Review & Interview by David DeBoor Canfield
SONATAS AND TANGOS • Jeff Benedict (s sax, a sax); 1Irene Gregorio, 3Jeff Hellmer, 2,5Twyla Meyer, 4Akina Motoyama (pn) • CENTAUR 4049 (79:35)
CRESTON Sonata 1. HARBINSON San Antonio2. DOBBINS Sonata3. DENISOV Sonata 4. PIAZZOLLA (arr. Ken-ichiro Isoda and Nobuya Sugawa) Histoire du Tango5.
Saxophonist Jeff Benedict offers the music lover an interesting and well-performed recital featuring works written between 1939 and 1994 on this Sonatas and Tangos disc released by Centaur. The 1939 Sonata by Paul Creston is one of the earliest sonatas written for saxophone, the first such coming in the 1937 Sonata by Bernhard Heiden. Creston’s oft-performed work was written for Cecil Leeson who performed it shortly after its composition. This staple of the saxophone repertory helped establish Creston’s reputation as a leader of the Neo-Romantic compositional aesthetic in the United States, a style that was complementary to that of his colleague Samuel Barber. Benedict’s suave tone and expressive playing brings out the splendor of Creston’s vivacious and harmonically rich work. Irene Gregorio proves to be a most sensitive collaborator. Both artists particularly seem to revel in the composer’s glorious melodic invention in the luscious interior movement of his work and work up to a passionate climax at its midpoint. Benedict’s tempi of the outer movements are a bit more leisurely than those of Vincent Abato’s classic Columbia LP recording (with the composer as pianist), but his spirited performance stands up very well in comparison.
John Harbison’s 1994 San Antonio came into being upon its composer hearing some music being performed in an outdoor venue in the eponymous city. It maintains a dance-like character throughout its three movements successively entitled “The Summons” (a spiky and jaunty exercise performed with consummate vigor by Benedict and pianist Twyla Meyer), “Line Dance,” (syncopated and sultry), and “Couples’ Dance” (a tango-like piece). The jazz influence in this work is more pronounced than I can recall in any of the numerous other works by this composer I have in my library, and both performers make the most of these inflections, rhythms, and harmonies from the world of jazz in impeccable ensemble together.
As overt as the jazz influence is in the preceding work, the Sonata by Bill Dobbins (b. 1947) brings it to a zenith in this recital. This work requires the soprano saxophone, probably the least-heard in the realm of jazz among the four main members of the saxophone family. From its outset, the sonorities of the piano introduction would feel right at home were a snare drum with swishing wire brushes added to the texture. Accordingly, Benedict adopts a greater jazz sound in this work which I find most appropriate. Harmonies in this work are also less centered than in the preceding works, and occasionally snuggle up to atonality, perhaps even to the extent that one hears in the playing of Ornette Coleman. Benedict creates beautiful sonorous lines in this work, such as those heard around the five-minute mark of the opening movement. These come even further to the forefront in the lovely second movement, cast as a jazz ballad. Pianist Jeff Hellmer is featured in this work and captures the moods and gestures of jazz most convincingly. There is some improvisation called for in this work, but my largely classically trained ears cannot be certain in what places it might come (although there are a few spots that I can make an educated guess as to its use, such as in a section about four and a half minutes into the second movement). The 20-minute work is the longest in the recital, but is so well-written that it could have been a good bit longer without boredom setting in. It wraps up with a vivacious movement marked “With Drive,” in which both artists really get into the “groove.”
The opening of the 1970 Alto Saxophone Sonata by Edison Denisov is just about the most playful instance of atonal writing I’ve ever heard. Both saxophone and piano parts call for a good bit of “chirping,” i.e., quickly repeated figuration often in the upper register of each instrument. Denisov, named after the American inventor, is himself at his most inventive in this relatively brief work, and includes in-your-face multiphonics, quarter-tones, and other advanced techniques in addition to the chirping. Most of these come in the largely unaccompanied second movement (itself another novelty). The innovation continues in the final movement, which features a good amount of imitative counterpoint in different note values and employs the extreme upper register in the piano. Some of this movement, with its sequences of notes at simultaneously different tempi and walking bass lines with quick figuration flitting about above, reminds me of the writing of Conlon Nancarrow. Both Benedict and pianist Akina Motoyama toss off all the seemingly superhuman virtuosic passages effortlessly.
