Interviewed by
Bonnie Schendell
June 12, 2008


With a career of over thirty years and still going strong, pianist David Benoit is always branching out into new endeavors.  He has had numerous smooth jazz successes, a bonding with Charlie Brown that has now evolved into an annual Christmas tour, and a symphonic addiction that has given him the opportunity to create the album of his dreams and to fulfill his passion for conducting.  Now David has released his latest CD, Heroes, which pays tribute to the music and musicians that have influenced his life and brought him into ours.  I was able to catch David in between touring to chat about his new work.

SmoothViews:  Welcome back to SmoothViews!  It’s always my honor and pleasure to speak with you.
David Benoit:  Thank you.  Mine, too.

SV:  Let’s dive right in and talk about the new music.  Your last CD, Full Circle, returned you to the smooth jazz/pop instrumental music your fans have come to love, after a short hiatus.  The new CD, Heroes, returns you to your roots of the music you love and that influenced you in some way.  Why do this album now?
DB:  Well, I’ve wanted to do a record like this for some time.  It’s funny, if you’re familiar with the album, Waiting For Spring, it was supposed be sort of a Waiting for Spring II, but it’s a lot less be-bop and a lot more contemporary jazz.  It didn’t start out that way.  It wasn’t like oh, let’s get more commercial, but it originally was going to be more of a Bill Evans kind of a jazz album, but then it evolved.  Especially with thinking about songs…what I’m trying to say is, I wanted to show the audience something they didn’t expect of influences like the Doors, The Beatles, and Michael Jackson.  It is a big part of me.  Everybody knows about Vince Guaraldi, Dave Brubeck, and Bill Evans, but there were some artists that would probably surprise them.

SV:  Can you give our readers the significance of choosing some of these tunes?  Do they evoke particular memories or life events for you?
DB:  Like “Light My Fire” was a big life event.  The Doors were a huge influence.  It was one of the reasons I got a keyboard because I was the only kid on my block that played piano.  Everyone else played guitar, bass, and drums.  When The Beatles came out in 1964 that was all anyone ever did.  There were no such things as keyboards, until you got to Sgt. Peppers’.  Of course there is a song from that on the CD because that was a very influential record for me.  So, any band that used keyboards were very important, so the Doors were important to me.

SV:  Instead of session musicians, this time you chose to have your touring band record with you. I’m thrilled.  They are terrific musicians.  Do these band members bring something different to the music since they play beside you regularly?
DB:  They do.  First of all they bring a certain comfort zone, and I’ve never had a band like this where I had musicians with this caliber, who really cared so much about me as a person and about the music.  You can feel it.  It’s a difference between playing with people that really care and that are going to be there for you, as opposed to people that are studio musicians and say “Hey man, that was cool” and move on to the next thing.  It was nice to feel like you were in that comfort zone of people that really understand how you play, who listen, and communicate.  It was really terrific.  They really came through.  The engineers and producers like to use studio musicians because they feel they understand sound and production.  And, of course, I produced this record.  I hadn’t produced one in a long while, but it was time.  I’m 54 years old and I’ve been doing this for 30 years, and I know what I want.  I’m very specific.  I had the freedom to choose my musicians, the engineer.  It was so great to be in a comfort zone and not have any weird head trips and just get down to playing some music.

SV:  The entire CD has almost an “unplugged” feel to it, very acoustic piano with nothing extraneous surrounding the melodies.  Was that your intention to just simplify it?
DB:  It was absolutely my intention.  As I mentioned, we were coming back to that Waiting For Spring album, it was the same kind of set up.  The album was recorded live.  The only very minor embellishment was on “Human Nature” where we came back and did a little bit of sweetening, and a little bit for air play purposes, but to give it a little edge.  Outside of that, everything you hear, Andy Suzuki, the strings…it was all live.  I’m proud to say “Blue Rondo A La Turk” was a very difficult piece, but because we were playing it a lot, it was a live take from top to bottom.  None of the solos were edited.  I’ve gotten to a point where I’ve kind of walked away a little from smooth jazz. I was feeling like these producers, well...what I mean is that a lot of the musicians, I’ve never even met them that played on my records.  You know, I’ve had enough of that.  I want to put out a record that’s really honest and my friends in smooth jazz really love this.  Paul Goldstein and Alan Kepler love this and they know the honesty.  I think, if more artists are just willing to make it about the music and not about a lot of extra production, I think we’d be getting some good results.

