Describing Oakland’s Lorin Benedict as a scat singer is kind of like calling Sherlock Holmes a detective. It’s accurate as far as it goes, but doesn’t begin to capture the singular nature of his achievement. Over the past decade, Benedict has crafted an uncanny vocal style employing words and phrases that can easily be mistaken for English, but in fact are entirely of his own invention. At first encounter, he often inspires double takes, followed by slack-jawed amazement at the exuberant but rigorous musicality of his performance.
Benedict performs two shows on Sunday, playing an afternoon Jazzschool gig with the long-running collective trio The Holly Martins featuring saxophonist Kasey Knudsen and Berkeley guitarist Eric Vogler, and an evening Berkeley Arts Festival show introducing a new collective trio with Knudsen and Berkeley clarinet master Ben Goldberg.
For all but a tiny handful of jazz vocalists, interpreting lyrics is central to their creative expression. But since he first started performing at the age of 31, Benedict has never employed actual words, even when The Holly Martins explore American Songbook gems by the likes of Gershwin and Berlin. With his acute sense of swing and highly developed harmonic sensibility, he can improvise over standards and jazz tunes like a bebop saxophonist, or explore more textural sonic territory. With no real precedents for what he’s attempting, Benedict necessarily sees his pursuit as a work in progress.
“I always viewed myself as an instrumentalist using the voice,” says Benedict, 43. “I’ve never been interested in trying to use words. As I’ve done this for about 12 years pretty intensely, it’s developed into a more language-sounding thing. The syllabic content has gotten more nuanced. I want to see what this becomes. I don’t know if it’s ever been tried.”
Benedict grew up surrounded by music, as both of his parents are accomplished symphonic musicians, as is his sister. While nursing a deep passion for mainstream jazz, he initially left the family business behind, eventually earning a PhD in physics from UC Berkeley (where he works as a theoretical physicists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory). He credits pianist/composer Vijay Iyer, the recently minted MacArthur “genius” Fellow, for setting him on his present musical path.
After getting acquainted as teaching assistants for an introductory physics course at Cal, Iyer turned him on to the music of Sun Ra and the fervently creative Chicago collective the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (which spawned the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton, among many other important figures). Through Iyer, Benedict connected with the brilliant alto saxophonist and conceptualist Steve Coleman in the mid-90s. When Coleman returned to the area in 2000 to teach in UC Berkeley’s music department for several years, Benedict started auditing his class, which led to sitting in with student ensembles.
“I had grown up around music, and after a while I started to raise my hand and participate,” Benedict says. “Over a year and a half it evolved into Coleman saying you can do this. He had me sit in at student performances.”
When Coleman brought his band Five Elements (with Berkeley High alum Jonathan Finlayson) to Bruno’s he invited Benedict to sit in, “a thrilling and terrifying” experience, he says. Not long afterwards Benedict made one of his first recordings, appearing on 2004’s Lucidarium by Steve Coleman and Five Elements (an album that also features the startlingly original vocalists Theo Bleckmann and Jen Shyu).
Over the years he’s forged deep ties with some of the region’s most interesting musicians, recording with Berkeley guitarist John Scott’s Typical Orchestra, and Berkeley saxophonist Howard Wiley’s haunting albums inspired by music recorded and heard at Louisiana’s Angola prison (2007’s The Angola Project and 2010’s 12 Gates to the City). Like a savvy instrumentalist, Benedict can capture a project’s particular mood and intention while remaining doggedly himself. Holly Martins’ guitarist Eric Vogler was an undergraduate taking Coleman’s class and was the first musician with whom Benedict started collaborating.
“When you hear him it’s amazing and stunning,” Vogler says. “Not in the sense of beautiful, though sometimes it is, but it’s literally shocking to hear somebody doing what he does. He’s just like a normal jazz musician, in terms of improvising melodically. The other thing that drew me in was that Lorin is a contender for world’s music serious musical listener, with encyclopedic knowledge. He exposed me to a ton of music. It would be late afternoon and my girlfriend would see him show up and she’d be like, see you tomorrow. We’d have seven or eight hour listening sessions.”
First annual Berkeley Festival of Choro
If Benedict has tailor made his own approach to jazz vocals, Berkeley flutist Jane Lenoir has found new inspiration in a venerable Brazilian instrumental tradition known as choro. She and percussionist Brian Rice present the first annual Berkeley Festival of Choro on Sunday at Freight & Salvage featuring their band the Berkeley Choro Ensemble with reed master Harvey Wainapel, Oakland’s Grupo Falso Baiano, San Luis Obispo’s Choro de Ouro, and special guest Almir Cortes, a guitarist/mandolinist from Bahia who lives in São Paulo state.
With roots dating back to the 1870s, choro is a particularly beguiling New World style that combines European forms with Afro-Brazilian rhythms and luscious melodies. The music’s modern conventions were codified in the late teens and early 1920s by Pixinguinha (1898-1973), who was also a seminal figure in samba (Brazilian musicians have often moved easily between the genres). Throughout the last century, the popularity of choro waxed and waned, and every generation seemed to experience a choro revival, most spectacularly in the 1940s when mandolin virtuoso Jaco do Bandolim created a tremendously sophisticated body of tunes. More recently, musicians like Paulinho de Viola, Paulo Moura, Rafael Rabello, and Hermeto Pascoal have expanded the genre, often adding elements from jazz.
A Berkeley resident in the 1970s who spent years in San Francisco and Marin before moving back to North Berkeley in 2006, Lenoir is a conservatory-trained musician who has performed widely in chamber music, new music, jazz and Afro-Cuban settings, including the San Francisco Chamber Music Society, the Paul Dresher Ensemble, and the Berkeley Contemporary Chamber Players. Turned onto to choro about seven years by her sister, noted Colorado clarinetist Annie Lenoir, Jane was drawn to “the incredible beauty of the way the classical idiom blended with other styles.
“As a flutist I spent much of my life developing my ability to play the instrument with a lot of virtuosity, and choro offers a wonderful opportunity to use a lot of the techniques and tone colors, with really fun and beautiful grooves. The more that I play it, the more I see an incredible affinity to Baroque styles.”
She and Rice launched the Berkeley Choro Ensemble (BCE) in 2010, debuting at the Berkeley Public Library. Specializing in the tambourine-like pandeiro, an essential ingredient in any choro ensemble, Rice is part of the East Bay’s first choro wave dating back to the mid-1990s in ensemble with mandolinist Mike Marshall like Choro Time and Choro Famoso. With Wainapel, a devoted Brazilphile who spends as much time as possible in the country, BCE has honed a repertoire focusing on rarely played tunes and pieces by contemporary composers. Falso Baiano is devoted to choro standards by Pixinguinha and Jaco do Bandolim. If all goes as planned the first Berkeley Festival of Choro will be followed by a second and third installment.
“Neither Jane nor I have attempted anything like this before,” Rice says. “Our hope is to expand. Our goal in the future to get outside of the Bay Area more, and bring Brazilian ensembles from New York and beyond, maybe even someone like Danilo Brito or Hamilton de Holanda.”
Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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