Take some Scottish folk music and mix liberally with a love for Japanese animation. Alan Benzie insists there are overlaps that fuel his imagination.
There’s a playful and jaunty quality to “Frog Town on the Hill” as his Trio – with Alan on piano, a bassist and a percussionist – winds through key modulations. Alan’s known to sneak in some bluesy chords.
“Glass” starts out slightly dark and opens up to the light, the groove kept beautifully melodic by Alan with outstanding solo work from the bass. Percussion weighs in with just the right amount of layering and crashes to add tension.
They’re at once in their own head yet experiencing simultaneous sunburst moments. Watch the supreme joy happen; these musicians open up with huge smiles at the same time from one song to the next.
Even though you started on violin, you went over to the piano. How did those early musical experiences inform your sensibility with the piano?
I must admit that I had next to no interest in the piano until I discovered jazz in my mid-teens – and I’m just so grateful that my teacher, Margaret Wakeford, refused to give up on me despite my lack of practice!
The violin gave me an appreciation for melody, something that has been important to me in my playing and writing as a jazz pianist. It’s especially important in the piano trio format, as you need to make sure you bring the melody out clearly and shape it well. It sounds simple, but can be deceptively tricky.
Talk about the influence of the Swedish band EST?
While I was familiar with, and enjoyed, various jazz before I came across EST, they were the ones who made me actually want to try doing it myself. I think it was a guy a few years above me at school who lent me one of their records.
I was right at the front of any show they did in Scotland and actually had the chance to meet and talk to Esbjorn at quite some length a number of times. He was just a fantastic guy, so friendly and encouraging, and willing to take the time to hang out with me when he must have been exhausted from all the traveling and performing.
He got me guest tickets when played in Edinburgh on my birthday and he also gave me his original handwritten chart for “The Gold-Hearted Miner” – just ripped it out of his manuscript pad! So there was a relationship of sorts there, and that certainly fueled my enthusiasm for trying to play myself.
Rather than the sound of jazz as such, I think it was the opportunity to improvise that really grabbed me, although I quickly became entranced by the sound of jazz chords and rhythms once I started learning and practicing. I read a review that said “there is no overt Svensson and E.S.T influence in Benzie’s music, save perhaps for a shared gift for melody” – I think it may go a little beyond that, but if the melody bit is true, I’d be very happy indeed.
How do both Japanese animation AND Scottish folk art influence your music today?
With Japanese animation there is just such a broad range of art styles and story types. I think many people don’t realize how much depth there is to the medium, and you can do things with drawing/painting that can’t really be done the same way with acting or CGI.
My favorites tend to be beautifully drawn with keen attention to detail, often have somewhat fantastical elements to the stories or settings, and have great soundtracks (the films of Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli spring to mind, but there’s loads of good stuff out there).
That combination of imagery and sound definitely influences how I write, as almost all of my tunes have an image or story behind them, and quite a few of those ideas come from watching those shows. Having that background imagery to the tune can be really helpful for people in the audience who aren’t usually modern jazz fans. It gives them something to hang onto.
As for Scotland, it’s really the landscapes rather than folk art. Just driving ’round the country can be quite awe-inspiring, and while it may seem rather cliché to say you get your inspiration from landscapes, I do think that it is true in my case. Landscapes combined with weather and the passing of time – both in a daily sense and a longer sense. There is something that just kind of fascinates me.
I might add that Scottish folk music is also in there somewhere. I grew up with it on the radio after bath time as a kid, and in the air here a lot, and while I don’t think I have any overtly Scottish-sounding tunes, it can be felt in some of the contours of the melodies.
How would you characterize your trio’s overall sound?
This one is an eternal struggle for me! In fact, if people would get in touch with how it sounds to them, I would just love that! It can be kind of hard to describe these things coherently from the inside. It’s such a personal thing, all tied up with perception and emotion.
Reviewers and audience members use words like lyrical, melodic, elegant, reflective, impressionistic, touch, beautiful etc. quite a lot, but also things like imaginative, epic, dynamic, groovy and words relating to how we interact as a trio – interplay, empathy, great team, instinctive ensemble, etc. If only I had a compact and fun way of saying all that! I like to think that there is a warmth and joy at the center of it all, the sound of three friends enjoying making music together.
