown originally sent Benoit rhythm tracks to write to, but the pianist had the better idea to get together in a single room and start composing from scratch. The two quickly agreed to work without the aid of drum machines or loops, and the chemistry was clear immediately. Their first collaboration was the soaring, lightly rhythmic ballad “First Day Of School,” a mini “story song” inspired by Benoit taking June to her first day of kindergarten. Brown also produced their playfully romantic collaboration “Chasing The Tides” (featuring saxman Euge Groove) and suggested the swaying, gently brassy update on Jobim’s “Water To Drink (Agua de Beber), which includes the Jerry Hey horns.
Full Circle’s first radio single is “Beat Street,” a bright and bouncy, seductive yet ultimately jamming slice of sweet retro funk that perfectly matches the pop, jazz and R&B sensibilities of Benoit and Jeff Lorber. The title of their other collaboration, “Neat With a Twist,” smartly captures the strutting, seductive funk spirit of the arrangement. “Although he was famous with Jeff Lorber Fusion long before I became well known, his career and my own really parallel each other’s,” says Benoit. “I always thought he was a wonderful guy and good friend, but always thought maybe he was too hip for the kind of music I like to make. I guess my cool factor has caught up to his!”
David Benoit’s career as a contemporary jazz pianist began in 1977 and includes 25 solo recordings over the past 29 years. His 1985 radio hit “Linus and Lucy” helped launch the smooth jazz genre, and his early genre recordings, including his GRP Records debut Freedom at Midnight and its Grammy nominated 1988 follow-up Every Step of the Way, are considered influential classics. Among his other Grammy nominations are those for Best Instrumental Composition (for “Dad’s Room,” from 1999’s Professional Dreamer) and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance (for the GRP All-Star Big Band). Concurrent with his burgeoning career as a conductor, he recorded 1996’s American Landscape with The London Symphony Orchestra and 2005’s Orchestral Stories with members of the Asia America Symphony Orchestra and the Czech National Symphony Orchestra.
Benoit’s ever expanding slate of orchestral music endeavors include the conducting of such eminent orchestras as the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the symphonies of London, Nuremberg, San Francisco, Atlanta, San Antonio and San Jose. He recently conducted the performance of his first piano concerto, “The Centaur and the Sphinx,” featuring the distinguished pianist Frederic Chiu and the Asia-America Symphony Orchestra. His acclaimed symphonic piece, “Kobe,” was performed this year by the Berkeley Symphony, under the baton of Kent Nagano, conductor and music director for the Los Angeles Opera. Both extended pieces were featured on Orchestral Stories.
His most notable film scores are The Stars Fell on Henrietta, produced by Clint Eastwood and starring Robert Duvalll; and The Christmas Tree, produced by Sally Field, voted Best Score of 1996 by Film Score Magazine. His long association with Charles Schulz and the famed Peanuts realm led to over ten years of composing music for Peanuts TV specials on CBS. He paid tribute to Schulz on 2000’s acclaimed Here’s To You, Charlie Brown: 50 Great Years, and in 2005 helmed the all-star tribute 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas, featuring performances by himself, The Rippingtons, Gerald Albright, Rick Braun, Dave Koz, Norman Brown, Chaka Khan, Brian McKnight, Vanessa Williams and others.
His involvement as a guest educator with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation has taken him to classrooms throughout the country, where he has devoted many hours to teaching children about music; in 2001, he won the foundation’s coveted “excellence in music education” award. He has also been involved with the Grammy in the Schools Foundation and was voted Music Mentor of the Year by the International Foundation of Education and Performing Arts (IFEPA).
Despite all of his growing achievements outside the contemporary jazz realm, Benoit believes something truly magical happens when he gets back in the studio with his favorite musicians and lets inspiration take its course. “It was just so great to get back to basics, writing and playing fun, contemporary pop-jazz songs again. There’s something fun and refreshing about returning to my comfort zone and making the kind of music that comes so naturally to me. Coming back to that approach, I really feel like I’ve come Full Circle.”