The recital concludes with an arrangement of a work by that purveyor of musical good cheer, Argentinian composer Astor Piazzolla, who played a major role in elevating the tango from the bordello to the concert hall. The work offers an ear-caressing string of delights, and Benedict and Meyer play it idiomatically, giving attention to the composer’s nuances.
This is an altogether delightful and rewarding concert of first-rate works performed by five accomplished artists each of whom has technical and musical prowess to spare. I give a very high recommendation of this disc to saxophonists and aficionados of the instrument, and I have no doubt that other music lovers will enjoy it as well. David DeBoor Canfield
Sonatas and Tangos from Saxophonist Jeff Benedict
By David DeBoor Canfield
Saxophonist Jeff Benedict is a Los Angeles-based Professor of Music Emeritus at California State University. He was awarded BM and MA degrees from the Lamont School of Music and his studies culminated with a DMA from the University of Texas at Austin, where he studied with noted saxophonist Harvey Pittel. He regularly performs both jazz gigs and as a classical recitalist, including recitals with the Orion Saxophone Quartet. He has also appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Pacific Symphony, the Aspen Festival Orchestra, and the Tanglewood Fellowship Orchestra. Featured here is a disc that mirrors his life as he explains in its program notes. I used this very personal approach as the jumping-off point of our interview, which took place in November of 2023.
Jeff, your earliest exposure to music was in the popular music of the day rather than any sort of classical music. How has this early exposure influenced the content of the present disc?
My first professional gigs playing the saxophone began when I played in a dance band at age 12. The bandleader was a woman named Joy Cayler who had led an all-girl band during World War II. She was the real deal—she knew most of the famous performers of the day on a first-name basis. She put together a dance band made up of 12- to 18-year-olds, and we played dances every Friday and Saturday night for people our parents’ age. I played the lead alto chair in the band, which is like the concertmaster in an orchestra. She let me know that it was my responsibility to play the melody in a manner that made the dancers want to dance. If dancers were leaving the floor, I got a fierce glare. In order to learn to play that style and keep those dancers on the floor, I raided my parents’ record collection, which included Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington, Artie Shaw, and Woody Herman. I studied those recordings assiduously.
In my view, there are three distinct ways of interacting with music. One’s connection can be intellectual, aesthetic, and/or kinesthetic. My initial contact with music was largely kinesthetic, as I was exposed to music for dancers. As I grew as a musician, I began to appreciate the aesthetic aspects of music—a beautiful melody, an elegant phrase. When I got to college, I was introduced to the intellectual component, and I then understood that music would be my profession.
I chose the repertoire for Sonatas and Tangos primarily for the kinesthetic qualities of each composition, although I relate to them in all three of the ways I have outlined. Some of the pieces are more explicit in their reference, but all of them incorporate some element of dance music. I am drawn to these works for their aesthetic content and to the stories they tell, but my main connection to them is physical feeling.
You mention that you began playing saxophone at age 10 (quite early!). What led you to take up this particular instrument?
In the Littleton, Colorado public schools we were given the opportunity to pick an instrument and join band in fifth grade. My dad loved Benny Goodman, and I wanted to play the clarinet. When it was my turn to pick an instrument, I said “Clarinet” with no hesitation whatever. The Band Director already had enough clarinets, so he made up an excuse—something about an overbite—and told me I could not play the clarinet, but that I could play the saxophone, which was similar. I was crushed. When band started, there were 12 clarinets and only two saxophones, and it took me about 15 minutes to forget all about the clarinet.
It was your studies at the University of Denver and your attendance at concerts and recitals there that led you into an appreciation of classical music. Do you recall any particular composers that piqued your interest in the genre during that time?
My saxophone lessons as an undergraduate student were with the Clarinet Professor, Ray Kireilis. Very few schools had dedicated Saxophone Professors at that time. Ray was a great musician, and he gave several faculty recitals every year. Those had a huge impact as I was impressed by his musicianship and by his total commitment to the music. In addition, he hosted the International Clarinet Congress every summer at the University of Denver, and I was able to hear many of the world’s best clarinetists when they came to the Congress. I was particularly impressed when I heard the great Stanley Drucker play the music of Stravinsky. One of my greatest disappointments in my musical life has been that Stravinsky wrote no music for the saxophone (he was known to have said that the saxophone was like a “pink, slimy worm.”) He was not a fan ….
