Pianist David Benoit, whose commercial record is much shinier than his critical reputation, is one of those jazz artists who wants only a bit of respect. It seems to elude him, even with all the Grammys, a dozen albums and lofty chart positions to his credit.
His latest album, "Letter to Evan," is a mixed bag lined with good intentions. It's partly a traditional jazz affair that hinges on two obscure compositions by the late Bill Evans, including the title cut, dedicated to Evans' then 4-year-old son.
The album is ostensibly dedicated to Evans, one of the pianists whom Benoit claims as a significant influence. But the whole package is watered down with some peppy, poppy "happy" jazz and lesser material.
No doubt, Benoit will draw heavily on his latest album when he shows up at the Ventura Theatre on Saturday.
"Letter to Evan" is not the first project in which Benoit has stepped away from the suave, slick pop-jazz stuff that made him famous. His 1989 album "Waiting for Spring" was the first time Benoit took on straight-ahead jazz on a solo album.
"I had been wanting to do a record like that for years," Benoit remembered, "and I finally just did it. It was a really low-budget record. I recorded it, turned it in, then (the record company) sat on it for a few months. They finally put it out, and it was eight weeks at No. 1."
Of course, awards and sales figures don't always tell the truth in jazz. Benoit has a Grammy on his mantle, a best fusion award for 1987's "Every Step of the Way."
You may also know Benoit from his TV work--adapting pianist Vince Guaraldi's classic score for "Charlie Brown," or from Benoit's own scores for "Garfield" specials or music for the current series "Sirens."
Needless to say, Benoit's career hasn't been devoted to the jazz muse, and you can sometimes hear it in his glossy sense of swing or his tentative approach to the mainstream jazz vocabulary. He seems to be learning in public.
If ever there were an artist destined to wind up on the successful GRP label, it was Benoit, whose early handful of albums for the small AVI label gained growing attention for their breezy blends of pop confection and hints of jazziness.
But it was a dream come true when the deal came through in 1986, as Benoit recalled: "Larry Rosen (co-head of GRP) called me at home and left a message on my machine, saying that he'd like to sign me to the label. It was real straightforward. It was simple.
"The whole time, I was thinking to myself, 'This is too easy.' You hear these stories about people shopping tapes and the whole process."
One of the Benoit trademarks is his use of acoustic piano, whether in strictly acoustic jazz settings or as the main ingredient in more synthesizer-heavy contexts.
It's not that he has sworn off electronics. "I got into them pretty heavily on my previous album, 'Shadows,' but on every record they're pretty much in the background, in a supportive role.
"The acoustic piano got started for me years ago," Benoit said. "Of course, now there are several artists who have abandoned the synthesizer and the Rhodes (electric piano) and gone back to it. The hardest part of it is finding a good instrument playing live in certain parts of the country."
It's probably safe to say that the piano will be in tune and ready for action when Benoit hits the Ventura stage.
Local Man Bites Bullet
Ted Killian, that intuitive guitar-wielding artist-guerrilla, moved out of Ventura last year, after living here for several years and staging some memorable performances. But his memory lingers on, not to mention his place of work: as an art director for the Ventura-based Gospel Light publishing house.
Killian took his act to town in Santa Barbara last Saturday night for the first time since moving there. "Exquisite Corpse x 4" was named after a surrealist parlor game in which players answer each other's ideas, creating a collective stream-of-consciousness telephone game.
In this wholly improvisational evening, the spirit was one of pushing past conventions, both in terms of musical language and "proper" instrumental techniques. Los Angeleno Bob Fernandez proved a fascinating and sensitive percussionist who made music on both "legitimate" instruments and also such oddities as jars of water.
Bassist Jim Connolly abused his upright bass in evocative ways, hitting it, stroking it, bowing it and even playing it. Killian cooked up, well, a Killian-ian sonic stew. Loose, loony, loopy materials rose up through his elaborate electronic set-up.
Meanwhile, keyboardist Richard Dunlap brilliantly worked both his own electronic gear and grand piano, creating some of the most intriguing musical imagery of the evening. It was another fine new music mess, the kind that Ventura has grown accustomed to--and that Santa Barbara may have to get used to.
Local Boy Making Good, Continued