by Ian Mann
May 27, 2021
It’s an album that is accessible and fun, but which also reveals hidden depths upon closer listening. Bennett’s immersion in Indian music and rhythms helps to bring something fresh to the music.
Richard X Bennett
Richard X Bennett – piano, melodica, Adam Armstrong – acoustic bass, Julian Edmond – drums
The British label Ubuntu, founded by the London based American entrepreneur Martin Hummel, is to release “RXB3”, the latest album by the Canadian born, Brooklyn based pianist and composer Richard X Bennett.
I suspect that prior to this release for a UK label that Bennett has probably been something of an unknown quantity for British audiences. Nevertheless he’s a prolific and versatile musician whose work crosses the boundaries of jazz, electronica, Indian music and more.
Bennett has released a series of acclaimed ‘raga jazz’ albums for a variety of Indian record labels, including one of that country’s biggest imprints, Times Music,
Back in the US he has released a jazz quintet recording “Experiments With Truth” (2017) for the independent Ropeadope, the band featuring Adam Armstrong on bass, Adam Wyatt on drums and twin saxophonists Lisa Parrott (baritone) and Matt Parker (tenor / soprano). This was teamed with contemporaneous trio set “What Is Now” (also Ropeadope), recorded with Armstrong and Wyatt. The quintet recording draws on Indian rhythms with Bennett describing the music of the quintet as “kind of like Mingus meets raga in the 21st century”. The trio recording is more song based and is rooted in various forms of popular music, it can arguably be seen as the forerunner to “RXB3”.
Bennett has also released a series of ambient / electronic albums for Ropeadope, either working solo with piano and electronics or collaborating with the electronic artist HUW.
He has also recorded with his partner, vocalist and percussionist Paula Jeanine Bennett and with his former bands Quarkestra and The Wild Anacondas.
More recently Bennett has worked in a duo with alto saxophonist Michael Blake and has composed music for dance and theatre.
Thanks to his involvement with Indian music and his love for pop and rock Bennett has developed an affinity for vocals. “RXB3”, the title of which probably also represents a band name, introduces Bennett’s concept of “Bounce Jazz” or “Theme & Destruction”. Each of the tracks is relatively short and many have a song like construction.
Bennett describes his conception for the album thus;
“Each song begins as a bespoke piano pattern. The melodies evolve from these patterns, resulting in a multitude of ideas that exist together. I create modern music with a funky and melodic fabric and then tear it apart. My expectation is that you can listen, dance, or vibe to this music at your leisure and pleasure. Listen closer and you will hear jazz, contemporary classical and Indian raga elements threaded together throughout. The rhythm section has that bounce that I like. I met drummer Julian Edmond during the pandemic and immediately knew that he could raise the music to a new level. Bassist Adam Armstrong has that big jazz sound that roots us in the tradition.”
Ubuntu label boss Martin Hummel sums up Bennett’s music as follows;
“Richard’s is, indisputably, a unique and eclectic breed of the modern piano trio. His compositions are an intoxicating mixture of inviting, seductive melodies which are underpinned by a take no prisoners collision of funk meets raga meets jazz. It’s an addictive musical cocktail for the head, the heart and the feet.”
Bennett himself cites the use of triplet rhythmic patterns, a device employed by artists ranging from Duke Ellington to the contemporary rap group Migos. He describes his pieces as “short takes on the classical ‘theme and variation’, given an edge by de-constructing such themes in a whirlwind of improv, transforming this long-standing technique into ‘theme and destruction’.”
Album opener “I Come From The Future” gets the album off to a rousing start and demonstrates Bennett’s principles. An attractive melodic hook is combined with a propulsive groove, the melodic and rhythmic variations becoming more complex as the music gathers momentum. British listeners may be reminded of the music of the Neil Cowley Trio in their hey-day, and if, like me, you were ever a Cowley fan then the chances are that you’ll like this too. Bennett’s variations are underpinned by the boom of Armstrong’s bass and the hip hop influenced grooves laid down by Edmond, a drummer with a background in gospel music. The music builds to a frenetic peak before finally subsiding. As the album cover reveals Bennett is a flamboyant dresser, strongly influenced by the visual arts, who very much considers himself to be an ‘entertainer’, despite the complexities of much of his music. One suspects that the trio’s live shows are likely to be hugely exciting, energetic and entertaining affairs.
