Bondo Wyszpolski

Jazz artist David Benoit rising above his musical horizon

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On the launching pad with David Benoit

Photo by David Fairchild

by Bondo Wyszpolski

Jazz artist David Benoit and the California Science Center are rarely mentioned in the same sentence, but that’s beginning to happen more often these days thanks to the space shuttle Endeavour. So far, so strange, so let’s explain.

On Sunday, November 5, the Manhattan Beach native and Palos Verdes Estate resident  will conduct the Asia America Youth Symphony in the Samuel Oschin Pavilion, at the Science Center in Exposition Park, where the Endeavour is on view. The orchestra will tantalize the audience with the theme from “Star Wars” and soon thereafter fill the hall with Benoit’s spirited “Journey of the Endeavour.”

The composition is largely ebullient and celebratory and just over five-and-a-half minutes in length. Benoit premiered in 2013 at the James Armstrong Theatre in Torrance. At that concert, footage of the shuttle was projected behind the orchestra, a former astronaut was one hand to lend gravity to the occasion, and among the people sitting in the audience was an executive from the California Science Center.

“She said we must do this at the Endeavour,” Benoit says from the kitchen table at his home in Palos Verdes Estates. “So we talked about it for a couple of years and finally they pulled the trigger and said, ‘We’re going to do it,’ so here it is.”

After the piece is performed, the audience will turn their heads and marvel at the long-distance voyager itself, imposing and radiant.

Benoit explains how the “Journey of the Endeavour” came about.

“I try once a year to do an artist residency in Villa Montalvo (in Saratoga, near San Jose), where I can take a couple of weeks and write something fresh. The idea is not to write anything commercial. I was looking for some inspiration and I saw this video of the Endeavour when it went through the streets of L.A.” Because of its size, its route from LAX to Exposition Park had to be carefully choreographed, reminiscent of LACMA’s plan for “Levitated Mass.”

The 184-foot long Endeavour was named after Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour.

“I saw it almost like a ballet,” Benoit continues. “I saw it as an orchestral piece.

“I edited the video so that you see it take off and then you see it land.” The mood shifts as it wends its way across Manchester Avenue, north along Crenshaw Boulevard, and east again on Martin Luther King Boulevard. “And then finally, when it finds its home in the garage I kind of slowed the music down. It was a little sad in a way, a little remorseful, but it was like, well, that journey’s over, here’s the new one, and now he’s in the museum.”

David Benoit takes a poolside break at his Palos Verdes Estates home. Photo by David Fairchild.

Known for now, known for later

In 1982, the late Timothy Purpus wrote a cover feature for Easy Reader about David Benoit as he was first achieving success as a professional jazz musician. In the 35 years since, Benoit has released over two dozen albums, including four this year. Foremost, perhaps, is his “Music of Montalvo” CD, a crowd-funded effort recorded with the West European Symphony Orchestra that highlights “Bikeride” (with the All-American Boys Choir) and “Napa Crossroads Overture,” a catchy number co-written with David Pack, (formerly of Ambrosia). The centerpiece of the CD belongs to the Endeavour.

The other new releases include the commercially-tilted “So Nice,” with Marc Antoine; an all-solo piano CD called “The Steinway Sessions,” and a holiday record with Dave Koz (“That’s more his CD, but I did the orchestral arrangements and conducted, and played piano on it, too.”).

That would be a bumper crop year for any artist, on top of which Benoit is a morning DJ for radio station 88.1 KJazz. It’s a weekday show, 8 a.m. to 12 noon, but because of traveling and other commitments Benoit is often able to record several upcoming programs at a time. He’s also hosting a Saturday show from 10 to noon, this one focused on piano players. He has a free hand with Saturday’s selections, but not so much with those aired during the week.

Perhaps you’re thinking, hey, that’s great, Benoit’s really on a roll and he must be a happy camper. Well, yes and no.

In some circles, Benoit is regarded as a purveyor of smooth jazz (or “easy listening”), a label he abhors. “You get typecast,” he admits. “Okay, everybody knows me for writing the pretty melodies.” And, yes, they are pretty, and often charming.

Clearly, there’s an audience for it; Benoit might be living under the freeway if there weren’t. But “smooth jazz” isn’t the only thing he hopes to be remembered for, and that’s one reason why “Journey of the Endeavour” is a vital piece. He would like to find other projects that take him out of his comfort zone and, like the shuttle itself, into new frontiers.

“I’m always looking for new things to write about,” he says. “Part of the problem, well, the good and the bad news, is it’s been an unusually busy year for me commercially, which is good. The ‘bad’ thing is that when you have a year like that there’s so little time to do the other,” meaning of course the non-commercial. “I need to get back to that creative space.

“That’s what’s important as an artist. We have our stuff to do to earn money and keep the bills paid, but the ‘Journey of the Endeavour’ is an example of something that has no connections with making money, it’s just, hey, here’s some art; art’s important.” He points to “Kobe,” written years ago in response to the earthquake that damaged the city of the same name, and to the fairly recent “Bikeride,” as more complex works that needed time to be thought out and developed.

