by Ian Mann
July 02, 2015
A strong artistic statement from the talented Benzie. "Traveller's Tales" deserves to bring this young pianist to the attention of the wider jazz public.
Alan Benzie Trio
Alan Benzie is a young pianist and composer 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, also another Berklee alumnus. “Future Pop” also features the drumming of Patrick Kunka, yet another Scottish musician who studied at Berklee.
Benzie is still only twenty five and “Traveller’s Tales” represents his recording début as a leader. It’s a trio set that features Benzie’s regular working group consisting of Andrew Robb (double bass) and the Hungarian born drummer Marton Juhasz. It consists of ten original pieces by the pianist inspired by his travels as a musician, the landscape of his native Scotland and his fascination with Japanese animated films and TV. Indeed Benzie is currently living and working in Japan but this album was immaculately recorded at Castlesound Studios at Pencaitland in Scotland by an engineering team of Stuart Hamilton and Calum Malcolm.
Benzie explains the concept behind the album thus; “All of the tunes have stories behind them and each story is told from the point of view of the same protagonist, the traveller of the album’s title. Who is this person? One half is the image of a traveller I have in my head, likely formed from watching lots of Japanese animated films (particularly Hayao Miyazaki’s work and the TV series “Mushishi). The other half is me, channelling the things I’ve seen and done. This gives the music a fairly wide range of inspirations and sounds, all tied together by the central idea of this traveller and his experiences. I like to think of the longer tunes as being diary entries, quite narrative in style. The shorter ones are perhaps more like images, just a glimpse of a moment in time”.
Apparently Benzie started out aged eight on violin, only moving to the piano in his teens, the change of instruments partly inspired by the playing of the late and much missed Esbjorn Svensson. And yet there is no overt Svensson and E.S.T influence in Benzie’s music, save perhaps for a shared gift for melody. Instead Benzie’s classically inspired lyricism seems to owe more to John Taylor or even Bill Evans and he has also mentioned the Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski as a significant recent influence. Much of Benzie’s writing has a classical Romantic feel to it and seems to owe something to composers such as Debussy, Satie and Ravel.
Most of Benzie’s pieces have literal, highly descriptive titles and the album commences with the appropriately gauzy “Hazy Dawns” with its wisps of piano melody and feathery brushed drum and cymbal work underpinned by Benzie’s gently rippling piano arpeggios.
The following “Glass” is one of the pieces that Benzie states as being informed by actual experience. It’s less impressionistic but is still lyrical and highly melodic. Benzie’s lightness of touch at the Steinway B borrowed from Neil McLean is sublime and he is complemented by Robb’s melodic but imaginative bass solo. Juhasz again exhibits an exquisite cymbal touch in the tune’s early stages but this is one of those pieces that in Benzie’s words is “quite narrative in style”. In keeping with this the music develops, gaining momentum, with Benzie’s own playing becoming increasingly rhapsodic prior to a quieter, more lyrical coda.
“From A to B” is another narrative piece borne out of Benzie’s experience. It follows a similar trajectory to its predecessor, unfolding naturally and elegantly from the lyrical piano and sparse, brushed grooves of the intro. Benzie solos expansively but without ever losing his melodic focus and the support that he receives from bass and drums is characteristically immaculate throughout.
The brief but lovely “Leaf Skeletons” is an appropriately delicate and thoughtful passage of solo piano that represents a delightful interlude - one of those “glimpses of a moment in time”.
Benzie and the trio then unveil a more playful side of their collective musical personality on the sometimes quirky and always charming “Frog Town on the Hill”, one of the tunes inspired by the world of Japanese animated film. The exuberant patter of Juhasz’s hand drums underpins a spirited dialogue between bass and piano with the drummer also picking up his sticks during Benzie’s joyous and spirited solos. This is one of the compositions that Benzie describes as being “very much the realm of the traveller in my head and hence quite fantastical”
By way of contrast the liltingly lyrical “Old Haunts”, with its underlying wistfulness and feeling of nostalgia is another of those pieces with its roots in personal experience. Benzie’s solo is both expansive and flowingly lyrical with the support correspondingly tasteful and well judged, this trio makes a terrific team. Benzie has known fellow Scotsman Robb since his violin playing days with the National Children’s Orchestra of Scotland, and Juhasz was an almost constant musical companion during the pianist’s tenure at Berklee. No wonder they constitute such a well balanced and instinctive ensemble.
The brief “Western Embers” is a sombre but beautiful solo piano interlude that acts as a kind of precursor to “A Wandering Mist”, another of Benzie’s “fantastical” compositions inspired by a Japanese animation, this time depicting the concept of a “sentient mist”. The music itself is highly descriptive, initially delicate and gauzy and including more exquisite cymbal work from Juhasz and a delightfully melodic bass solo from Robb. Of course Benzie himself is also in sparkling form and this particular “fantastical” piece also has a strong narrative arc, something of a necessity for what must be the longest piece on the album (individual track timings are not given on the CD packaging).
“Midnight Café” has a pleasantly relaxed vibe that is entirely appropriate to the title and possesses one of Benzie’s most direct and memorable melodies allied to a subtle blues/gospel feel.
Janusz’s cymbal shimmers and mallet rumbles introduce the closing “Stony Shore”, a highly descriptive slice of genuine trio interaction. The rise and fall of Benzie’s arpeggios allied to the swish of Juhasz’s cymbals seem to replicate the sound of waves crashing on the beach as Robb’s bass is given something of a wandering role during his solo.
Although obviously something of a child prodigy it’s taken Benzie some time to get round to releasing his first album as a leader. It would seem that he’s been biding his time, waiting for the right moment to issue an album that would demonstrate both his playing and writing skills to their best advantage.
That moment has finally arrived with this self released album and “Traveller’s Tales” represents a strong artistic statement from the talented Benzie. He has created a set of ten memorable tunes and his playing, plus that of his colleagues, is exemplary throughout. There is a radiance and beauty about this music that is well served by a sympathetic production and “Traveller’s Tales” deserves to bring Benzie to the attention of the wider jazz public. The music is unashamedly Romantic and may be a little too soft focussed for some listeners but the majority of the jazz audience, and piano fans in particular, should find much to enjoy here. Alan Benzie is a significant new talent and a name to look out for.
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