“I want to stay true to the kind of music I love.”
By Mike Shanley
Pittsburgh Current Music Writer
Benny Benack III recalls a conversation with his mother when he was signing up for high school classes. She wanted him to take AP Algebra and History courses. He didn’t see the point. “We both know I’m going to be a musician anyway,” he told her. “I’m not going to a real college. I’m going to go to a music conservatory. Let’s not keep up this charade here.”
He had a point. Not only was he carrying on the family name, young Benny was also playing trumpet, the same instrument his grandfather played in his Pittsburgh big band. From a young age, Benack III was reared on albums by Louie Prima and Oscar Peterson. Instead of getting a summer job as a lifeguard, he worked in his saxophone-playing father’s big band.
His mom still made him take the AP classes, but he also became a musician, receiving both his undergrad and masters from the Manhattan School of Music. Of course the education might have fueled his approach to his music too. A Lot of Livin’ To Do, his second album, impressively balances his trumpet chops with his equally skilled voice, combining a blend of standards and originals.
Benack and drummer/producer Ulysses Owens, Jr. spent a lot of time mixing the album, but the recording itself came together quickly. The trumpeter reached out to prolific bassist Christian McBride asking if he would play on it. Benack laid out a six-month window, knowing that McBride’s schedule as a leader and artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival kept him busy. The bassist agreed, but his only free day was barely a month away. “With someone like Christian, you get a sense why he’s this global ambassador of jazz and why he’s the most recorded bass player in modern history,” Benack says. “He came in, sight-read all the music. He had everybody cracking up. He never played one out-of-tune note, never missed one entrance the whole day.”
Among the dozen tracks, the album includes two by Fred Rogers, one being his theme song “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” Rather than merely tipping his hat to another Pittsburgh native, Benack brings out the jazz qualities that Rogers uses in his uplifting songs. He first discovered “It’s You I Like” in a Mister Rogers Neighborhood episode where a young Wynton Marsalis played the ballad with the show’s pianist Johnny Costa. “That tune in particular reminds me so much of the jazz standard ‘I’ll Be Seeing You,’” Benack explains. “As I was going back and deciding which ones to put on the album, it made me think how many of those songs fit the jazz standard — harmony and song form and melody.”
Guest vocalists Alita Moses and Veronica Swift each duet with Benack on the album. Benack also casts Burt Bacharach’s gentle “What the World Needs Now” in a form inspired by the urgency of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, further reinforcing the song’s message.
At a time when jazz audiences seem divided between instrumentalists who like to blow and singers with greater appeal, Benack, who lives in New York but still returns home frequently, gives equal time to both approaches without shortchanging either. While “Sub-Zero” shows his bop roots, “Irrepressible” reveals the lessons he’s learned from the Great American songbook.
He’s perfectly content with both aspects of his work as well. “I want to stay true to the kind of music I love,” he says. “And try to live up to the standards that Cole Porter set as a songwriter. Or the standards that Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan and Kenny Dorham and Blue Mitchell and Clifford Brown [set] as bop trumpet players, and leaving it up to other people to decide what category that puts me in.”