SV:  I loved hearing the Asia America Symphony on “She’s Leaving Home.” Was this the first time they recorded with you?
DB:  Actually the second time.  They recorded with me on the album Orchestral Stories. Certainly anytime I use an orchestra, it’s going to be that orchestra since I’ve been working with them.  They’re great.  It’s a similar thing.  It’s great to have an orchestra that you know and you know the players.  It’s the same concept.

SV:  I enjoyed reading the Charlie Brown/Schroeder quote on the liner notes. [The quote:  Charlie Brown walks into Schroeder’s living room and he is listening to the stereo in a huge overcoat.  Charlie Brown asks, “Schroeder, why do you have an overcoat on?” Schroeder replies, “Because I get chills listening to Beethoven!”]  What music gives you chills?
DB:  Oh, man…there is so much music.  Let’s put it another way, Bonnie.  If music doesn’t give me chills, then it’s…I mean, that’s my criteria when I hear young composers or I’m a judge, if it’s not giving me chills, then it doesn’t mean it isn’t great, but it’s just not speaking to me.  But isn’t that the great thing about music?  You get that little chill, it’s just so cool.

SV:  What do you plan to do to get your music to the audience now that even the smooth jazz format isn't playing much smooth jazz and there is very little brick and mortar retail left?
DB:  Well, it’s a challenge and I really don’t have an answer to that question.  Here in Los Angeles, I’ve taken some meetings with Paul [Goldstein] and with Alan [Kepler], and I’m getting good air play here.  Now I’ve just discovered Music Choice is all over the music.  We’re going to go to Asia and promote the record all over Japan and Indonesia.  So, it’s kind of like you take one thing at a time.  I’m funny, I don’t ever read sales reports.  I don’t read radio reports.  I just try to go with the music.  This is a time where artists need to network, to get out there, get on the phone, be meeting people because it is a challenging time for anyone in music, but especially in this format, because, like you say, it has really gone through some changes   We’ve really lost a lot of momentum.  But I have no intention of abandoning it.  I think Heroes kind of represents an evolution in smooth jazz where Heroes is very much smooth jazz, but it is kind of coming back to what it used to be.

SV:  If the contemporary jazz format had gone in the direction it was going back in the early 90s, as a fresh, interesting type of current music for adults rather than moving toward soft A/C and oldies, do you think we would be in the situation we are in now?
DB:  Yeah, I think what happened is the tail was wagging the dog.  I think a lot of the smooth jazz producers got really conservative and everyone got more afraid and just wanted air play so bad.   I think the drum machine was a big problem, frankly.  I think that the drum machine made everything monodynamic, so there’s no dynamics.  I mean, you go back to the Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour, and David Sanborn…the people who really founded this format, the Rippingtons, myself, Jeff Lorber…all those guys.  If you go back to that music, there’s dynamics, there’s drum fills, people playing off one another, and a lot of energy.  All of that got sapped out because everyone got so afraid of radio air play.  But the ironic thing is I think a lot of artists like myself, are coming back to live musicians and recording live because it was really nice when I walked into Alan Kepler’s office and I said listen to this and he loved it.  So this myth that smooth jazz has to be drum machines and over production oriented.  People are looking for fresh stuff.  As for the oldies…(laughs)

SV:  It was funny, the Washington, DC smooth jazz station flipped to an oldies station and nobody really knew the difference.
DB:  (laughs)  Isn’t that scary?  That’s the thing.  Even out here, they play these songs that I played years ago when I was in Top 40 bands.  I remember all of those songs.  But they were Top 40; you would never call that jazz.

SV:  And a lot of the jazz festivals are doing the same thing.  They say they are more than jazz.  It’s interesting to see some of the artists that are showing up on the lineups now.
DB:  Bear in mind, too, that thank G*D for the African-American community because they are the ones that aresupporting this music.  They’re the group who are still buying these CDs.  There’s a natural evolution that radio is going more towards the R&B oldies just to retain that African-American audience.  And a lot of the festivals are reflecting that.  I’ve had a hard time getting festivals this year.  It’s really going more towards R&B.  I think with Heroes, since it’s only been out a couple of weeks, I hope it’ll generate a little buzz.  We’ve already started to pick up concert dates.  The concerts coming up are going to be all Heroes music.

