When a Hammond B3 artist hits town, organ combo fans cheer and roadies duck for cover. The B3 is not the sort of instrument that musicians bring with them on a plane (unless they have chartered a Lear Jet or a Hercules). These mysterious musical behemoths are now harder to find, as the Hammond company folded in 1986 and the original tone-wheel B3/C3 has not been made since 1974. The instrument barely fits into a utility van and weighs more than 435 lb; with the accompanying Lesley Unit you can add 150 lb. The first problem for a travelling B3 artist is therefore to source a well restored working machine in the town where the gig will be held. Auckland is lucky in this respect as there are a few of the instruments around. To locate one in full working order is often difficult but the first port of call in Auckland is always keyboardist/organist Alan Brown. Alan has just restored his beloved C3 (an even heavier version of the B3).
Young unsuspecting musicians and a few experienced ones who should have known better, cajoled by Roger manins, moved this fabulous machine halfway across town, down two flights of stairs and into the basement of the 1885 building. They suffered for our enjoyment.
Its been over a year since Michele Benebig and Shem were in town and we love them here. Their blend of hard swinging old school B3 Jazz groove and evocative South Sea Island referencing vocals is a perfect fit for New Zealand audiences. The Author Lawrence Durrell* once described a rare disease called ‘Islomania’. This affliction of the spirit causes a form of intoxication; an overwhelming desire to live on lush green Islands surrounded by limitless expanses of sea. For the afflicted this is a source of inner happiness. While Michel and Shem are often seen on the West Coast of America; in Australia, New Zealand or France, it is their Island home base of New Caledonia that defines them. Shem in particular fills her compositions with descriptions of exotic papillon (French for butterfly), colourful birds who warn the locals of impending storms and of the Pacific. She and Michel are clearly afflicted by Islomania and as a fellow sufferer I empathise. When this affliction meets the Jazz B3 obsession a potent hybrid arises and from the grip of this there is no escape.
After seemingly endless months of blue skies it poured down on the night of the gig. This was bound to affect attendance, but those who braved the storm heard something exceptional. If there is one compelling reason to brave wind and rain it is to hear a B3 Combo. There is a primal warmth radiating from a B3 that seeps into your body. From the first few chords you feel at one with the world and during the intense slow burning grooves you are lost to your cares altogether.
Several numbers into the first set we heard ‘State Highway Blues’, composed and arranged by Fabienne Shem Benebig (the previous day) while driving up the North Island. This blues in Ab was absolutely captivating and the way the musicians gently pulled back on the beat gave it a deep swing (a number that reprised in my dreams for days to come). This number had enough tension and release to power Big ben. There were many new compositions from both Michel and Shem plus the odd tune from Michel’s earlier albums ‘Black Cap’ and ‘Yellow Purple’. One notable exception was the inclusion of a number by the French organist Eddie Louiss. Several years ago Michel wrote ‘Blues for Rog..’ (for Roger Manins) and in this number much of his formidable technique is evident.
Fabienne Shem Benebig always accompanies Michel on the road and she is also a gifted musician. Her well thought out compositions and strong vocal presence are integral to the combo. ‘Shem’ mainly sings in her native French tongue and hearing the blues in that language is pleasant to the ear. That said she is not there for mere novelty value as her voice is authoritative. Whether whispering a ballad or belting out a Basie number she is equally compelling. Like Michel she has a captivating stage presence and her playful humour is the perfect foil to his studied cool.
Michel Benebig is gaining wider attention and his recent trips to California have resulted in two stellar albums. His command of the B3 is astonishing and if you want a masterclass in technique and cool watch him in action. He has an intuitive feel for this genre and every move, every pregnant pause and every gesture becomes part a his unfolding story. As the last of the old B3 masters leave us, Michel Benebig and others like him will be swiftly identified as the new cadre, ready to move up and occupy that hallowed space.
No organ combo is going to work properly without the right sort of guitarist and for this gig Michel used Auckland’s Dixon Nacey. Dixon Nacey and drummer Ron Samson had not long been back from New Caledonia where they joined Michel and Shem for the official opening of the new Astro Jazz Club (run by Michel and dedicated to organ Jazz and in particular Brother Jack McDuff). Dixon always looks happy when playing, but never more so when playing blues or groove. He really pulled out some great performances on this gig and the chemistry between he and Michel was evident. The multi faceted (and by default polyrhythmic drummer) Ron Samsom was cast in the unusual role of groove drummer here. He exercised restraint and kept the tight focus needed, stepping free at appropriate moments. The most important role for a groove drummer is to lock into the organs groove and he achieved that. Roger Manins and Ben McNicoll made up the horn section and while Roger played the heads and an occasional solo, Ben mostly played counterpoint. The tenor sax and baritone sounded wonderful together. Everything about this gig felt right and the genre was well served.
We are now halfway through the CJC (Creative Jazz Club) #jazzapril series and the program offers depth and variety. As we approach International Jazz Day we should reflect on the gift that we have at our disposal. While it is tempting to say that we’re lucky (and we are) I also mindful that the music we call Jazz is the result of hard work and dedication. This American art form has long had global outreach and down at the bottom of the Pacific we legitimately own a piece of that, thanks to a plethora of gifted musicians and enablers like Roger, Ben and Caro.
*Reflections on a Marine Venus – L Durrell
Who: Michel Benebig (Hammond C3), Fabienne Shem Benebig (vocals), Dixon Nacey (guitar), Ron Samsom (drums), Roger Manins (tenor sax), with Ben McNicoll (baritone sax).
Where: CJC (Creative Jazz Club), 1885 Britomart, Auckland New Zealand. 16th April 2014