David Benoit's exact role is not easily qualified. Turn to the trade papers and you see such phrases as "lushly lyrical" or "crossover keyboardist." Listen to his latest albums and you hear a touch of fusion, a jazz cut with a purposeful rhythm section or an original orchestral work with strings. Read the critics and you find him compared to everyone from Joe Sample to George Gershwin.
The amiable Benoit (pronounced Ben- wah ), who looks like a 25-year-junior model of David Steinberg but is in fact 33, has his own self-image. Raised on the records of Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans and Ramsey Lewis, at the same time admiring and hoping to emulate the compositional gifts of Henry Mancini, he has attempted to bring these influences to bear during a career that has zoomed during the past couple of years from relative obscurity to lofty levels on the jazz charts.
That he was ready for mass exposure occurred recently to Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen, who signed him to their GRP Records. Recently, he was teamed, at the intimate Civic Theatre in Hermosa Beach, in concert with Diane Schuur, accompanying her with his own quartet augmented by the L.A. Modern String Orchestra.
In a sense, the wheel of fortune had come full circle, since it was in Hermosa Beach that he grew up--as he points out, "I spent my formative years just five blocks from the Lighthouse when that was the great jazz club of its time."
He was just 6 when the Benoits came here from Bakersfield, where his father played guitar gigs on weekends and spent his days working on a teaching degree. After moving to Los Angeles and earning a doctorate at USC, he became a psychology professor and confined his music sessions mainly to jamming at home.
Many musicians have studied the classics before moving on to jazz. Benoit was one of those rare exceptions who reversed the pattern, first sitting in with his father, then beginning his studies, at 14, with a cocktail pianist. "He would teach me 'Someone to Watch Over Me' and all those old standards. It wasn't until later that I began learning classical reading and techniques, and eventually took a few courses in composition."
After completing his studies, Benoit moved to Hollywood, where he felt the action must be. "I began playing Top 40 tunes in clubs, just to make a living, throwing in a little jazz whenever I could.
"My first real jazz gig was at the old Parisian Room, accompanying Gloria Lynne. That was a great place to work, with Red Holloway, the saxophonist, in charge of the music. I learned a lot of tunes and stayed with Gloria off and on for five years." The job overlapped with other backup work for Lainie Kazan, the vocal group Full Swing and Connie Stevens. "During that time, I began writing music and making my own albums. It's funny, a lot of people think I've only made one record. Actually, 'This Side Up,' the one that did so well on the charts, was my fifth, but finally I'm getting noticed."
Record companies introducing a new artist tend to insist on established tunes. Benoit was again a nonconformist: He was allowed to stay mostly with his own compositions. If this limited his audience at home, it brought a strongly different reaction in what seemed a highly improbable area, the Philippines.
"When my agent called and asked if I'd like to go to Manila, I could hardly believe it. I took my small group over, thinking we'd be in some little nightclub. As it turned out, I was in a hall seating 3,000 with my name in huge letters in back of me, and they provided me with a full orchestra with strings and horns. Here in America I couldn't get arrested, and in the Philippines I was a star!"
In a typical prophet-without-honor irony, Benoit returned home from his triumphant tour of the Philippines to find himself back on the old grind, playing weddings and performing at Donte's for an audience that barely outnumbered the musicians.
He has been back to the Philippines once, but the political instability made further visits impossible. Immediately after last year's revolution, he expressed his sympathies by including his own "Hymn for Aquino" in the "This Side Up" album.
Like most pianists of his generation, Benoit has been involved with other members of the fast-growing keyboard family. "I taught myself about synthesizers--I've got a DX 7 like everyone else--but any time I've worked with them in a complex way I've had somebody else help me out by doing the programming.
"As you'll hear in my first GRP album, 'Freedom at Midnight,' I prefer to keep my focus on acoustic piano. Synthesizers are OK as a tool to add a little color, but they make it hard to tell whether it's me playing or someone else. My own style comes through much more clearly on piano."