David Benoit has been riding a crest of popularity since his album "This Side Up" ascended the jazz charts in 1986. Performing selections from his latest offering, "Freedom at Midnight," and an as-yet-untitled new release at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano on Saturday, Benoit showed that he has moved a bit further away from his early "Beach Trails" release and is headed for higher ground.
Audience-requested "Tropical Breeze" and spouse-inspired "Kei's Song," though lovely, attested to rather predictable chord progressions. Henry Mancini, one of Benoit's idols, would surely be proud of these two, which sounded like songs from the score of a love-story film, as well as of many others in Benoit's repertoire.
The jazz keyboard buff, however, would share Mancini's pleasure if only Benoit's phrasing and rhythmic variations, which were average in the bopper "Del Sasser," mirrored his technical chops, which were well above average in the newcomer "Shibuya Station."
A little experimentation can go a long way toward progress, as some of his new material proved. "Sao Paulo," a Brazilian tune that ranged from naughty to nice, and gospel-tinged "Remembering What You Said" gave sidemen Sam Riney (noteworthy on sax), Tony Morales (drums), Bob Feldman (bass) and their leader ample opportunity to move beyond inoffensive, unobtrusive ground to explore new musical territory.
That Benoit is very talented and has made widespread commercial waves are givens. What remains for Benoit and Company is a climb up the composition ladder to the higher ground of the conceptually adventurous.
Comedienne June Boykins opened.