Australian and Oceania based bands, CJC Creative Jazz Club gigs, Groove & Funk

Michel Benebig & Carl Lockett tour 2016

Benebig-Lockett 087Auckland 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.Benebig-Lockett 089Michel 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.Benebig-Lockett 090The 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).Benebig-Lockett 092The 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.

Michel Benebig (B3 organ), Carl Lockett (guitar), Shem Benebig (vocals), Roger Manins (tenor saxophone), Ron Samsom (drums). CJC (Creative Jazz Club, Albion Hotel, May 25th 2016.

 

 

 

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Michele Benebig @ CJC #jazzapril

 

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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.

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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.

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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.  IMG_0306 - Version 2

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.

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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.

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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

Groove & Funk, Review, USA and Beyond

Michel Benebig ‘Yellow Purple’ review

Yellow Purple

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.  IMG_4556 - Version 2

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.

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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.  IMG_3289 - Version 2

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