by Ian Mann
March 09, 2018
“Little Mysteries” combines excellent, highly melodic writing with top quality playing and a strong sense of improvisation and group interaction.
Alan Benzie Trio
(Self released ABTCD1801)
“Little Mysteries” is the second album release by the trio led by the Scottish pianist and composer Alan Benzie. The group line up also features double bassist Andrew Robb and Hungarian born drummer Marton Juhasz, two of Benzie’s long time friends and collaborators.
The album builds upon the success of the trio’s 2015 début “Traveller’s Tales” and draws upon similar inspirations including the trio’s travels as musicians plus Benzie’s love of the landscape of his native Scotland and his passion for cinema, and particularly the genre of Japanese animation. Such is Benzie’s love for this art form and Japanese culture in general that he is now based in that country.
Benzie hails from Glasgow and was the first winner of the Young Scottish Musician of the Year Award in 2007. He then went on to study at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, USA following in the footsteps of Edinburgh born saxophonist Tommy Smith, an inspirational figure for a whole generation of Scottish jazz musicians. Benzie studied with Joanne Brackeen, Joe Lovano and Laszlo Gardony and became the first British student to win the College’s prestigious Billboard Award, joining an illustrious list of former winners including pianist Hiromi and saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Walter Smith III.
Benzie first came to my attention with his contribution to “Future Pop”, a 2010 album release by Human Equivalent, a band led by Scottish born saxophonist and composer Leah Gough-Cooper, another Berklee alumnus. “Future Pop” also features the drumming of Patrick Kunka, yet another Scottish musician who studied at Berklee.
In November 2015 I enjoyed a performance by the Benzie Trio at Kings Place as part of that year’s EFG London Jazz Festival. The trio were supporting the ensemble led by Norwegian tuba player Daniel Herskedal and for Benzie the gig represented a triumph in the face of adversity. Paris resident Juhasz had been unable to travel due to the terrorist atrocities at the Bataclan and other locations in the city the night before. He was replaced by Jon Scott who had not even had time to rehearse with Benzie and Robb before the show but who performed brilliantly as a ‘dep’, impressing with his sight reading abilities and responsive, highly skilled drumming. Benzie and his colleagues were rewarded with a great audience reaction and CD sales during the interval were correspondingly brisk.
The versatile Benzie also plays electric keyboards with Fat Suit, the Scottish contemporary big band who also played at the 2015 EFG London Jazz Festival. Inspired by Snarky Puppy and often likened to Loose Tubes and Beats & Pieces Big Band the sparky and irreverent Scottish collective released the excellent album “Atlas” in 2016 and my review of that recording can be read here;
The album title “Little Mysteries” references the challenges the trio have faced in recent years, particularly in view of the fact that its members now all live in different countries. “There have been lots of little mysteries for us to solve” explains Benzie “how to keep the trio going, what direction to take and how on earth we would fund the new album”. This last issue was addressed with the launch of a successful crowdfunding campaign.
The title is also a cross reference to the previous album. “It felt like a good way to express the connection with Traveller’s Tales” Benzie says, “that sense of short stories or glimpses that are often quirky or fantastical. Each of the tunes are little mysteries by themselves, some based on real world experiences, others much more in the realm of fantasy. As with the first album pretty much all the tunes are written with a specific image, narrative or mood in mind and this is reflected in the tune’s title”.
That sense of continuity is reinforced by the trio’s decision to record the new album at the same studio as its predecessor, Castlesound Studios in Pencaitland, Scotland with the engineering team of Stuart Hamilton and Calum Malcolm again in place. Benzie even uses the same piano, a Steinway B generously loaned by Neil McLean.
Benzie’s pianistic inspirations include Marcin Wasilewski and the late Esbjorn Svensson and there’s also something of Bill Evans and John Taylor in a sound that is also influenced by classical composers such as Debussy, Satie and Ravel. Keith Jarrett and Brad Mehldau have been suggested as influences also. But for all this Benzie has developed an increasingly individual sound that is very much his own.
