When Michel Benebig played at the CJC late last year I learned about his coming tour of the West Coast of America. Because I was going to San Francisco over January I arranged to meet him there, as I knew that he and Shem would have a new band on the road. We kept in touch over the weeks that followed and he was getting a very good reception as he toured around. It confirmed what I was reading; that B3 (with drums and guitar) bands are genuinely popular again. This regained popularity is great news for Jazz audiences as the B3 line up is one of most audience pleasing and accessible in Jazz. This comeback has not occurred by accident but it is due to the gifted players who are now emerging on the scene. Michel Benebig is surely one of these and his name often crops up in the same breath as titans like Dr Lonnie Smith.
I was staying in Bush Street which is in the ‘Lower Nobs Hill’ area of Frisco; just above Union Square. When I got an update of Michel and Shem’s itinerary, it surprised me to see that one of his gigs was in that very street and so my son and I duly headed off there on the appointed night. By ingrained habit we skirted the ‘Tenderloin’ and descended toward Hayes Valley. A wisp of escaping sound told us that we had arrived and we entered a nicely appointed modern building, wedged in between two deco ones. Leaving the temperate San Francisco winters night we wound down into the basement. The warm sound of the B3, groove guitar and drums washing away any vestige of the night air. My sons eyes lit up. “Wow” he said. “This sounds great” and it surely did. This was the new band I had been keen to hear.
That particular band is almost the same as on the recent ‘Yellow Purple’ album (with the exception of the drummer Akira Tana). Akira Tana is well-known around San Francisco where he had just recorded his big band album, followed by a gig at Yoshi’s. With Michel on B3 (and such a beautiful machine it was to) and Shem on vocals they couldn’t go wrong.
On guitar they had Carl Lockett who is an ideal groove merchant. It was immediately obvious that his blues filled licks blended well with Michel’s and that indicated a great night was before us. Carl Lockett has been a favourite with groove musicians for years having toured with Joey defrancesco, Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Randy Crawford to name but a few. With more than 15 recordings under his belt he was the right choice for this gig and for the ‘Yellow Purple’ album. The album does not feature Akira Tana but instead the respected West Coast drummer James Levi appears. He lays down a tight insistent groove and swings in ways that only truly experienced groove drummers can. When you listen to the album you will notice how these guys listen to each other: in fact it’s hard to believe that the band hasn’t been together for years.
Shem gave her usual polished performance whether delivering the Bessie Smith’s slow burner ‘It Won’t be You’ or the more uptempo ‘Keep it to Yourself’ by Sonny Boy Williamson. She only features in two numbers on the album, but at the gig she sang many of her own compositions. Shem is an engaging performer and especially when singing in her native French tongue.
All of the other compositions on ‘Yellow Purple’ are Michel’s and these are as much a strength as his killing organ work. He is absolutely astonishing on B3 and to hear him is to be instantly transported back to the days of Jimmy McGriff or Brother Jack Macduff. His ability to work those pedals, milk the grooves and swing so hard that it makes your head swim, marks him out as a true master. The tracks ‘Yellow Purple’ and ‘Sunlight Special’ are especially strong.
New Caledonia can rightly feel proud of Michel. He is reaching wider audiences every day and one day the South Pacific could lose him to the USA. Grab a piece of this master musician now and be sure to buy this and any other of his albums as they become available (see below). Anyone in Wellington early next month can see him in person so watch for the gigs announcements or contact Nick Granville.
What: ‘Yellow Purple’ – Michele Benebig (B3), Shem Benebig (vocals), Carl Lockett (guitar), James Levi (drums, percussion).
Where to buy: www.michelbenebig.com