by Len Lear
The Village Voice has written that “saxophonist Daniel Bennett makes hay with an airy approach that’s buoyant enough to conjure notions of East African guitar riffs.” Time Out New York describes his music as, “hypnotic.” And his trio, the Daniel Bennett Group, was recently voted “Best New Jazz Group” in New York City Hot House Magazine.
Bennett, a dynamo on alto saxophone, flute and clarinet who will be performing with his trio – Nat Janoff, guitar, and Koko Bermejo, drums — at Paris Bistro Jazz Café, next door to Chestnut Hill Hotel, on Friday, June 7, starting at 7 p.m., recently composed the musical score for stage adaptations of “Frankenstein” and “Brave Smiles” at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan. Bennett also plays woodwinds in “Blank! The Musical,” the first fully improvised Off-Broadway musical to launch on a national stage. The New York Times calls the show “Witty, likable and ludicrous!”
Bennett, 39 (“My Wikipedia page reminds me of my age every day”), was born and raised in Honeoye Falls, near Rochester in New York State. “It’s a lot like growing up in Mayberry,” said Bennett, who has lived in Manhattan with his wife and children for 10 years.
When Bennett was 10, his sister took him to hear the high school jazz band Christmas concert.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “Chris Oldfield was a high school saxophonist in the band. I still remember the sound of his saxophone. My elementary band director thought my lips were not suited for the saxophone. She recommended that I play the trumpet. I still laugh when I think about this. The director asked me to fill out a form and list my top three musical instrument choices.
“I wrote ‘saxophone’ as each of my choices. I was hooked on the saxophone! I spent every waking hour practicing my saxophone. I eventually learned flute and clarinet as well. As a teenager, I was really hungry to play. I used to play at the bus stop and on street corners. One time I drove to a local shopping mall with a friend of mine who also happened to be an incredible drummer.
“We set up our gear and spontaneously played music for the shoppers. People loved it! We played for about 30 minutes before we got kicked out of the mall. I was a pretty gutsy teenager. I played music for people in homeless shelters, rehab facilities and even played a few concerts at a local psychiatric center.”
Bennett grew up listening to music by Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell and John Denver. His parents took him to see Peter, Paul and Mary when he was 10.
“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” he said, “but my musical tastes have evolved. My first saxophone teacher, Greg Knapp, introduced me to Paul Desmond and Charlie Parker. I was a very impressionable high school student.”
Bennett studied at the New England Conservatory of Music from 2002 to 2004, where he earned a Masters degree in Classical Saxophone Performance.
“People often have a strange idea about ‘classical saxophone,’ I am a jazz musician, but I really value my classical training. I performed numerous transcriptions of pieces by Rachmaninoff, Bach and Mozart … I really struggled to leap back and forth between musical styles, but it truly shaped who I am as a musician. I don’t label my music anymore.”
The Daniel Bennett Group has released eight full-length albums. He also performs on Broadway and Off-Broadway shows in New York City. As mentioned earlier, he plays in “Blank! the Musical” every week and has for five years. In “Blank! The Musical” the audience creates a full musical theater show on their phones, and the musicians improvise a show on the spot.
“This has really sharpened my listening skills,” said Bennett.
During his college years, Bennett played on a dinner cruise every night in Boston.
“I said yes to every imaginable opportunity. I also sent thousands of emails. When my friends were out partying, I was at home looking for work. I used to send so many emails, my gmail server thought I was a ‘spambot’ and would routinely lock me out for 15 minutes … Our first break was a short feature on NPR’s ‘Here and Now’ show. From there, things really spiraled.”
How did Bennett develop his distinctive mix of modern jazz, avant-pop and fusion?
“It’s unintentional in every way! I always let the audience interpret our sound. After touring for the last decade, there are many interesting descriptions that pop up! The Boston Globe called us ‘a mix of jazz, folk and minimalism.’ I like that description!”
For more details about the trio’s June 7 appearance on the Hill, call 215-242-6200.