DozenQ – Daniel Bennett Group

This entry is part 16 of 19 in the series DozenQ 4

Manhattan-based saxophonist Daniel Bennett has been hailed as one of the most original and unpredictable musical voices of his generation. Daniel Bennett can be heard throughout the world performing his award-winning compositions on saxophone, flute, clarinet, and oboe. Daniel Bennett is currently touring the United States with renowned guitarist Nat Janoff, bassist Eddy Khaimovich, and master percussionist Matthew Feick. The Boston Globe describes Bennett’s music as “a mix of jazz, folk, and minimalism.” The Daniel Bennett Group was recently voted “Best New Jazz Group” in the Hot House Magazine NYC Jazz Contest. The Daniel Bennett Group has been featured in the Boston Globe, NPR, First Coast Living (NBC), Indianapolis Public Radio, St. Louis Public Radio and the Village Voice. Daniel Bennett is also very active in the New York City musical theater scene. He recently composed the musical score for stage adaptations of “Frankenstein” and “Brave Smiles” at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan. Daniel Bennett recently played woodwinds in “Blank! The Musical,” the first fully improvised Off-Broadway musical to launch on a national stage. The New York Times called the show, “Witty, Likable and Ludicrous!” Daniel Bennett’s theatrical works have strongly influenced his eclectic sound and musical storytelling abilities as a bandleader. We caught up with him recently…

01 How did you get started in music?

I live in Manhattan, but the Daniel Bennett Group actually formed in Boston in 2004. I had just finished my masters degree in saxophone performance from the New England Conservatory. I was also doubling on flute, clarinet, and oboe quite regularly. I was composing music that blended modern jazz with American Folk music and elements of experimental classical music. My musical journey began when I was ten years old. My older sister took me to the high school jazz band Christmas concert. I’ll never forget it. I heard the jazz band play a rendition of “The Pink Panther.” I knew at a young age that I wanted to be a full time musician, and it’s hard to imagine I have been leading a band for over 10 years. The Daniel Bennett Group has toured extensively and recently shared concert billings with Bill Frisell, Charlie Hunter Trio, Steve Kuhn, Greg Osby Duo, James Carter Organ Trio, Joy Electric, and Billy Martin. In addition to leading the band, I recently toured Italy and Switzerland with world music ensemble, Musaner. I have performed with the Portland Symphony, the New Hampshire Music Festival Orchestra, and other symphonic groups. I am very active as a pit orchestra musician in Manhattan. I composed and performed the original score for the stage adaptations of “Frankenstein” and “Brave Smiles” at the Hudson Guild Theatre in Manhattan. I also recently performed in the off-Broadway show, “Blank! The Musical.” The show was produced by the insanely gifted comedians at Second City, Improv Boston, and Upright Citizens Brigade. It was the first fully improvised musical to launch on a national stage. My work in the theater world has strongly influenced my eclectic “storytelling” approach to musical performance. I would say that the Daniel Bennett Group is very “theatrical” in our performance aesthetic and stage presence.

02 Where did your direction come from?

My direction is fueled by the energy and musical output of the people whom I perform with. Daniel Bennett Group just released our 6th full length album, “The Mystery At Clown Castle,” on the Manhattan Daylight Media label. The album was produced by MP Kuo at Lofish Studio in Manhattan. I play alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, clarinet, and oboe on the album. I am joined by guitarist Nat Janoff, Eddy Khaimovich on bass, and Matthew Feick on drums. Nat Janoff has performed with artists like Michael Brecker, Matt Garrison, Kenny Burrell and Dave Samuels. He also leads his own band at the 55 Bar in Manhattan every month. Matthew Feick is very active in the musical theater scene. I met Matthew when we were in the pit orchestra for “Urinetown” at the Secret Theatre in New York City.

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03 Who are your major influences and inspirations and who do you despise?

I love the music of Ornette Coleman, Paul Desmond, The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode, New Order, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass. I generally love any music that has a great melody and displays a vibrant sense of honesty. I despise any music that lacks integrity or soul.

04 What inspires you to make your current type of songs and sound

I am inspired by my surroundings. I am always trying to evolve and grow as an artist. “The Mystery at Clown Castle” is a bold departure from anything we have done in the past. I threw away all conventional “rules” in the production process and really did this record my way. Surprisingly, this album features electric bass prominently. Eddy Khaimovich plays fretted and fretless electric bass brilliantly on the album. This album also features special guest poet, Britt Melewski. I first read Britt’s poetry in the Philadelphia Review of Books. I was so honored to have Britt contribute two poems on The Mystery at Clown Castle. Our producer, MP Kuo, auto-tuned Britt’s voice to increase the intensity and creepiness of the poem. We also feature pianist Jason Yeager on a few tracks. Jason is a very prolific sideman and bandleader on the Inner Circle record label. I have known Jason for many years. Jason performs frequently with Ran Blake, Greg Osby, and John McNeil. Jason has a sound and feel that is perfect for this music. The Daniel Bennett Group has released six albums in the last ten years: A Nation of Bears, The Legend of Bear Thompson, Peace and Stability Among Bears, Live at the Theatre, Clockhead Goes to Camp, and The Mystery At Clown Castle. Each album is a very honest snapshot of who I am in that moment in time.