The curriculum also included courses in the theory and history of Western Music. I learned about Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Berlioz, Debussy, Bartόk, and Stravinsky. The intellectual aspect of music was a draw for me—I loved the idea of being connected to a generations-old tradition. I also had great professors, specifically James Bratton, my theory professor and the organist at the Air Force Academy Chapel, and Alan Greene, my history professor, a first-rate harpsichordist. These guys were real musicians, so I was inspired by their connections to the “real” world of music performance and by their intellect when they talked and wrote about music.
You mention the renowned saxophone performer and pedagogue Harvey Pittel as one of the three most influential musicians upon your musical development. Could you share with Fanfare’s readers a few of the most important things you learned from him? What was he like as a teacher?
I chose to study with Mr. Pittel because he was a classical saxophonist who was an actual performer, not just a teacher. At the time I went to study with him, he was playing about 150 concerts a year, including performances with the Boston Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. I had heard him on the radio when I was a student in Denver, and I was impressed by his sound and by his musical approach. He played the saxophone in a way that did not apologize—most “classical” saxophonists I hear sound like they are trying “not to stick out too much,” i.e., they’re trying to sound like a violin or a clarinet, or even sometimes a French horn. Mr. Pittel’s tone sounded like a saxophone, with a big, robust sound. He had recently joined the faculty at the University of Texas and I went there having no idea what I would get into. It turned out that he was not only a great musician and performer, but also one of the very best teachers I had ever experienced, a great teacher by any measure. He taught me to pursue the musical line, a concept that makes a melody come to life. He also made explicit something that I had always known on some level, namely that music is meant to communicate. It is one’s job as a performer to move the listener, to share something of oneself, and to tell the truth. So often, especially in academia, music is reduced to its technical elements. It is an occupational hazard when one studies an instrument that the performer can get caught up in listening to the instrument instead of listening to the music.
Mr. Pittel allowed me to find my voice on the instrument and in the music rather than making me sound like him or other students. He taught me to be intentional with sound and expression by manipulating the overtones in the sound to get the tone I want, and to use the palette of expressions available on the instrument to express myself and the music.
What are some of the musical and technical challenges found in the five works you have recorded here?
Each of the five pieces has a different set of challenges. The Creston Sonata is a big piece to wrestle with. It is not extraordinarily demanding in a technical sense, but it is a challenge musically and artistically, and it demands constant attention to the musical line. The piano part is very difficult: Creston himself was an accompanist, and a very fine pianist. In my experience, the greatest challenge of this piece is the interaction of the two parts. The parts are equal in their importance, and there is a constant give and take. When I performed this work with Irene Gregorio, I knew I wanted to record it with her. She plays with power and clarity, and with a perfect balance of leading and following.
John Harbison’s San Antonio has many technical challenges, such as the altissimo at the end of the first movement, but it is also dance music. It requires a physical connection to rhythm at all times, while simultaneously navigating the technical challenges. It also requires being “in the groove” with the pianist at all times. Twyla Meyer plays with that groove.
The piece by Bill Dobbins requires both a jazz and a chamber music sensibility. It requires the finesse and refinement of chamber music, and also the dynamism of jazz improvisation. I have worked for over 40 years to develop my ability to play Western art music (i.e., classical music) and jazz with equal mastery. Jeff Hellmer is one of the few pianists in the country with the range of abilities to perform this piece, as he is highly accomplished in both classical music and jazz. When he came to L.A. to play on a big band recording I was working on, we took a day afterward to record this piece. I am very proud of this recording as I feel it stretched both of us and, in the end, showcases the range of our abilities.
I first heard a recording of Jean Marie Londeix playing the Denisov Sonata when I was an undergraduate. The complexity and expressive range of the piece impressed me, so I went out and bought the recording. I heard Harvey Pittel perform it with Rex Woods on a faculty recital at UT Austin. Since I had a copy of the score, I followed it while I listened to their performance. I was mesmerized and I vowed that I would someday play it myself, which I managed to do a few years after that on one of my graduate recitals. It is a piece that requires a great deal of intellectual focus, and a measure of mental stamina—a relentless challenge, but one that is very rewarding. The third movement, built on an irrepressible ostinato, has always suggested to me a reference to free jazz of the 1960s, and I wanted to capture that essence.