In more technical terms we take the energy, rhythmic drive, improvisation and interplay of jazz, and combine that with melodic and textural elements from classical impressionist and film music with a strong sense of narrative and imagery. We have a pretty wide dynamic range for a jazz piano trio (we like to play really quiet and really loud, and lots of bits in-between), and we are probably at the slightly more accessible end of things in modern jazz terms.
What do you most love about the Scottish jazz scene?
I think that, for such a small country, Scotland has quite a high number of good players doing different kinds of things, both here and abroad – and that’s great!
I love the combination of Scottish folk music and jazz when it’s done well too. I’m also involved in teaching and playing with some of the younger musicians on the scene, and I guess there’s a nice feeling of mutual respect, openness and enthusiasm among them. They don’t really have much in the way of hang-ups and prejudices about the music.
What’s your favorite venue anywhere in the world?
I’m not big on picking favorites in general, things can be so dependent on mood, timing, your specific experience. There are so many cool places that I have been fortunate to play in, each great in their own ways. I think the experience of a venue is also inextricably linked to the audience and how the music feels there, which can change from performance to performance in the same venue.
I have a preference for venues that are big enough for decent stage space and good piano, but where you can still get a nice sense of intimacy with the audience. And don’t forget the sound engineer, they can have a huge impact.
In terms of playing in intimate rooms with a nice vibe and decent piano, I think Japan has been the most consistent for me on that front. A lot of places seem to be run with love and care.
Where would you most love to play?
Maybe Italy? But that might be mostly so I could eat the food… I’d also love to play in Scandinavia, haven’t had the chance yet, but a lot of musicians I love come from that general part of the world.
Talk about the personnel in the trio and how you mesh so well.
I’m lucky to have a trio with two musicians whom I respect immensely, love playing with and are close friends too: Andrew Robb on bass, and Marton Juhasz on drums.
Andrew has this deep, warm, and – crucially – very clear sound out of the bass and he has great intonation and general technical command. He also has a nice sense of melody and writes some great tunes too, a couple of which will be on our upcoming record.
I have known Andrew since we played in the National Children’s Orchestra of Scotland together (back when I did classical violin). We also went to the same school for a year, and played in the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland and Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra together, so we go back a long way and have done a lot of playing together in different situations at different stages.
My favorite thing about Marton is his touch. He has all the stuff you would expect: good timing, technique, phrasing etc., but it’s his range and flexibility of sound and dynamics that really gets me. He understands the sound world we are going for. Your drummer can really make or break that!
Marton was one of my best friends and most frequent collaborators at Berklee, and there was a good while we were playing together in some capacity pretty much every day. I may not have known him quite as long as Andrew, but there was possibly a more intense interaction there within a shorter period, and certainly a very formative time for both of us.
When I brought the trio together, I was the common thread there, so it took a while for Andrew and Marton to get to know each other musically and personally, but I definitely feel that things mesh very well now. To be honest, I think just playing a lot together, hanging out, touring, talking about music and other stuff – if you do enough of that and stick with it, things should come together nicely as long as the musical tendencies and personalities fit. But having those close and long-term friendships and musical partnerships with Andrew and Marton to begin with was definitely helpful, and does impact the overall sound.
What’s the biggest challenge in playing different pianos in each venue – and how do you prepare for that?
I’ve played pianos where a ton of keys aren’t working properly, or are horribly out of tune. I’ve played the most gorgeous pianos, and everything in between.
There is a massive range of quality and maintenance out there! If the piano is in bad shape, then it can be an exercise in damage limitation. The challenge is to learn quickly where the problems are and try to make the best music you can while avoiding the problems – or make music out of the problems!
Beyond that, it’s a little more subtle. It might be the weight of the keys, how they respond to different touches, the clarity and tone of different registers, the effect of the left pedal, things like that. Trying to get a feel for that quickly is a really important skill for pianists. Ideally, you have some time to get acquainted with the piano wherever you are playing.
As for preparation, I don’t do anything specific, but rather aim to find ways of getting my sound across to the listener regardless of the instrument. Having generally sound technique and a strong sense of the sound you want to make definitely helps, and I always try to make the piano sing, whisper and shout, even if it is uncooperative!
When did you realize you wanted to study at Berklee?
I realized rather late. I was aiming to be a classical violinist until I was about 15, so I only had about a year and a half before I needed to audition if I wanted to go there after secondary school. Two of my mentors at that time had been to Berklee, the great saxophonist Tommy Smith and brilliant pianist Steve Hamilton. I think I wanted to follow in their footsteps.
