Auckland spoils us with long runs of clement weather, but when winter hits we suffer. Having effectively avoided any meaningful autumn we suddenly plunged into a week of cold wet days. There was no better time for the Michel Benebig/Carl Lockett band to arrive. As we grooved to the music, a warmth flooded our bodies within minutes. Nothing invokes warmth like a well oiled B3 groove unit and the Benebig/Locket band is as good as it gets. The icing on the cake was seeing Shem with them. A singer with incredible modulation skills and perfect pitch, able to convey the nuances of emotion with a casual glance or a single note. The way she moves from the upper register to the midrange, silken.Michel Benebig has been travelling to New Zealand for years, and his connection with the principals of the UoA Jazz school has been a boon for us. He generally brings his partner Shem with him, but last time work commitments in her native New Caledonia kept her at home. Michel just gets better and better and the way his pedal work and hands create contrasts and tension defies belief. It is therefore not surprising that Michel attracts top rated guitarists or saxophonists to his bands. The best of our local groove guitarists have often featured and a growing number of stand-out American artists (see earlier posts on this band). Of these, the New York guitarist Carl Locket is of particular note. I first heard Lockett in San Francisco four years ago and he mesmerised me with his deep bluesy lines and time feel. Although comfortable in a number of genres, he is the ideal choice for an organ/guitar groove unit.The band played material from their recent album (mostly Benebig’s compositions) and a few standards. There were also compositions by Shem Benebig. Their approach to arranging standards is appealing – numbers like Johnny Mandel’s ‘Suicide is Painless’ are transformed into groove excellence. We heard that number performed at the band’s last visit and the audience loved to hear it repeated. This visit, we heard a terrific interpretation of ‘Angel Eyes’ (Matt Dennis). I confess that this is one of my favourite standards (Ella regarded it as her favourite ballad). Anita O’day performed it beautifully as did Frank Sinatra and Nat Cole. The only groove version I can recall is the relatively unknown Gene Ammons cut (a bonus number added in later years to his ‘Boss Tenor’ album with organist Johnny ‘Hammond’ Smith). That version took the tune at a very slow pace, so slow in fact that you initially wondered if Ammons had nodded off before he came in. It was wonderful for all that (who can resist Ammons).The band began the tune at a slow pace (but not as slow as Ammons), then once through, picking up the tempo, the band settling into a deeper groove, drummer Samsom and the guitarist really locking together, giving the Benebig’s room to create magic. That locked-in beat is often at the heart of an organ-guitar unit and when done well it adds bottom to the sound. Locket’s style of comping is the key to that effect, the entry point for the drummer, the way the guitarist lays back on the beat and comps in a particular way. Samsom heard and responded as I knew he would. He is a groove merchant at heart. On tenor saxophone, Roger Manins was on home turf. Dreamily caressing the melody before his solo.
On an earlier blues number, we saw Manins at his playful best. He is always up for a challenge and this time, it came from Shem Benebig. This blues (sung in French) was about the demon drink and the dangers lying therein. As Shem ran through the tune she gestured accusatively, as if berating the audience. She had transformed herself into a firebrand preacher and her playfulness went down a treat. Tunes like this contain the DNA of their ancient beginnings and the Sanctified Church, ‘call and response’ at their very heart. Having berated the audience she turned on Manins as they exchanged phrases in a time-honoured way. The musical conversation went on for a number of bars until Shem delivered the coup-de-grace. Manins came back whisper-soft in mock submission. Shem, hands on hips flicked her hair triumphantly – a delightful moment of ad-lib musical theatre. I have put up this blues clip – more clips to follow later.
And all the while that fabulous B3 grooved us to a place we never wanted to leave.