OLD LYME — Benny Benack III sang all the sweetheart songs you could wish for on a Valentine’s Day engagement at the Side Door in Old Lyme. He announced, “We’ll fit in as much Great American Songbook as we can here tonight!” With Sinatra-inspired vocals and a great band of friends and contemporaries, he delivered standards like “My Funny Valentine,” “Unforgettable” and “Home is Where the Heart Is” to an audience of Valentine’s couples. Several of his own song compositions followed this swinging nostalgic mode – “Irrepressible,” as well as the up-tempo “A Lot of Livin’ to Do,” the title track from his new album.
Singer, trumpeter, composer Benack brings smooth-as-silk vocals, clear and inventive trumpet-playing, and original compositions to his album and performances. An ebullient personality onstage Friday night, Benack wore a black flowered silk jacket and moved with a swagger of old-time singers. He also wears his youth — kind of like a kid at play — and he seems to be enjoying growing into his jazz shoes.
Benack paid tribute to the duet tradition, sharing the evening with West Haven vocalist Alita Moses, a formidable performer with powerful bluesy chops as well as true-placed tones. Moses lit up the stage with Benack in duets like “On a Clear Day,” and “Where Is the Love,” made famous by Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway.
Benack is currently touring Lot of Livin’ to Do. Its impressive credits including double bass playing by Christian McBride, and production/percussion by Ulysses Owens, Jr., with liner notes by designer Isaac Mizrahi.
Benack performs jazz covers of pop tunes for Mizrahi’s events as frontman for the band Postmodern Jukebox. It’s this flexibility across musical genres, as well as traditionally-styled voicings, which gives Benack’s work wide appeal.
Lot of Livin’ to Do is being released in New York City, where it was recorded at Sears Sound Studios, and also in Pittsburgh, PA, Benack’s hometown. Benack hails from a family of musicians. His mother is a classical singer and teacher, and his father and grandfather were notable Pittsburgh jazz musicians. In fact, Benack covers the profound “It’s You I Like,” in honor of Pittsburgh icon Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was filmed in Pittsburgh, and Rogers hosted Benack’s grandfather on his show back in 1973. Benack Sr. taught the ever-learning Rogers — a terrific pianist — a trumpet lesson.
Pittsburgh was the hometown for many jazz greats, including Roy Eldridge on trumpet, singer Mary Lou Williams, pianist Erroll Garner, writer Billy Strayhorn, and drummer Art Blakey. Blakey, who later nurtured many jazz “youngsters” through his long-standing Jazz Messengers, grew up as a motherless child; he began playing professionally in Pittsburgh clubs before he reached his teens. It is legend that a club owner forced him at gunpoint to switch from piano to drums, to give the bench to Erroll Garner. This is probably not quite gospel truth, but it gives a sense of the world of jazz musicians had to operate in back in Pittsburgh’s 1930’s “golden era of jazz.”
Jazz has changed, in some ways. Benack’s group of accomplished musicians “grew up meeting at jazz camps each summer,” Benack said; they all now live in Harlem in New York City. Double bass player Zwelake-Duma Bell le Pere grew up in South Africa but spent his high school years in New Haven, where he studied at the music magnet school ECA and at Neighborhood Music School. Benack, along with the excellent Joe Peri on drums and Keelan Dimick on piano, both trained at the Manhattan School of Music.
But jazz remains the same, in some ways. In Friday night’s show the band really cooked when they dug deep in the canon. They swung hard into “Moanin,'” written by pianist Bobby Timmons for Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Benack began with a soulful, bluesy trumpet oratio. It led into scorching vocals by Moses, echoed by moans, growls, and falsetto wails by Benack and the rest of the band. Joe Peri’s percussive breaks here were especially fierce.
Another stand-out was “Good Morning Heartache, What’s New?” made famous by Billie Holiday. This song began Friday night with an invitingly funky bass line laid down by Bell le Pere which developed into a really grooving whole-band locomotion. Benack’s trumpet again mimicked Moses’ beautifully intonated lines at the end. This rendition was sad and happy, loose and tight, and mixed up the genres.
The other transformed cover was Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” In Benack’s version this 70s anthem seemed to launch out into the stratosphere, becoming tonally complex, enlarged, cosmic, encompassing more than the sum of its parts. It was a world to get lost in.
After the show, Benack invited the audience to hang around and talk, and many of us did. It was great to share conversation with musicians who are finding their way through a world of jazz — an art-form, Bell le Pere reminded me, that is barely one hundred years old, and with such layers as to give any devoted musician the work of a lifetime.
Clare Byrne is a dancer-and-choreographer-turned-songwriter who has performed and taught in New York City and environs, Burlington, VT, and around the world. In addition to songwriting via guitar, harmonica and piano, her multi-art projects have included Weekly Rites, an improvisational dance blog, and The Poor Sister Clares Traveling Dancing Monk Show, an experiment in gospel dance and gardening in Vermont.