MICHAEL BENEDICT JAZZ VIBES
The Next Phase
by J Hunter
If you have hot players and a killer sound, you can ride the same thing you did the last time around and people will eat it up with a spoon, not even realizing that you picked reward over risk, and the proven over the precarious. Michael Benedict could have chosen that road on his new release, because the vibes masters first disc The New Beat was a sweet-tasting party date that touched on the best parts of the Samba Jazz era; Benedict could have cranked out more takes on Antonio Carlos Jobim and Mongo Santamaria, and nobody would have made a peep myself included, probably. With The Next Phase, Benedict literally takes us into the next stage of his life, both professionally and personally.
The personal side is heartbreaking: Benedict is two years into single-parenthood after losing his wife Gail McFarland-Benedict to cancer. Where The New Beat was dedicated to his wife, The Next Phase is dedicated to Kerry McFarland and Darby Benedict, the two daughters Michael is now raising alone. Great jazz takes bravery, but parenthood especially single parenthood requires bravery to the tenth power. On top of all this, Benedict chose to move his sound closer to a trad-jazz place; he also brings vocals into the mix with Sack Full of Dreams and I Wish that I Were Young Again, two Gary McFarland tunes lovingly performed by Julia Donnarumma with Benedict providing the only backing.
Bennys Tune gets things going with a fast-but-mellow scene-setter that, for my money, ends too soon. Its straight-up bebop with no twist, and a warning shot to anyone who expected Benedict to find new ways to expand on The Girl from Ipanema. Benedicts solo goes right down the middle with no compromises, and he sounds completely at home in this totally trad atmosphere. Its nothing new to him, but its new to anyone whose only point-of-reference is The New Beat. Benedicts vibes ring like bells on Garys Waltz, and theres a marvelously joyous quality to his solo on his self-penned title track.
Benedict brought a new band to back him up, but its not a new backup band: Lee Russo, Joe Barna, Mike delPrete and Dave Solazzo are one of the tightest units in the area, with a full range of colors in their paint box and the ability to go from ruminative to righteous in nothing flat. The reason Bennys Tune ends too soon is that the celery-crisp sound Benedict makes with the quartet is instantly attractive. Fear not, because that sound runs like a river through The Next Phase. Barna and Russo even contribute to Next as composers: Barnas Blow it Out speaks to Benedicts Samba past as it lays down a great stage for spotlight moments by Russo and Benedict; Russo brings in a dialed-back arrangement of The Abenaki, trading in the Coltrane-like opening from the original version for an intimate delPrete moment in the clear.
Benedict dovetails with these players from the jump; you would think that wouldnt be a problem, but it is. There is a sense throughout Next that this is the new Barna/Russo project, and Benedict is just another player in the band; he contributes a melody line or a solo one moment, and then completely disappear the next, leaving the quartet to fill the space. Not that listening to this band is a hardship, by any means: Russos tenor is as buttery-smooth as ever, Solazzo is a champ as a soloist and a supporter, and Barna proves once again that hes just as good at embroidery as he is in taking stage and wailing. Its just that Benedict needed to be more of a visible presence throughout the date; even though Solazzo and Russo really complete each other, it would have been better if Solazzo had laid out and Benedict had taken his role.
As I said before, the two vocal tracks are done beautifully; unfortunately, Benedicts reverence for the material keeps these pieces from reaching their full potential. I understand Benedicts motivation: Not only is McFarland Benedicts favorite composer and arranger, but Benedict is also the stepfather of McFarlands daughter. However, each piece would have been improved with a Benedict solo, something that is not an option with Benedict as the only instrumentalist. Bringing Solazzo or delPrete in to maintain the foundation would have solved this problem.
At the end of the day, though, Benedict is carving a new trail for himself, and the overall result of this initial attempt is more than satisfying. Again, he could have stuck with the tried and true and many would have thanked him for it. Thus, The Next Phase is an act of bravery as much as it is a solid trad-jazz disc. This took guts, and this has to be both recognized and applauded.
J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.