05 What can someone who has never seen you live before expect from your live shows then & possibly even now?

Expect the unexpected! I am currently touring with guitarist Nat Janoff and Matthew Feick on the drums. I am playing alto saxophone, flute, piccolo, and oboe on this tour. We have been performing most of the songs from “The Mystery At Clown Castle.” You will hear original melodies, as well as American folk music references and elements of Celtic music. Our live concerts take many creative detours and spontaneous turns. We love to engage the audience. Every night can be so different!

06 How do you begin your songs? What types of themes and subjects do you deal with?

I am a saxophonist, but I actually write all of my songs from the guitar. The process is somewhat simple in many ways. I only writes songs that I can easily sing. I don’t restrict myself to any time signature or key signature. The composition goes wherever the melody is leading it. I have studied the music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass extensively. I am drawn towards repetition of phrases, gradual shifting of melodic shapes, and slightly free-form improvisation. I am a classically trained, even though I make my living as a jazz player. I have a masters degree in Saxophone Performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston. While studying at NEC, I performed music by contemporary classical composers like Ingolf Dahl, Paul Creston, Eugene Bozza, Pierre Max Dubois, and Alfred Desenclos (to name a few). I also performed numerous transcriptions of pieces by Rachmaninoff, Bach, and Mozart. In 2002, I performed the Concertino da Camera by Jacques Ibert as a soloist with the Roberts Wesleyan College Orchestra. All of these experiences have shaped who I am as a composer. I love any song with a great melody. I am equally influenced by Steve Reich’s “New York Counterpoint,” Ornette Coleman’s “Skies of America,” and the Smiths “There is a Light That Never Goes Out.” All are masterpieces. I grew up playing in the church, so I love hymns like “It is Well with My Soul” and “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I see no boundary line between any genre of music. I transcribe Paul Desmond saxophone solos every week. I just transcribed his solo on “Out of Nowhere.” Some of his lines could have been pulled from a Bach invention. No joke. Some would say that I have a slightly twisted mind when it comes to my conceptual approach to music. The Daniel Bennett Group recently released a “trilogy” of albums based on a fictional bear named Bear Thompson. I’m a big fan of cartoon animation, storytelling, and programmatic music. The albums were entitled, A Nation of Bears, The Legend of Bear Thompson, and Peace and Stability Among Bears. I frequently collaborate with visual artists who design our album artwork. I have been very fortunate to have Timothy Banks design most of our album covers. Banks has done a lot of work for Paste Magazine and Cartoon Network and is a real super talent!

07 How has your music evolved since you first began playing?

Our earlier musical material was more influenced by American folk music. I grew up listening to Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Peter Paul & Mary, and Simon & Garfunkel. After moving to New York City, my music has taken on a more “back-beat” driven vibe. There is almost a pop aesthetic to our new songs.

08 What has been your biggest challenge? Have you been able to overcome this? If so, how?

My worst moments happen when I am too focused on myself. Every day I wake up and try to think of ten people I can help. This takes the attention off myself and focuses my heart and mind for the day. It’s not always easy. I pray a lot! The music industry requires us to basically “sell ourselves” every single day. There is nothing wrong with our desire to make money. My wife and I just welcomed our second child in September. And it’s not cheap to live on the upper east side of Manhattan! So I need to find balance in everything that I do. A wise man once told me, “worship God and serve the people.” That is something I strive towards. It’s a tough challenge, but so rewarding!

09 Do you play covers? If you could pick any song, which would you like to cover most and why?

We do play covers occasionally. We just played a concert at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club in Maryland. We spontaneously played “Daniel” by Elton John as an encore. It actually sounds quite nice on the flute. It’s a beautiful melody. We also mix jazz standards into our repertoire frequently. People don’t know that I actually spent a decade playing mostly straight-ahead jazz all over the world. I love the music of Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, and Cole Porter.

10 Where did you envisage being in five years time?

I envision myself meeting many new people. Music is about relationships and love. We just returned from a tour in Kansas. We met so many great people that we now consider to be our friends. It’s a great thing!

11 Who would you most like to record with?

I would love to record a saxophone and vocal duet with Morrisey. Maybe I could even convince Johnny Marr to burry the hatchet and reunite with Morrissey for one song!

12 What should we be expecting from you in the near future?

Daniel Bennett Group is touring on the west coast, Midwest, and parts of Florida this year. We also perform every month at Tomi Jazz in midtown Manhattan. We are recording the next album in December. Stay tuned!


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