SV:  We touched on the Asia America Symphony earlier.  You’ve been working with the Symphony for many years.  How has it changed and how have your abilities changed?
DB:  It has changed very favorably.  We just had our major concert recently.  It was very exciting.  The hard part is that I am writing all of this new music that has nothing to do with smooth jazz.  I wrote a guitar concerto and it was arguably the surprise hit of the evening.  And conducting a full Beethoven symphony was wild!  (laughs)  This has been a great experience for me because we have tried to bridge the gap between what is jazz and what is classical.  This format has been working for us and drawing in good audiences.  This has always been my thing.  I’ve mixed genres.  I’ve done this for so many years that is just comes naturally for me  to explore new boundaries.  Not everyone loves it and I’ve had my detractors, but I keep moving forward.  I think that’s the key of what’s happening in music right now.  Being flexible and being able to change with the tide is what it’s going to be more and more about.  And living on the edge a little bit, too.  We need to get out of our comfort zone sometimes.  Although, having said that, and having my band…that kind of a comfort zone is wonderful, but the musical comfort zone…I get out of that a lot to try new things!

SV:  Some artists are oftentimes too busy to give back or not willing.  You are very unique in opening yourself to others, especially in your mentoring of young musicians. What motivates you to put in so much time with these youngsters? 
DB:  Well, probably a little bit of the youngsters themselves.  I get such a kick out of watching what happens when you work with kids, when they get really turned on to music, and when they really work hard and get something going, it’s always been a great feeling for me.  My mother was an elementary school teacher and she spent her life in education.  I never took the education route.  I was on the road when I was 19, so I never went to school.  So, now this is a really unique opportunity for me in the last ten years to really give back.  I feel that, yeah, the community has been really good to me.  I’m now kind of the flip side of Mr. Holland’s Opus.  As opposed to the high school teacher that had a dream of conducting an orchestra and going on the road, but stayed with the school, I’m the one who achieved the dream and now I am going back.  I love going back.  I meet a lot of high school band directors and they’re always so grateful…well, not everyone,  There have been a couple that had a little vibe that was funny, but almost everyone has been very, very grateful and appreciates the work I have done. A lot of my exposure has been by getting played on the radio.  I mean, a lot of times it’s the kids’ parents that are getting excited because their kids have a chance to play with David Benoit.  I get a lot of kids interested for that reason.  I get so much out of it.  I can’t begin to tell you how cool it is.

SV:  Let’s talk a little about A Charlie Brown Christmas shows.  You’ve expanded the touring of that this year, although I still don’t see Washington, DC on the schedule!  Will this be a regular thing each year?
DB:  That’s the goal.  Maybe if we don’t do DC this year, we can hit the cities next year that we missed.  I’ve been trying to get this off the ground for years now.  I tried it once on my own and it did okay.  It was a big producer with Al Jarreau, Melissa Manchester and a full symphony orchestra.  It was a little too ambitious for the times.  There was a couple of years where nobody wanted to hear the words Charlie Brown! (laughs).  So, last year we started it out very small and modest with only a couple of dates.  But this year we have more dates and it’s picking up nicely. 

SV:  You’ve done the orchestral CD, the Charlie Brown CDs, and now a tribute CD to your influences.  Where do you see your music heading next?
DB:  There’s a few interesting possibilities and I’m not sure which way it’s going to go.  I’m exploring a solo piano album with me at the piano in my living room.  Or, maybe a real edgy, fresh, kind of new jazz/chill record with real modern beats.  All new music but almost dance music; real rhythmic with some interesting world beats.  Something very contemporary.  Then I would also love to do another orchestral CD, maybe combined with some of my orchestral heroes like Leonard Bernstein, Copeland, or some of my more recent compositions like the guitar concerto.  Those are probably the three that are on the table right now.  We’ll have to see.  Things are tough in the record business, so they’re not always open to every idea.  The piano solo album might be an easier sell!

SV:  Well, another interview done.  I’m looking forward to seeing you in a couple of weeks at Blues Alley.
DB:  Thank you.  Always good questions and always fun!  See you soon.