Bear Yuba Land Trust’s outdoor summer concerts on the lawn at the North Star House kicks off Sunday with internationally celebrated contemporary jazz pianist and composer David Benoit.
A five-time Grammy nominated composer and pianist, Benoit has had an expansive career as a contemporary jazz pianist that has included over 25 charting solo recordings.
In 2010, the pianist/composer was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the American Smooth Jazz Awards.
Benoit took time from his touring schedule to answer some questions from The Union about his influences and a new project on the horizon.
Question: Folks in the foothills are excited about your visit to this area, as part of the Bear Yuba Land Trust jazz series. What can ticket holder anticipate when they come out for your performance Sunday?
Answer: My show will feature selections from my recent record, “conversation,” plus a jazz piano tribute and some of my most popular songs.
Q: It seems you’ve always been a performer who embraces the chance to play for a live audience. What is it about the live experience that excites you?
A: I think that the way the audience reacts to a song is very important. You never really know how they’re going to react, so it keeps you on your toes.
Q: You’ve often been identified as having helped launch the smooth jazz genre in the 1980s. How has smooth jazz changed through the years and what is its future?
A: Yes, I was involved in that sound from the beginning. The genre is facing some growing pains, having lost radio momentum in the last few years. It’s up to the artists to start taking a few risks and because honestly, the format is a bit tepid. That said, there are may artists that are starting to explore boundaries and try new things since they’re not necessarily tethered to any one dominant radio format.
Q: “Conversation” is the title of your latest album in 2012. Any plans for a new release and what projects are you currently engaged with?
A: I’m glad you asked that. I am working on a brand new record that will feature mostly new, original vocal music with a well-known jazz artist that I am not at liberty to mention. I have been co-writing with some wonderful songwriters like Mark Winkler, David Lasley and Spencer Day.
Q: You’re a Grammy nominated composer, conductor and arranger. Please address what each of those disciplines requires of you and how they speak to you as an artist.
A: Well, being a pianist is still first and foremost and I still need to practice regularly to learn new repertoire and to keep my chops up. I like to regularly go on a composing retreat up in the mountains of Saratoga to continue writing new, original music. I also keep my conducting and arranging chops up with three different orchestras I work with: Asia America Youth Symphony, Korean Youth Orchestra And Long Beach Symphony.
Q: I know that Bill Evans has had a great influence on your work, with your having dedicated an album to him. Can you please discuss your early influences and what excites you sonically these days?
A: My earliest influences as a pianist were Ramsey Lewis, Sergio Mendes, Horace Silver and eventually Bill Evans And Oscar Peterson. As a composer, I have been influenced by John Barry, Leonard Bernstein, Henry Mancini and Aaron Copland. Theses guys knew how to write a melody!
What excited me sonically? How about Pharrell Williams’ “happy.” I love that song! Also, Jenny Lin is a very exciting pianist that plays classical renditions of Gershwin. I love her take on “I Got Rhythm.”
Q: Sunday’s concert takes place outside, under the stars at North Star House and is a benefit for land conservation. I understand that preserving open spaces is a cause very important to you?
A: Yes, it is. I live in a community that values open space. In Palos Verdes Estates, 30 percent of the city is devoted to parkland. I can walk out of my front door and enjoy great walks through all of the scenic trails.
For more information about the concert, go to www.bylt.org/index.php/about/news/press-releases/bear-yuba-land-trust-announces-stars-at-north-star-house-jazz-se/.
Tom Kellar is a freelance writer from Grass Valley.