Daniel Bennett Group ‘We Are the Orchestra’ CD (Manhattan Daylight Media) 3/5

New York saxophonist Daniel Bennett has been hailed as one of the most original musical voices of his generation. Here’s a few quotes about him and his work: “buoyant enough to conjure notions of East African guitar riffs and Steve Reich’s pastoral repetition.” (Village Voice), “a mix of jazz, folk, and minimalism.” (Boston Globe), “Witty, Likable and Ludicrous!” (New York Times) and “Good-natured, playful irreverence” (Orlando Weekly). We’re in for a bit of a ride then. Add to those quotes the oft-heard “unpredictable”, “disregards convention” and “quirky” and it comes as absolutely no surprise that the new album is…Giuseppe Verdi arranged for Bennett (sax, flute, piccolo, clarinet, oboe, piano) and his mate Mark Cocheo on guitars and banjo. Actually, in truth, only 2 tracks are Verdi themes – “Ernani” and “Il Trovatore” but I think you get the picture. This album is not going to be genre-tied.

“Loose Fitting Spare Tire” (titles are joyous throughout) is a jaunty, hypnotic 4 mins 50 of layered, plucky algorithmic patterns with a couple of nice n loose, fluid solos – Cocheo on electric guitar and Bennett on alto sax. It’s kinda avant-pop, kinda jazz, kinda folk, kinda minimal, kinda very smiley. The melody immediately made me think of the ‘Sorry’ TV theme toon…a bit like Matt Berry meets the Punch Brothers.

“I’m not Nancy” is stylistically similar. Again the rhythmic patterns but this time more on the folk side and a metronomic, slightly stuttery banjo and some hopeful, happy flute tell the story. “Gold Star Mufflers” is a wee bit darker with the piano leading the hypnosis this time. We then have the first of the Verdi renderings “Theme From Ernani”. Very pretty it is too – swaying, folky (somewhere between Australasia and the Americas), with multiple melodic lines layering electric guitar, alto (touch of the Courtney’s here) and flute.

“Refinancing for Elephants” will take some beating for ‘Song Title of the Year’. It’s a very gentle gaelic-ish ballad with decent minimalist cred. Piccolo power and a percussive acoustic guitar. Again, there’s layer upon layer. We then face towards the East (Middle) for “Inside Our Pizza Oven”, the geographical nod cooked up by dancing oboe melodies.

“Theme from Il Trovatore” is the second of the Verdi compositions. It’s a folk waltz with simple, floating clarinet lead melodies and harmonies over rhythmic acoustic guitar. Lastly, we have “Carl Finds His Way” which has echoes of the jaunty patterns in the first two tracks. Cocheo has first bite of the solo cherry, his guitar a touch overdriven. Bennet then takes over on alto before they start chatting very nicely, thank you, back & forth, like two good old musical mates.

“We Are The Orchestra” is playful, irreverent and does, indeed, mix folk, jazz and minimalism as expected. The versatile duo of Bennett and Cocheo sound so happy bouncing off each other, it’s infectious – you can’t imagine a single disagreement, moment of frustration or competitiveness. They have achieved a unique difference in creating large ensemble layers that are clearly built by either (i) just two people or (ii) several very, very like-minded individuals (perhaps family members?!). I think the music benefits from them only being a duo, and from them only being Bennett and Cocheo – they are, joyously and impressively, The Orchestra.

Ian Ward