As it turns out, the piano part is so ridiculously difficult that after I left the University, I was never able to find anyone else willing to perform it. When I met Akina Motoyama, she was accompanying my students at Riverside City College. She had proven to be a wonderful accompanist for my students. She is an exemplary musician and possesses a congenial and compassionate demeanor. One day, one of my students told me that Akina had just performed the Denisov on a Faculty Recital at USC. I immediately asked her if she would record the piece with me. She was not only willing to play the piece, but she knew it well!
The Piazzolla is an incredible piece of music. I started playing it in the 1990’s when Piazzolla was “discovered” by American audiences. The challenge of this piece is to get a saxophone to be light and flexible enough to play all of the notes in the piece, while also expressing the deep emotion that lies at the base of the work, all of which is wrapped in a dance. I can’t imagine recording it without Twyla as we share an instinctive kinesthetic connection to the music that cannot be manufactured. I suppose that it is like dancing the Tango. You have to have the right partner!
Your program notes refer to your retirement from California State University and subsequent part-time teaching at Riverside City College. Does your partial retirement from teaching allow you more time to perform? How do you balance your musical activities?
It is always difficult for musicians to find balance. One’s schedule is determined by opportunity. When the opportunity to perform presents itself, you take it. If you turn down any gigs, your phone will not ring anymore. I have also been an “instigator” since day one. As a saxophonist that means organizing groups to play with (unless you just want to play by yourself on a street corner). I started my first band in 8th grade, and in another example, in Los Angeles, I founded the Orion Saxophone Quartet. We have done two classical CDs for Centaur Records and one jazz disc on Tapestry Records. I also put together the Jeff Benedict Big Big Band, which has released two CDs, one of which was favorably reviewed in DownBeat and was in the top 10 of the Roots Music Report for 2019. I have a group with guitarist Dave Askren, and we have done numerous recordings and club dates. In addition, I play with the Los Angeles Saxophone Quartet, the Speakeasy Jazz Band, a group that calls itself Jazz City and the Riverside Jazz Orchestra. I teach at Riverside City College two days a week. I think my wife would roll her eyes at the word “retired.” Some weeks, my schedule is insane, although other weeks it is pretty relaxed.
What percentage of your current teaching and playing activity do you devote to jazz rather than classical music?
In terms of actual performing, probably 70 percent jazz, 30 percent classical. However, in terms of preparation, meaning practicing and rehearsals, it is probably 40 percent jazz and 60 percent classical. The classical thing takes a lot of preparation.
I note that you produced the present CD. Have you done so for others? What specific challenges have you encountered in producing a CD?
I have produced all 14 of my own CDs, and I produced five recordings with my students while I was a Professor at Cal State L.A. Producing is part musician, part logistics coordinator, and part social worker. The challenge of producing is getting the right people on the date, and then getting all of those folks to mesh. It also involves developing a relationship with the engineer so that he understands what you want. It is contracting all of the musicians, booking the studio, running the sessions, catering lunch—you name it. It’s kind of a P.T. Barnum gig. I think the job boils down to taking care of all of the external factors so that the musicians can relax and focus on the music. The biggest challenge for me is keeping people (myself included) focused and calm when they are on edge. Recording is a very intense and personal endeavor, rather like looking at yourself in a mirror for hours on end. Emotions run high, and the music can go off the tracks when musicians get into their own heads.
The music on this project was incredibly difficult, and, I think, especially for the pianists. I have played all of this music in live performance with these pianists. We can walk on a stage and lay it down. The atmosphere of a studio is different, though with no audience, no reverb in the hall, no warmth. In addition, the process puts every granular detail under a microscope, laying bare the tiniest flaws that would go by unnoticed in a live performance. There were various points during the process where the pressure of getting the difficult passages perfect was so stressful that we thought we might fold. I had to back up from my role as performer, step in as producer, take the temperature down, and try to find the right words to get the session back on track. In the end, I feel good that we played the music to the best of our ability: what you hear on the recording is us.
