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There's more to David Benoit than you think

May 24, 2009 | 12:09 pm

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Like most people, I knew David Benoit as a popular practitioner of what’s called “smooth jazz,” a form mainstream jazz-heads consider a slightly exalted version of elevator music. But Benoit turned out to be a lot more complicated than I thought.

For one thing, this musician who grew up in Bakersfield and the South Bay turns out to have written the official song of the Philippines tourist bureau. Can Thelonious Monk top that?

And although he’s associated with an easy, non-offensive jazz with no rough edges, and Benoit grew up almost entirely uninterested in rock 'n' roll, one of his early musical interests was the orchestral work of Frank Zappa.

Benoit has slowly been building a career in classical music, enough to establish himself as music director of the Asia America Symphony Orchestra -- where he’s in his eighth season -- and to draw the interest of Kent Nagano, the former Los Angeles Opera music director.

Nagano told me that he sees Benoit as someone with “far more than one dimension,” and he enlisted him to write some of the music for the Japanese internment-camp epic “Manzanar,” especially to re-create music of the World War II period.

“In his music, you hear the voice of American culture,” Nagano said. “With a sense of familiarity and tradition, a sense that you can reach back in time and also look forward.”

As for the split in jazz -- with one audience for “straight-ahead” jazz on one side, smooth fans on the other -- Benoit calls it an awkward divorce he wishes had never occurred. He’s still dedicated to such straight-ahead figures as Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck and Oscar Peterson and doesn’t want to take sides. “Because I’ve lived in both worlds.”

More from Benoit, who leads a concert with the AASO on Saturday, and Nagano in my story in Sunday’s Calendar section.

-- Scott Timberg

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times

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