The terrestrial smooth-jazz radio format continues to shrink, freeing genre artists from the requirement to score hit singles. And with that, smooth jazzers have been creating more adventurous works. Chris Standring crossed over to classical, Rick Braun sang with strings and Jeff Golub played the blues. Enter pianist David Benoit, who gleefully passes though a range of styles on his latest disc, Conversation.
On the opening track, “Napa Crossroads Overture,” a sweeping, dramatic piece written with longtime collaborator and former Ambrosia frontman David Pack, Benoit recalls his orchestral albums and sideline work as a film composer. He updates his 1987 ballad “Kei’s Song” — here called “Kei’s Song Redux” — with a more generous caress of strings and the addition of Pat Kelley’s elegant acoustic guitar. Elsewhere, jazz converses with classical as Benoit references Ravel and Debussy on the haunting and wistful “Sunrise on Mansion Row.” The classical realm is revisited on the album’s concluding title track, the last movement of a three-movement suite Benoit composed a few years ago called “Music for Two Trios.” That piece, which includes a guest turn by pianist Robert Theis, marks the first time in Benoit’s 35-year recording career that he didn’t play every piano part on an album himself.
Conversation’s nine tracks only run a total of 36 minutes, but the variety seems endless. There’s the spirit of Benoit’s many Peanuts/Vince Guaraldi-themed recordings shining through on Theodore Shaprio’s whimsical theme to “Diary of A Wimpy Kid”— which features Benoit’s daughter June on violin and a blistering electric-guitar solo by Golub. The pianist also romps from the bossa-flavored “Feelin’ It” to the swinging trad jazz of “Let’s Get Ready” (on which tenor saxophonist David Sills shines). Another gem is the speedy, three-minute jam “Q’s Motif,” which, true to its title, draws from a boogie-woogie motif composed by Quincy Jones. The synth-driven tune is unapologetically old-school, and nicely captures yet another element of Benoit’s impressive artistry. —Jonathan Widran