For 55 years, or more than twice as long as Eli Bennett has been on this planet, playing John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” has been the make-or-break test for aspiring jazz saxophonists. When it first appeared, on the 1960 album of the same name, it seemed an unconquerable Everest; now, though, it’s a part of every jazz school’s curriculum.
So it’s not surprising that Bennett should choose to include a version of the famously difficult tune on his debut CD, Breakthrough. What’s odd, though, is that he opted to recast it at a decidedly languorous tempo, in contrast to Coltrane’s 280-beats-per-minute pace.
It’s not technical necessity that forced this choice, though. “I can play it at 300, man!” the 26-year-old saxophonist claims, reached by phone at a friend’s Coal Harbour apartment. “You can throw anything at me!”
Confident, Bennett most definitely is. But he’s joking, not boasting, and he goes on to explain the reason for his slinky rendition.
“That was sort of a half arrangement between myself, my drummer, and my producer, Kirk MacDonald,” he says. “I thought it was a little clichéd that whenever anyone plays ‘Giant Steps’ it’s always burning, and they’ve got to show all their chops off, and yada yada yada. And the concept of the album wasn’t ‘I’m going to play a bunch of shit. Here’s what I’ve got; check me out.’ So, sticking in line with the concept of the album, we sort of took it at a slower tempo. It still swings, but it’s not what I call ‘man jazz’.”
Anyone questioning Bennett’s credentials should know that he spent much of his adolescence in blues clubs: his dad, Daryl Bennett, drums for the Powder Blues, and Bennett had his first gig with Tom Lavin’s hard-swinging crew when he was 15.
“Growing up at the Yale, and being surrounded by local legends and international legends, and really soaking up the blues vocabulary, was great training,” he says. “Blues is music for the soul. It’s such a personal expression and journey through music, and it has so much history behind it, and it really speaks to me. It’s definitely a big part of my playing, and I think it will always be a big part of my playing.”
That’s borne out by the aptly titled Breakthrough. Apart from the Coltrane cover and one tune by pianist D’arcy Myronuk, the rest of the album is made up of Bennett originals. And though they range from velvety ballads to New Orleans–approved funk workouts, they share a number of attributes, including concision, verve, and Bennett’s unusually nimble tenor saxophone. The album’s chief characteristic, though, is that it’s extremely audience-friendly, offering something for everyone from jazz sophisticates to those who just want a swinging summer-patio soundtrack.
“That was definitely a thought going into it,” Bennett says. “I really wanted it to be accessible to people that might not be into jazz, which is why it sort of blends some pop, some funk, some blues, some jazz, and even some film-score aspects. It’s sort of a culmination of all of my musical experiences to date. And I was definitely going for radio play, and for a larger market—if those exist for jazz.”
A moot point, Bennett knows. That’s why he’s following his father’s footsteps by going into soundtrack work: he’s already won a rather astonishing 35 awards for his sonic contributions to various documentaries, short films, and TV commercials. And he’s diversifying even further, getting into music publishing in a big way by releasing a well-received collection of jazz star Chris Potter’s unaccompanied saxophone solos.
“I met Chris in 2009; he was the artist in residence at Humber College when I was a student there,” Bennett notes. “We hit it off, so I got some lessons from him, and then we played a concert at the end of the week together. We had a bit of a duelling-saxophone thing, and then we kept in touch. A few years later I got the idea to put a transcription book together of his solos, because there wasn’t anything like that on the market, and he’s one of the most-studied saxophonists today. So I did it—he was up for that—and we put it out, and now it’s been sold to 50 countries all around the world. It’s doing really well.”
And if being able to hang with Potter isn’t enough proof of the younger musician’s ability, he’s also been getting a crash course in modern composition and big-band arranging as a member of John Korsrud’s Hard Rubber Orchestra.
“I call it roller-coaster music,” Bennett says, laughing. “I mean, I have a pretty good ear, so if I throw myself in there, I can definitely hold my own. But it takes some time, because the parts are wacky. It really takes holding on to the bottom of your seat to get through some of that stuff, but I love it.”
From dive bars to high art, Bennett’s got it covered—and where he’ll go from here is anyone’s guess.
Eli Bennett plays a free Downtown Jazz concert at Robson Square on Saturday (June 20), as part of the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.