The name of bassist Michel Benita will be unfamiliar to most, but in reality his has been a lengthy low key career, mainly within his native France, but increasingly cosmopolitan in character from the mid-1990s onwards with distinguished collaborations along the way.
Benita’s early career began in his mid-twenties in the 1980s and in 1986 he was spotted by the new leader of the Orchestre National de Jazz, François Jeanneau, and became a member of that that many of the new talents to emerge on the French jazz scene. A year later he formed his own quartet with Italian drummer Aldo Romano (the beginning of a long-term collaboration), tenorist Dewey Redman and another Italian, pianist Rita Marcotulli. Collectively they recorded two well received albums for the now defunct French indie label, Label Bleu. By the mid-1990s a new quartet, Quartet Palatino, had been created with Romano the sole survivor. This new group included the exciting Italian trumpeter Paolo Fresu and Glenn Ferris and was the entry point for this writer to Benita’s maturing talent. Three CDs followed in succession. Further collaborations with guitarist Marc Ducret included trio and tentet formats. By 2000 a new trio had been formed, this time with Pete Erskine and French guitarist Nguyen Lè and two albums in 2000 and 2008 were the result. Electro-jazz albums were recorded with Swiss trumpeter Erik Truffaz in the early noughties and an unlikely hooking up with luxury brand Hermès facilitated a recording with the Newance quartet in 2004. British jazz fans will probably be most familiar with the 2012 collaboration with Andy Sheppard and Sebastian Rochford as part of Trio Libero.
Thus Michel Benita’s debut for ECM as a leader is no immediate happening, but rather the fruit of a long and varied musical journey. All the more reason, then, to celebrate a superlative offering that, in character, is something of a twenty-first century update on those classic Kenny Wheeler ECM albums from the mid-1970s, albeit with a deeply French sensitivity, very ably assisted by wonderful flugelhorn playing of Matthieu Michel, and going further still by including elements of world roots music via the participation of Japanese koto player, Mieko Miyazaki. Scandinavian participation comes in the shape of guitarist and various electronica performer Eivind Aarest while Philippe Garcia provides sensitive percussive support on drums. It was recorded at what is proving to be ECM’s very own second home in southern Europe, in Lugano, Switzerland.
From the opening piece to the very end, this recording has a maturity and melodicism that cries out classic and nothing is at all rushed. This is where ECM is at its very best in the quietly introspective, deeply melodic strand of music. The brooding opener, ‘Back from the moon’, sets the scene immaculately with a modal bass line from the leader, shades of Alice Coltrane on the harp from the koto and a gorgeous flugelhorn solo from Michel that commences with the quasi-tone of a flute. A stunning way to begin proceedings and a major highlight on the album as a whole. Another favourite is the exquisite composition by Miyazakai, ‘Hacihi Gatasu’, with a wonderful duet throughout between bass and koto, two instruments that complement each other perfectly. More of this, please! Competing for first place in the execution of pieces is the stunningly understated, Toonari’, which has a refined and subtle Latin meets Far Eastern undercurrent concealed just under the surface. Finishing off matters with aplomb is a sumptuous duet between koto and bass on the intro to ‘Snowed in’ before flugelhorn organically enters with a solo of great delicacy.
Michel Benita is no Young Turk, but rather a seasoned performer with a clear vision of what he seeks to achieve. That he has so magnificently succeeded is testimony to his powers as both a leader and individual musician. A candidate for new album of the year.