“This Is My Code” is an intensely rhythmic piece that more obviously exhibits the influence of Indian music. Bennett’s powerful left hand rhythms are complemented by his agile right hand melodies, while Armstrong and Redmond generate increasingly complex rhythmic patterns. It’s less obviously ‘Cowley-esque’ than the previous piece and thus constitutes a more representative example of Bennett’s eclecticism.
However it’s not all hammer and tongs. “It’s Only July” is a ballad with a song like construction, introduced by Bennett alone at the piano and later featuring Armstrong’s deeply resonant, but highly melodic, bass and Redmond’s economic, subtly glitchy, drumming. It’s the kind of tune that invites the addition of lyrics and vocals.
“Laughing Lion” is a brief but intensely rhythmic excursion that sees the trio returning to broadly Cowley-esque territory, albeit with a funk and raga twist.
Jointly credited to Paula Jeanine Bennett and Richard X Bennett “One Voice” is the album’s second ballad, another piece that demands the addition of lyrics and vocals. Deeply melodic and strongly rooted in pop and soul this is very much a ‘song without words’.
“Made From Stone” delivers the promised dose of funk with Bennett’s infectious piano hook taking Redmond back to his gospel roots. Armstrong, a powerful presence throughout, also features as a soloist, with two separate bass features.
There’s no let up with regard to the energy levels as we are plunged into the rhythmic turbulence that is “North Atlantic”, with Bennett’s thunderous left hand figures combining with Armstrong’s bass and the busy clatter of Redmond’s drums. Shards of left hand melody pierce the dark like lighthouse beams, before flickering out entirely, briefly leaving Redmond an Armstrong marooned - but still kicking up a storm.
The quirky “Vape” features Bennett doubling on piano and melodica, the accordion like tone of the latter given the music a quasi-Parisian flavour. Armstrong’s bass is featured once more, again combining melodicism with an impressive dexterity and a deep resonance.
“All Organic” mixes old school piano jazz with a more contemporary syncopated groove while “Plastique” begins by deploying a shuffling hip hop inspired groove and investigating the kinds of rhythms associated with electronic dance music in an acoustic setting, inviting comparisons with GoGo Penguin and the Swiss trio Plaistow. However, as if to emphasise the malleability implied in the title the piece also incorporates a more freely structured episode, this containing a solo drum cameo from Redmond.
“The Reckoning” commences with solo piano, with the emphasis on the rhythmic ‘low end’. Eventually Bennett is joined by bass and drums as the piece begins to gather momentum, rather like a runaway juggernaut. Again there’s something of the GoGo Penguin / Plaistow approach here.
The album concludes with the only piece that doesn’t feature Bennett the composer. “Tum Hi Ho” is a Bollywood standard written by Mithoon for the movie “Aashiqui 2”. This ballad was frequently played as an encore by Bennett at his raga concerts in India. Here performed in a jazz setting it still retains its ‘lighter waving’ qualities. “Ballads should be all about feel” says Bennett, and this piece, with its song like structure, has this in abundance.
“RXB3” is very different to a mainstream jazz piano trio album, and is also somewhat removed from the many post E.S.T. piano trio recordings, which these days can all start to sound pretty similar.
The flamboyant Bennett’s immersion in Indian music and rhythms helps to bring something fresh to the music, whilst avoiding the Indo-Jazz clichés of sitars and tablas. In the main the album is a highly energetic recording and this, plus the relative brevity of the individual pieces may attract criticisms that the record somehow ‘lacks substance’.
It’s a valid argument, but one that be countered by the observation that ‘brevity is the soul of wit’, and in fact Bennett and his colleagues manage to say quite a lot during the course of a recording that is more varied than it might, at first, be given credit for. Bennett and the trio explore a variety of musical genres during the course of the album – jazz, rock, pop, soul, funk, gospel, electronica, avant garde – and of course that all important Indian variant. It’s an album that is accessible and fun, but which also reveals hidden depths upon closer listening.
Whilst I can understand the reservations of others I thoroughly enjoyed this album and would imagine that an RXB3 live performance would be a hugely exciting and enjoyable experience. It’s very much the pianist’s show but the contributions of Armstrong, and particularly the excellent and highly adaptable Redmond shouldn’t be underestimated.
I hope I haven’t overdone the Cowley and GoGo Penguin comparisons but hope that these parallels help to create some kind of context for British listeners.
“RXB3” will be released on Ubuntu Music on Friday May 28th, 2021.
blog comments powered by Disqus