The picture of David Benoit that stares out from the inner sleeve has a slightly sinister aspect to it. Benoit looks rather like one of those intelligent, high-placed adversaries of Columbo in the ‘70s series. Probably a psychology professor with a string of best-sellers to his name. In some senses, that is not as fanciful as it might seem because: a) this disc is very ‘70s TV/film-like in its overall sound and texture and, b) Benoit has definitely some insight into the public psyche as he has made 25 records in fifteen years, all of which have sold well. Cynics might want to take the analogy further and supply a corpse buried beneath the Grammys and gold discs—its name would be jazz.
For Benoit, along with Bob James and Dave Grusin, is responsible for the smooth jazz piano sound. It is elegant, tasteful, fluent, and occasionally funky in a genteel sort of way. Concomitantly, it is absolutely unthreatening and a sight too comfortable for its own good. It is also, strangely but undeniably, middle-class. One of the tunes on the album is called “War of the S.U.V.s”, which passes for wit in SJ suburbia. Benoit reckons that 60% of his audience owns one and, my, how they chuckle when he announces the title. Grim, I think you’ll agree.
But David has his “groove” side. Apparently, this is his boogie album. He informs us that, “I’ve always liked bands like Tower of Power and Chicago, and Fuzzy Logic was a fun project for me because I used a big horn section and I played a lot of Hammond on it. You could think of it as “retro”, a return to what I call boogaloo, grooving, old-style stuff.”
Now, although this is considerably livelier than most of his earlier sets, the suggestion that we might be in for a Hammond work out a la Jack McDuff, with the added bonus of a funk horn extravaganza, amounts to gross misrepresentation and Benoit should consult his lawyer (or team of lawyers, he probably has a team). The Hammond pops up here and there and a horn section is heard now and then, but this is Grusin-James fare as we have come to know and not care much either way about over the years.
This is not to say that it is a bad album, in smooth jazz terms at least. It features fine musicians and the playing is never less than poised. There is only one hideous track. That is “Tango in Barbados”, which as a title alone deserves severe punishment. As you might have guessed, it is a dreadful cod-reggae meets Latin affair that manages to be both inept and patronising. File under Unwelcome Tourist.
If that represents the album’s low point, the problem is there aren’t really any highs. There are nicely constructed upbeat numbers and nicely constructed slow pieces, but nothing at all outstanding. “Snap!” is the best of the faster tunes—a ‘70s cop-show funk backing and sprightly piano motor along effectively. The title track has a similar film score feel and the rhythm section is tight and more muscular than you would expect. Steve Ferrone is the drummer so perhaps it is not that much of a surprise. The aforementioned “S.U.V.” is the most ambitious arrangement and has an evocative L.A. feel to it (more Beverly Hills than South Central).
When the pace is relatively rapid, Benoit leans heavily on the talents of Rick Braun (trumpet/co-producer) and Stuart Wade (from Down to the Bone). Both are gifted but somewhat given to taking the easy option, particularly of late. The pianist’s own reference for carefully crafted, classically inflected, popular melodies comes out strongest on the more reflective numbers. “Someday Soon”, “Reflections”, and “You Read My Mind” are the pick of these. The first has an easygoing and not unpleasant lilt to it while the other two are tailor-made for some wistful romantic comedy (TV movie rather than film), possibly starring Ryan O’Neal or Richard Dreyfus as a middle-aged executive going through some mid-life crisis. Think autumnal parks, illicit rendezvous and pseudo-existential soul searching.
No jazz to speak of, just well arranged incidental music. If capturing a set of ideological positions and articulating certain modern bourgeois sensibilities is thought valuable, then Benoit is almost a Californian Jane Austen. I suspect though that the essential ingredients of Irony and Perspective are not part of this project. This is music as lifestyle affirmation rather than critique. I can’t help sneakily admiring Fuzzy Logic for its coherence and clarity but the general lack of adventure and ambition is eventually wearing.
Background music for a well-heeled strata of society, then. Nowhere near as syrupy as many lesser SJ outings and assured to the point of smugness. A best seller in its field undoubtedly and one that those with a fondness for the refined end of jazz-fusion will enjoy greatly. However if Benoit thinks this is Boogaloo, he needs to get down to his local record shop and dig out some Willis Jackson albums. This is well-behaved music that invites you to rhythmically tap the driving wheel (of your SUV) rather than sweat it out in some dark club.
// Notes from the Road
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