The nine original pieces that constitute “Little Mysteries” include nine Benzie originals plus two compositions from the pen of bassist Andrew Robb. The programme commences with Benzie’s “Natsume” which opens with the sound of Robb’s unaccompanied bass, which is soon joined by the rustle of Juhasz’s percussion. The bassist pretty much carries the melody, remaining at the centre of the music almost throughout, accompanied by Benzie’s economical piano chording and Juhasz’s increasingly exotic percussion shadings. It’s an intriguing and effective opener that acts as a kind of overture for the more conventional piano jazz to follow.
The strikingly titled “The Warrior Who Became A Tiger” then springs into action. It’s an episodic but highly energetic piece that allows Benzie the opportunity to stretch out more expansively, demonstrating his classically honed sureness of touch at that marvellous Steinway piano. The closing stages of the tune include something of a drum feature for the consistently excellent Juhasz.
Robb’s “Beslan” follows, a piece that was already in the trio’s repertoire at the time of that 2015 Kings Place performance. The mood here is more impressionistic and lyrical and includes a melodic bass solo from the composer and exquisite brushed cymbal work from Juhasz.
It’s Juhasz’s brushed drums that introduce “Hatake Song”, one of the tunes that Benzie describes as being inspired by real life experiences. Despite the title there are elements of Scottish folk music in the melody. The piece includes another excellent solo from Robb, a former BBC Young Scottish Young Jazz Musician of the Year, and a compelling brushed drum feature from Juhasz.
The evocative and atmospheric “Sunken Ruins” exudes a real sense of place as it unfolds slowly and lyrically, centred around the leader’s rolling piano patterns and featuring further exquisite cymbal work from Juhasz. Robb also plays his part with a pensive bass solo mid tune, accompanied by sparse piano chording and feathery brushed drums. Benzie then takes the opportunity to stretch out more expansively before the piece comes full circle, Benzie’s rolling chords emulating the motion of ocean waves.
Robb’s second offering with the pen is “Red Street”, introduced with a brief salvo from Juhasz’s drums. It’s a more upbeat composition than his earlier ballad and his agile, propulsive bass lines, coupled with Juhasz’s similarly nimble drumming elicit a sparkling solo from Benzie, the pianist’s fingers dancing lightly across the keys. Meanwhile the composer combines a strong melodic sense with great dexterity on his double bass solo.
“There Will Be Other Sunsets” deploys a song-like structure and features a gorgeous piano melody, supported by measured bass and emphatically brushed drums. As it progresses and expands the piece takes on a genuinely anthemic quality, expressing something of the beauty and grandeur of the sunset referenced in the title. In the midst of it all Robb delivers a typically melodic and fluent bass solo.
As its title suggests “Inexorable” builds slowly from a quiet, almost minimalist, introduction featuring quiet piano and bass arpeggios to an unstoppable momentum with the bass and drum grooves getting ever stronger, more vigorous and more virtuosic, particularly in the case of Juhasz who moves from the subtlest of brushed drum accompaniment to hammering the hell out of his kit. Along the way we get to enjoy a dazzling solo from Benzie as the pianist stretches out thrillingly and expansively.
Finally the gently lyrical, and very beautiful, solo piano piece “The Rest Of His Days” acts as a kind of epilogue or valedictory.
Building on the success of the début album “Little Mysteries” is a worthy successor to “Traveller’s Tales”. Despite the logistical difficulties one can appreciate why Benzie was so keen to keep this well balanced and highly democratic and interactive trio together. The resultant music is a testament to his faith.
“Little Mysteries” combines excellent, highly melodic writing with top quality playing and a strong sense of improvisation and group interaction. The tunes may largely be Benzie’s but when the trio interprets them it becomes a trio of equals with both Robb and Juhasz having a huge input into the finished product. Benzie himself is excellent, his technique matched by his melodic and interpretive skills. He is a virtuoso, but one who eschews showing off in favour of telling musical stories, and as such he’s a master narrator.
Despite his international accompaniments Benzie remains little known to jazz audiences in the UK. Albums like “Traveller’s Tales” and “Little Mysteries” deserve to change all that.
Digital copies of “Little Mysteries” are available from CD Baby, Amazon and iTunes. Physical copies are available from http://www.alanbenzie.com or at gigs.
blog comments powered by Disqus