My favorite model for a producer is the great Teo Macero. There is a Thelonious Monk documentary in which Teo is producing a session with Monk for an album on Columbia. The band arrived an hour after the session started, and they weren’t really ready to do a recording. The music wasn’t together, they weren’t sure what they were going to record, etc. Teo could easily have been angry (he probably was), but he welcomed the band into the studio and was a perfectly gracious host. He made every one of the musicians as comfortable as possible. Monk himself had a tantrum at one point when he wanted to hear something back and it hadn’t been recorded. Teo soothed him, talked him down, and they went on to make a beautiful recording.
Do you have a favorite member of the saxophone family to perform on? To listen to? Do you attempt to steer your students into specializing in one member of the family?
I play alto about 60 percent, soprano about 30 percent, and the others about 10 percent. Alto feels like my “home.” Being a saxophonist really requires that you be ready to play any one of the saxophones. Some of my best gigs have been on tenor or baritone. I have even played sopranino and bass. I think everyone has one instrument that is their touchstone, the one that grounds them, but the instrument was designed and built specifically as a “consort”—a family—and it’s important to play them all if you can.
Have you met any of the composers whose music you have recorded on this recital?
I have not met any of these composers, but I would like to think that I found ways to bring their music to life in a way that they would like. Most composers I have worked with are not too concerned with a specific interpretation of their piece. They like performers to take a point of view and to express something with the music.
I thought the personalized performer bios in the booklet were a nice touch: instead of giving mere facts about each of the pianists, you mentioned your interaction with them and what they meant to you. What gave you the idea for this approach?
I wrote the liner notes in that way because that is the genesis of the recording. Music is an intensely personal expression, and I have found particular musical relationships over the years that have resulted in particularly powerful music. For example, I have been playing the Creston Sonata since 1982. I have played it for many auditions and recitals with many pianists. When I played it with Irene, it immediately came to life in a very vivid manner in the complexity of the rhythm, and the graceful beauty of the melodic line. A similar thing happened with Twyla and Harbison. I felt from the first moment I heard San Antonio that there was something I wanted to get in on. I had heard a couple of very fine recordings of the piece, but I felt they were too tame—too controlled. When I played it with Twyla, the whole “funk” connection came alive and she really grooves with the dance movements.
Only Jeff Hellmer can play the Dobbins Sonata as it requires a delicate touch in the classical sections and all-out fire in the jazz sections. Without Hellmer, no Dobbins. I am proud to call Jeff a friend—he is a first-class conductor, composer, jazz pianist and classical pianist. I don’t think there is a musical challenge on this earth he could not meet. The last piece of the puzzle was Akina. When I met her, we just “clicked.” I had played the Denisov as a graduate student, but there was one pianist at UT Austin who would play it. I knew that he had moved to New York, but nothing else. I might have tracked him down and flown him to L.A. to do this recording, but Akina appeared in my life, and she plays the Denisov with such precision and passion that I can’t imagine playing it with anyone else.
Do you have any final thoughts to share with Fanfare’s readership?
As I have said, this project was a “bucket list” thing for me. I have spent a lot of time and energy in my life to develop chops as a “classical” musician. The idea that I wanted to document that life’s work by recording my favorite repertoire was rolling around in my head for quite a while. The catalyst was Jim Linahon with whom I have recorded a number of jazz projects at his studio. He has an amazing piano in his studio, one that was built in the 1930s by the Steinway company specifically for the famous concert pianist Arthur Schnabel, who was a Bösendorfer artist. The piano ended up in Claremont, California, when Schnabel, who had become distrustful of the Nazis, had the instrument sent to his friend at Pomona College instead of to him in Germany. One summer, when I was working on post production for a jazz project, Jim was in the middle of recording a series of piano sonatas for Naxos records. When I heard the playback of that piano, it produced the impetus to start working on this recording. As I thought about repertoire, I thought about the music I wanted to record and the musicians I wanted to collaborate with, and it came together in my mind, although it took me quite some time to get it done. There was a pandemic, for one thing, but it finally came together, and I feel that this project really communicates who I am as a musician. And hey, what more can we ask for in life than complete self-expression?