With brick-and-mortar retail music stores having mostly fallen by the wayside in our current, internet-driven musical reality, genres and stylistic labels have become less important for categorization — and the New York City-based Daniel Bennett Group is taking full advantage, with its namesake, multi-wind-instrumental leader having realized long ago that such tags weren’t all that important in the first place.
At a matinee performance at the Mandel Public Library in West Palm Beach on March 26, before a sparse but very appreciative crowd of 35 people, Bennett (on alto saxophone, flute, piccolo and oboe), guitarist Nat Janoff and drummer Matthew Feick blurred lines between jazz, rock, pop, classical, show tunes, and folk music.
With the 37-year-old Bennett having earned a master’s degree in classical saxophone performance from the New England Conservatory in Boston, it isn’t surprising. That’s the renowned school where late arranger Gunther Schuller introduced his classical-meets-jazz “Third Stream” concept, and Bennett studied both demanding disciplines there. Having toured and recorded for more than 10 years since, and for five with his current, unorthodox, bass-free lineup, the band leader and his trio mates also have experience within the orchestra pits of the innumerable theatrical shows in New York City.
All of those styles were present at the Mandel, along with practically every imaginable (and even some unimaginable) of all musical time signatures. Most of the material was from the trio’s latest CD, last year’s Sinking Houseboat Confusion, but Bennett and company actually opened with three tracks from its preceding 2015 effort, The Mystery at Clown Castle.
“Paul Platypus” was a logical introduction, with Bennett’s welcoming alto sax melody offsetting Feick’s complicated, 7/8-timed pulse before “The Clown Chemist” took things further into unexpected terrain. Feick and Janoff led Bennett (on piccolo, then oboe, then flute) on a chase through 5/8 and 4/4 pulses before the leader went back to sax to play harmonized lines with the guitarist in one of the afternoon’s highlights. “The Spinning Top Stood Still” then provided a breather, with its even, common time signature, improvised dynamics and dramatic volume swells, and Janoff’s expert use of his looping pedal, allowing him to play multiple guitar lines.
Janoff was the trio’s only amplified musician, albeit playing through a tiny cabinet, as Bennett and Feick were heard easily within the Mandel’s acoustically pleasing auditorium. The drummer occasionally roared, but to the credit of both the dynamic band and its open-minded audience — mostly aged 60 and older — no one left during the hour-long performance.
“When we were loading equipment in today,” Bennett said between songs, “a woman came up to Nat and ran her hands through his hair. She said, ‘You must be the guitar player,’ and walked away before he could respond! This is called ‘Doctor Duck Builds a Patio.’”
As the title of the Sinking Houseboat Confusion track indicates, it featured a childlike melody by Bennett and Janoff that made Feick’s 7/8 cadence more accessible. In essence, it’s the trio’s drummer who brings the jazz elements through complicated timing, plus near-perfect meter achieved through theater experience. Which helps with the loops of Janoff (responsible for most of the rock and pop essence), and Bennett, whose everything-goes listening habits allow for everything else from classical to folk.
“Here’s another brand-new song, ‘Andrew Variations,’ that we’ve never played in Florida before,” said Bennett. “You look like a welcoming audience, so we’ll try it out on you.”
With its shell-game bars in 7/8 and 5/4 time, the dizzying piece proved to be another of the show’s highlights, as Bennett’s sax melody warmed the proceedings. It was a recurring theme for the second half-hour, with the band leader quoting “You Are My Sunshine” on flute within the same CD’s “Paint the Fence” and providing the vocal melody on flute to a cover of The Beatles’ “Michelle.”
A late highlight came courtesy of Feick, whose Latin-influenced intro, drum pattern, and solo allowed Sinking Houseboat Confusion’s opening track, “John Lizard Comes Home,” to shimmy amid Bennett’s sax and Janoff’s creative looping and soloing.
Was it jazz, or did it only appear to be via Bennett playing saxophone? By concert’s end, with an aging crowd enjoying the all-instrumental and decidedly non-swing era proceedings, it didn’t matter. Bennett, Janoff and Feick had won everyone over, and convinced them that it was the music itself that was most important, not whatever description was attached to it.