I can see, now, why some people had their misgivings. My piano playing was described as “rudimentary, at best” when I started saying I wanted to do jazz piano seriously. And there was a fair amount of resistance to doing jazz seriously at a very classical-focused music school (things are a little more open now).
But I also had some great support, great teachers, and was utterly obsessed. You couldn’t get me away from the thing! So I made it somehow and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I was also lucky to get a good scholarship and funding from the UK. Going to Berklee would have been impossible without it.
It was my first time in the US, and I wish I had taken the chance to see more of the country, although it is massive. I think you could fit all of Scotland into New England twice, and still have room for most of Massachusetts. I was lucky that Berklee sent my quartet to tour on the West Coast, and I also got to play at the Monterey and Rochester Jazz Festivals, not to mention New York, of course! I also stayed with a friend in Tucson, Arizona over spring break one year, and went to another friend’s house in the woods of New Hampshire for Thanksgiving. But I guess I was so busy shedding, playing and learning that I felt I barely got out into Boston at times.
If you had a guest musician in your trio, what instrument would it be?
Another tough one! I did have a quartet at Berklee with trumpet/flugelhorn, and I could imagine that working. They say that the trumpet is one of the closest instruments to the human voice, and it may be that that’s why I like it – or maybe it’s the mix of sensitivity and sheer power that’s possible with it.
I’d love to work with a great vocalist at some point too. Guitar would also be great. I was a HUGE Jimi Hendrix fan in my teens (still love him!), and have loved the guitar since then. That could be fun, as the guitar is another chordal instrument, so it would open up some more textural possibilities as well as exploring the different roles we could have in the music, both in a composed and an improvised way. With effects, pedals, etc. there are so many options, and again, there is that balance of sensitivity and raw power.
Talk about how you became involved in Fat-Suit (and what it is); and how was it different from your Trio?
I met the guys in Fat-Suit through some teaching I did for the jazz course at Strathclyde University here in Glasgow. They were students on the course at the time, but as pretty close in age, we became friends quickly.
They are all really nice, fun people. I was vaguely aware that they had a band that was heavily Snarky Puppy-influenced at the time, but didn’t really know much more about it until I went along to one of their gigs in Glasgow.
I was pretty surprised and blown away. The place was absolutely rammed, there must have been about 400 people crammed in and having a total blast! It was such a different atmosphere to the usual jazz thing, and their music was much less “Snarky Puppy copy” than I had expected. Anyway, I really enjoyed the gig and told them to call me if they ever needed a keys player. The rest is history I guess.
The band is quite interesting, as it is a collective of musicians from different genres on the Scottish scene, and those styles and approaches all come together to form the sound. I think the most obvious influences are rock, funk and jazz, but there are Scottish traditional, dance and minimalist influences in there too – and the ratios of those things vary depending on who wrote the tune, who is currently in the band, how we arrange it, etc. We probably irritate purists in many genres, and I think that’s a good thing. The upshot is that we have a pretty diverse and open-minded audience, and it’s great to play to rooms with that kind of energy.
The obvious difference with the trio is size: Fat-Suit is usually about 13 musicians, though it has been as few as eight and as many as about 20. While I suppose my role in the band is to bring that jazz comping and soloing thing, I definitely had to learn to play less and simplify in places too, to really suit the overall sound. That is a challenge that I really enjoy now, staying creative with much less room.
Future plans for touring in 2018?
The trio is going to be touring in Europe and the UK in February to release our new album, which we have just successfully crowdfunded! And we are also looking at another tour later in the year. I’m sure we’ll also tour with Fat-Suit and possibly a few other projects I’m involved in.
What will you do to grow in 2018?
Releasing the album mentioned above will probably be the main thrust of 2018. I can’t wait! And I’ll continue with the various projects I’m doing, as well as writing, performing, teaching and practicing of course.
Little-known fact about you?
Outside music, I’m really into tennis and I speak pretty fluent Japanese. Oh, and I’m a twin, with a genetically identical brother. And no, I don’t feel his pain, but we have always got on really well.
A lot of these questions really made me think about some things that I hadn’t considered, or find it really hard to answer – so it was great to have to try and come up with coherent and accurate answers! But I think I have rambled enough, so I’ll stop there…
For more information, visit www.alanbenzie.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Alan Benzie. Top photo (c) William Johnston; bottom photo (c) Aiga Ozolina.
© Debbie Burke 2017