Michel Benebig: soul on Pacific soul

Noumea resident Michel Benebig is a mavin of the B3 and its compact love-child the Nord C2. He is the sort of musician that sets the world to rights and sets your feet tapping.

He is a story-teller on the B3 organ (C2) and through his fingers flows the history of this wonderful instrument. The chords that he uses are rich and warm and capture the instruments journey from the African-American southern church’s to the Jazz heartland. While his voicings contain hints of the greats that he references like Brother Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff and Jimmy Smith; Michel is comfortably settled in his own style. He speaks with the unmistakable authority of a South Pacific Soul-Jazz master and it reinforces the view that Pacific Islands like New Caledonia and New Zealand have unique contributions to make to this music.

Michel was accompanied on tour by Shem Benebig (his wife) and the French drummer Johan Cazalas. Shem is a fabulous singer and she knows how to enhance the mood by a lowered tone, a hand gesture and a quick smile. When others were soloing she would stand a little to one side and dance; her movements contained more than a hint of the sensuous Kanak rhythms. Shem guided the proceedings with the consummate skill of a professional; holding the attention or directing it to the other musicians as required. No audience is ever going to be disappointed when this husband and wife team are performing. Johan was an observant and tasteful drummer. He would watch during a solo and lift the performance exactly when it was required. Never over-crowding the others and always supportive.

The band had a Kiwi horn section to assist them and if I heard correctly these guys had not seen the charts until a few hours before the performance. If that is true they did doubly well. The horns provided added heft to an already powerhouse sound and in doing so followed the best traditions of the Soul-Jazz genre. Ben McNicoll (Baritone sax), Chris Neilson (trumpet, flugal horn, alto sax), Jimmy Garden (tenor sax). The tight ensemble playing and a particularly lovely baritone solo by Ben earned them good applause.

The first set had begun with a tune called ‘Mr Jim‘. One full-throated blast from the organ and we were immediately locked into a warm soul-Jazz groove that never abated. As the night progressed we heard slow burners and heart stopping up tempo tunes. My favourite was a tribute to Jack McDuff titled ‘Captain Jack‘. This was not only a fitting tribute to the long departed B3 master, but an up-to-date comment on the Pacifica Jazz renaissance. Another tune Papillon about a tiny butterfly was a perfect vehicle for Shem and it tapped right into the ‘rythmes Kaneka‘. Michel could move from a quiet soulful chord to a stuttering tidal wave of sound in an eye blink and that is partly because of his chops and because of the unique qualities of this instrument.  An organist has to control many things at the same time but he is particularly required to control the following; Swell pedal, bass pedals and the two keyboards. When you consider what improvisers must do mentally and add in the above, this becomes a truly impressive feat.

I spoke to Michel at length during the break, and at the house-party a few days later. He is in the mould of great Jazz Musicians everywhere. Self effacing and engaging as a conversationalist. Full of wonderful stories about Joey DeFrancesco, Jimmy McGriff, Tony Monaco, Lewis Nash and others. As we talked I mentioned my liking for the great French B3 player great Eddy Louiss. “Oh yes Eddy Louiss is a monster” he said dropping his voice to a reverential whisper. “I met him in France a few years ago and it made my knees weak just to be in his presence”. I suspect that many up-and-coming B3 players will find meeting Michel has the same effect on them.

When music like this is playing it is good to be alive.

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