David Benoit's Conversation has become my new lowest reference point for genre pieces.
Over the years I've spent playing and reviewing music, I've come to learn to broaden my scopes and be more accepting of genres I initially dismissed for too heavily relying on bands uncomfortably similar to each other to act as that genre's poster-child. Whether it was death metal, country, or gangsta rap. I learned to differentiate between the small factors and my tastes gradually expanded to included more than I thought possible. However, there were two genres that even after what's now approaching decades of intense immersion; smooth jazz and new age. David Benoit's Conversation is a combination of both.
Now, I'm not saying there's not room for creativity in either genre, it's just that no one to play either has ever presented something that's struck me as unique, engaging, or original. All of the elements I look for to qualify which music I fall in love with are missing, most notably that the music is heartfelt and genuine. Every piece seems overtly calculated and atrociously safe. There's no experimentation, there's no danger, there's no real heart. It's all just a contrived mixture of things that are bland, safe, and emotionless. There's virtually no redemptive point for me apart from skilled musicianship. Even then, there's hardly any honesty in the musicianship, it all seems computer-generated and immensely impersonal.
While it becomes abundantly clear after Conversation's opening half, that Benoit understands composition and is a very talented piano player, the only moment that gripped me was the beautiful opening classical guitar-and-string section of "Kerri's Song Redux" which gives way to a disappointingly generic piano sequence before overlapping the two and bringing to mind the break-music for PBS Telethons. When Benoit cuts away and focuses on one instrument, the song succeeds, when he overlaps them, it devolves into something atrociously sterile. On the ensuing track "Sunrise Mansion Row", a similar pattern emerges. This time, the song once again is engaging with its opening piano runs but once more instruments are brought in, immediately flounders. It's intensely disappointing and even more intensely disappointing when the only original music that appears after that is relegated to mere seconds of any of the remaining songs.
Those seconds are the opening notes of "Q's Motif" which suggest that Conversation took take a plausible left turn towards straight or free jazz but almost immediately kills that promise by once again taking a step towards something that wouldn't feel too out of place playing while you wait, irritated, to be taken off of hold by a bank representative- or to get out of the elevator you're in just so you can escape the music.
Then, finally, at the tail end of Conversation we're treated to the title track which was an existing piece from Music for Two Trios, which flits back and forth between an absolutely gorgeous piano piece and a beautiful orchestral piece. It's a grandiose moment that feels overwhelmingly out of place on such a tacky release and only highlights the complete disappointment of its preceding tracks. It's the only track worth listening to and aptly demonstrates how much talent Benoit actually has immediately after eight pieces that aptly show how easily he can waste it. On "Conversation" there's heart, there's invention, there's music that feels real instead of just calculated precision. While the funk bass and organ parts do still go a touch too far, surrounded by such spectacular work it's easily forgivable. However, the song alone doesn't forgive the album that was named for it. Without that lone track, this record would be the single worst I've listened to this year. Unless you're a composition major and looking to dissect infuriatingly tacky pieces, I'd advise you to stay away from this one.