Benoit was 29 when Timothy Purpus interviewed him, and he’s 64 now. That’s still young, or young enough, for a strong second-half showing. Sure, Schubert and Mozart died when they were just kids, but Verdi, Sibelius, and Richard Strauss all lived productively deep into their 80s. As Saul Bellow once told Herbert Gold, “Don’t count any writer out while he’s still alive.” Sometimes one’s greatest adversary isn’t old age so much as it’s the unwillingness to risk failure.

At the moment, Benoit’s legacy is in his jazz compositions, the soundtrack to “The Peanuts Movie,” and so on, but will this work endure? With the exception of a few tunes (“Kei’s Song,” “Freedom at Midnight,” “Drive Time,” etc.) will he be remembered and played a generation or two hence? Nobody knows for sure, and one can’t even guess whether his earlier classical pieces will survive, but chances could be greater that posterity awaits him in the field of classical or rather orchestral music. If he persists in this genre…

He may not have cut his teeth at a prestigious music academy, but Benoit has the tools and the know-how. He’s been the music director and chief conductor of the Asia America Youth Symphony for a dozen years, and has played or conducted in numerous venues, including Disney Hall where he led a performance of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony.”

In short, Benoit says, referring back to “Kobe” and “Journey of the Endeavour,” “Something I want to do more and more [are works] like these, expressing myself in a way where I’m not encumbered by commercial restrictions.”

 

Pushing at old boundaries

And thus the question, can he transcend that by which he’s been primarily known? Danny Elfman, who tumbled into the new wave music scene with Oingo Boingo, has become a world-class composer of soundtracks. Others, from Paul McCartney to Joe Jackson, have made the leap into writing symphonic music, and Benoit himself mentions Frank Zappa, whose records like “Hot Rats” and “Weasels Ripped My Flesh” belie the fact that he was an accomplished composer on a much grander scale.

“People in the symphony world and classical world are discovering Frank Zappa,” Benoit says. “He was a serious composer. But he’s been dead now, how many years (almost 25), and people are just starting to figure it out.”

Benoit wonders aloud if he’s running out of time, and in a sense we all are, and especially those of us who harbor unrealized artistic ambitions.

“One of my dreams would be to take a year off,” Benoit says, “which I’ve never done, and it’s been pretty much just doing gigs since I was 18. And all of a sudden I’m 64 years old, and still doing gigs.” It isn’t that he doesn’t enjoy performing, it’s just that a lengthy retreat, a sabbatical, or what have you, would be a rejuvenating balm and, need it be said, could possibly give him the breathing room required for a larger-scaled work, one on which, who knows, he might even stake his reputation.

Looking ahead to potential opportunities is important, he says, “and continuing to be really creative, because I feel like I’m doing some of my best work now as I’ve gotten older and a little smarter about things. When you’re young you think you know it all, then you realize the adage ‘the more you know the more you realize you don’t know.’ Yup, that’s true,” and he laughs.

In the meantime, Benoit has his work cut out for him locally. This includes a dinner concert on Sunday, Nov. 12, at the Palos Verdes Golf Club. Proceeds from the event, with tickets at $125, benefit the Asia America Symphony Association.

“I’ll do a few of my signature tunes,” he says. “We’ll probably do a couple things that people know me for. I want it to be a fun, loose event where maybe we’ll jam on an Eddie Harris tune and then Herbie Hancock, and maybe (throw in) a few cover tunes. Everyone’s gonna get a chance to stretch out and jam a little bit.” In addition to Benoit on piano, the lineup is likely to consist of guitarist Pat Kelley, drummers Clayton Cameron and Brad Harner, bassist Ken Wild, and saxophonist Michael Paulo. “Plus I’ll have a couple of my young members from the orchestra performing so they’ll have a chance to be featured as well,” the latter musicians being 14-year-old Vinnie Aguas on drums and 17-year-old Colton Russell on bass.

As for the Asia America Youth Symphony, the 2018 season has yet to be announced, but one of the highlights (if not the highlight, for those involved) takes place in June when 30 members of the orchestra will travel to Seoul, South Korea, to perform. This is actually a reciprocal concert: in February of this year some 30 South Korean musicians came to the States and were guests of the Asia America Symphony.

On this side of the Pacific, however, the AAYS will host its alumni concert, on April 20: “We’ve had the orchestra for 15 years now,” Benoit says. “In those years we’ve had a lot of students who have gone on to be very successful in music, so we’re asking them to come back.” In other words, if you or someone you know performed with the group during those years, dust off your oboe or viola and get ready for the big reunion.

For the moment, though, all eyes are glued to the space shuttle and David Benoit’s “Journey of the Endeavour” concert, which is also the fall fundraiser of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Peninsula Committee (our local LA Phil Affiliates). The performance takes place from 7 to 10 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 5, in the Samuel Oschin Pavilion at the California Science Center, 700 Exposition Park Drive, Los Angeles. Tickets, $150. Hors d’oeuvres, desserts, fine wine and coffee to be served. For information and tickets, go to pclaphil.org.