Sunday, May 29, 2011

The Music Goes Round And Round...

Whoa-oh-oh-oh... and it comes out... the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

When I was in college, little Tennessee Tech (about 2,500 students in those days, and only 23 music majors when I started), some of my friends and I would huddle in the music library, don our earphones, and listen to recordings of the great University of Michigan Concert Band. Those were the days when William Revelli was the director. We would marvel at how clean and musical that organization sounded, and I'm sure more than a few of us dreamed of playing in such an ensemble.

I went on to play in a number of bands, including the U. S. Air Force bands, Mr. Jack Daniel's Original Silver Cornet Band, The Disneyland Band, my own California Gold Rush Band, and more recently, the historic Royal Hawaiian Band, founded in 1836. All were great in their own way, but there has always been something about that U. of M. Band...

Tonight the circle closed, when my long-time student, Chris, performed at said Disney Hall with the famed University of Michigan Symphony Band, their homecoming concert after a successful three week tour in China. Chris is the principal bass trombonist, and just graduated summa cum laude from U.M. The performance was everything I hoped for and more, everything I remembered about the band of yore, but with loads of new experiences, a diverse presentation of old and new music and sounds. And even though it wasn't me on that stage, I couldn't have been more proud and happy that my student and friend has grown from a young lad to a world-class musician. Yo Chris! And long live the University of Michigan Band.

Here the band, under the current conductor, Michael Haithcock, performs an excerpt from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue In D Minor." Chris is the bass trombonist.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Big Bands Are Back!

Actually, they never left. Big bands abound in the greater Los Angeles area, and elsewhere around the country, including my friend Jim's wonderful Nashville Jazz Orchestra. Now working big bands, that's another issue. And for the ones that work, the pay is another issue--sign of the times, I guess. But musicians love to play, and at least in SoCal there is no shortage of opportunities.

Big bands rehearse regularly and prolifically at the musicians union facility in Hollywood, several different ones each day. And many additional bands rehearse at various places all over Southern California (or "The Southland," as the news hounds call it, not to be confused with "The South"). Many of them are excellent, but most perform in public sporadically, if at all. But some are excellent, and have leaders who are hard working and persistent, and get the band booked at one of the very few venues to showcase such an ensemble.

One such is Steve Huffsteter, with whose band I performed tonight at Typhoon, an Asian-style restaurant located at Santa Monica Airport. Glenn Miller it ain't, and it isn't even your typical big band in the traditional sense. With songs like "3 1/2" (not content to write in 7/8, Steve composed a funk tune with three-and-a-half beats in each measure), "Hispania" (conjures up pictures of El Cid) and "Melancholia" (says Steve, "...the only big band tune named for a disease" and perhaps appropriately featuring one of the trombonists), the entire library is very eclectic, and, perhaps strangely, contains a lot of waltzes, but definitely not in the style one might be accustomed to hearing from a big band. One such is the very bombastic "A Waltz And Battery," heard here on YouTube, courtesy of AIX Records.

Great band, great sounds, great time. And the food is good too! Steve tries to give everyone a chance to blow, and he picks some wonderful players to do so. Typhoon podcasts all the performances (, so it's worth checking out. And check out the other tracks on YouTube of the Steve Huffsteter Big Band from the AIX video. Or better yet, buy the DVD, which was recorded in 5.1 surround sound. You'll be amazed!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What's In A Name?

This is about--well, me. Les Benedict. My name has inspired numerous nicknames over the years, like Eggs Benedict, Les Benedict XVI (illegitimate brother of the Pope), Les Is More (sometimes abbreviated as Izmore), and others. Guitarist Doug MacDonald even composed an original song for his band, in which I play, that he titled "Leggs Benedict."

One of the most inspiring takes on my name, to me, anyway, stems from a student I had briefly about ten years ago. He quit playing trombone after high school (sound familiar?), but remained a huge fan of the instrument and its players. Barry has an old juke box which plays 45 RPM records (remember those? Man, you're OLD!) filled entirely with trombone recordings. I was amazed when I saw it, since I had no idea that there were that many trombone singles in existence. He decided to take up trombone again at about age 40, much to his wife's chagrin. He asked a friend in Texas whom he should study with in Los Angeles, and my name came up. Barry was serious about getting good on the instrument, and I became his "Teach." (His wife did eventually come around about his blowing 'bone again, but I don't think she has ever come to grips with his collection of vintage instruments and mouthpieces.)

I had talked to Barry about wanting to record a solo CD, so he decided I needed appropriate art work. He and his wife, Tracy, commissioned a CD cover from one of my favorite cartoonists, Dan Piraro, who draws the Bizarro comic strip, syndicated in many newspapers and published in books. Dan is a master of the bizarre, but very astute at coming up with a strange twist on an otherwise normal daily occurrence or situation. Barry asked me for a photo, and I gave him one of me playing which was shot by the great lead trumpeter, Buddy Childers, on a gig we were on together. Barry emailed the shot to Dan, who turned it into something I'm very proud of, on a number of levels.

Dan said the first thing that popped into his mind when he saw the photo and my name was something along the line of "Les is More," so his fertile imagination saw "Les Benedict, More Music" in an Eastern philosophical setting. He turned the photo of me into me personifying an infinity symbol, having no idea that I have studied Eastern arts, both martial and philosophical, and have utilized breathing techniques in my playing and teaching for many years, adapted from Qj Gong, Aikido, Gung Fu, Yoga, etc. The result of Dan's intuition represents to a great degree how I think of myself performing, and how I approach my practice sessions.

I recently contacted Dan with an update of my email address, even though I had had no contact with him for years, and he wrote back asking if I was the guy he did the CD art for. He told me he liked that one so much that he included it in his book, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro, and he even told me the page number it appears on (22).

I'm honored to have been included in such a work by one of my favorite "artists," even though he is not known as well for that type of work. And someday soon I'll actually finally record that CD and utilize his wonderful art the way it was intended. Thanks, Dan, and thank you, Barry and Tracy.