Daniel Bennett took the sax and his imagination and pivoted. The result is a unique collection of music that builds layer upon layer of woodwinds (sax, flute, clarinet and oboe) with Mark Cocheo’s guitar and its stringed brethren (mandolin, banjo) to amazing effect. “We Are The Orchestra” has a unique, American folk-meets-jazz feeling to it with each track a singular treat. You may wonder about the reason behind the name “Loose-Fitting Spare Tire” until you hear the interesting chord changes as this upbeat melody bops left, right and diagonally. The blissful, high-energy “Inside Our Pizza Oven” is funny, friendly and rhythmically mesmerizing. The surprise of a fat electric guitar cuts through “Carl Finds His Way” and the modern take on Verdi’s darkish waltz “Il Trovatore” features Bennett’s melodic sax, then saxes, that weave lush harmonies together for a sunny resolution.
What do you love absolutely the most about the saxophone?
The saxophone is truly of the most versatile instruments. I started playing the saxophone when I was ten years old. My older sister took me to a high school jazz concert. I heard a saxophonist named Chris Oldfield and was absolutely blown away by his sound. The instrument is relatively “young” compared to other orchestral instruments. Adolphe Sax patented the saxophone in 1846. But the saxophone has been adapted itself quickly into the world of pop, jazz, classical and world music.
I make my living as a jazz player, but I am actually classically trained. I have a Master’s degree in Saxophone Performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston. While studying at NEC, I performed music by contemporary classical composers like Ingolf Dahl, Paul Creston, Eugene Bozza, Pierre-Max Dubois and Alfred Desenclos. The saxophone world is huge and there are many ways to express yourself on this instrument. It’s quite amazing!
What was the most important take-away from your formal music education?
You must be versatile! This is something I resisted for years. As a young artist, I wanted to be good at just ONE thing. I saw myself as a jazz alto saxophonist. But I was forced into many diverse musical situations throughout my college years. At the New England Conservatory, I performed numerous transcriptions of pieces by Rachmaninoff, Bach and Mozart. In addition, I was playing new music by adventurous young composers. I was also playing jazz with renowned musicians like Bob Moses. In 2002, I performed the Concertino da Camera by Jacques Ibert as a soloist with the Roberts Wesleyan College Orchestra. I really struggled to leap back and forth between musical styles. But it truly shaped who I am as a musician.
What don’t they teach you that has been a valuable lesson you had to learn on your own?
I learned to be an entertainer on the streets. I didn’t learn it in school.
I am very influenced by the music of Steve Reich, Ornette Coleman and the Smiths. That’s a strange mix of music, but the common thread is MELODY! To me, melody is the most important element.
I grew up playing in church, so I love hymns like “It is Well with My Soul” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I see no boundary line between any genre of music. I transcribe Paul Desmond saxophone solos every week. I just transcribed his solo on “Out of Nowhere.” Some of his lines could have been pulled from a Bach invention. So beautiful!
Talk about the sound and what each member contributes in the Daniel Bennett Group.
My early recordings have a very strong American folk aesthetic. The group sound has evolved over time. The music is more “electric” than it used to be. The Boston Globe describes our music as “a mix of jazz, folk, and minimalism.” That’s a great description.
The current line-up for my touring trio is Nat Janoff on guitar and Koko Bermejo on drums.
What is your most recent CD with this ensemble?
The most recent recording with the full band is “Sinking Houseboat Confusion.” I also recently released “We Are the Orchestra,” a special duo album with guitarist Mark Cocheo.
Fascinating way of recording “We Are The Orchestra” with both you and Mark Cocheo playing everything. Was this difficult to pull off?
It was not easy! The new album is a bold departure from previous works. Mark and I recorded and layered all of the wind, string and percussion instruments to create the sound of a large ensemble. We played 16 instruments on the album! The music blends modern jazz, folk and classical music with an infusion of our usual offbeat humor. This is my 8th full-length album as a bandleader.
How did the commission from the Whitney Museum come about?
I recently composed the musical score for stage adaptations of ‘Frankenstein’ and ‘Brave Smiles’ at the Hudson Guild Theater in Manhattan. Jim Furlong is the artistic director of the Hudson Guild. In early 2018, Jim asked me to arrange the music for Whitman at the Whitney, a show featuring the poetry of Walt Whitman set to music. We launched the show at the Whitney Museum in New York City. Walt Whitman loved opera and American folk music. Jim wanted us to combine these elements throughout the production. Strange combination, but it worked brilliantly!
How did you think of inviting the banjo into jazz and what is the audience reaction to it?
Listeners are always confused by me. That’s the story of my life! Every album I release has a strange twist to it. I have found that listeners will adjust quickly. You just need to presently yourself confidently and your audience will follow. That’s the beauty of making music in 2019. You can try anything!
Was it fun to reinterpret operatic themes as jazz melodies?
Composers like Verdi and Mozart had such a strong melodic sense. It was very easy to transfer these melodies to my woodwind instruments. The most challenging part was sitting down and transcribing the actual chords from the original opera arrangements. I had a few scores to work with, but a lot of this was done by ear.
Talk about “Blank, the Musical” and how it has sharpened you as a soloist/improviser?
‘Blank! the Musical’ is the first fully improvised musical to launch on a national stage. The audience creates a full musical theater show on their phone and we improvise a show on the spot. They create the show title, song titles, dance styles, melodic themes and much more. The actors and the band have to listen closely and work together as a team. It is a very challenging show.
We’ve been performing the show since 2014. We first launched at New World Stages in Times Square. Now the show is at the popular Green Room 42 venue in midtown Manhattan. My job is to play fixed melodies that the audience can remember. This has really sharpened my listening skills.
What do you most want people to know…or to feel…about your music?
My goal is to worship God and serve the people. I hope people feel that when they hear my music or see me perform in concert.
I have never tried to fit into a specific scene. We play jazz clubs and festivals. But we also play in rock venues and theater. We just wrapped a show at the Oaks Theater in Pittsburgh. Every night is different. We play at the Blue Note in New York City every year. That is definitely a jazz crowd. But the next night we could be performing for a classical audience at a museum. I don’t restrict myself to any genre or demographic. I encourage young musicians to break free from the mainstream jazz world. Follow your own path!
For more information visit https://danielbennett.net/home.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Daniel Bennett. Top photo (c) Jesse Winter.
© Debbie Burke 2019