The lean, mean Benet McLean is a man of contradictions. Though a hyper-modern, forward looking pianist and composer, his music harks all the way back to Meade Lux Lewis, Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams and Art Tatum. Another anomalous fact is that the Northolt wild man of neo-bop was once a boy wonder of classical violin. Very much so. He began violin lessons at the age of three and won a junior scholarship to the Purcell School of Music.
Despite his unusual Christian name, there's no French connection there. His mother just liked the name of St Benet's, a church she'd once seen in Yorkshire. She and her fellow-Australian husband met in London as post-graduate students, she a botanist, he an engineer. They were'nt musicians, but loved music so much that Benet and his younger brother Viv were steeped in it almost as soon as they could walk.
When jazz piano claimed Benet's full attention as a 20-year-old, however, the transition was permanent and complete. "You can see I love the whole tradition," he says, indicating the shelves of vinyl and CD albums around the walls of his lounge. "When I first got into jazz at about 12, there was a piano at home that my brother played, but I didn't want jazz lessons on it. I went straight to records and radio shows like Gilles Peterson's 'Mad On Jazz'.
"Even as a young kid, I heard the science in jazz, the concept behind it, and eventually I recognised that I had to stop classical and go to jazz full time, because I don't believe you can do both. Jazz has a completely different attitude - in execution, articulation, everything - not just the notes you play, you know."
The first jazz album to burn into Benet's youthful brain was a tape cassette featuring Dizzy Gillespie. "From there I got into Parker, Trane and Miles Davis. Charlie Parker was my absolute idol when I was 14, but not so far as to transcribe his solos. I've only done something like that a few times, I was more into total band sounds. I didn't home in on individual pianists like Art Tatum until my mid-twenties, when I was trying to develop as a piano player. Later Kenny Kirkland became a big favorite of mine as well as Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson."
Benet formed his first trio with two school friends, drummer Paul Philbert and the bassist/kora player Tunde Jegede, before early professional work with saxophonist Kevin Haynes on piano and behind Patrick Allen and MC Supernatural as a rapper and backing-vocalist.
"Yeah, rap was one of my influences. I heard a similarity in phrasing with early bebop there. But these days I do less rapping and alot more singing. My favorite vocalists are Billy Eckstine and Cab Calloway; but I'm also a massive fan of early Michael Jackson, the pre-Thriller albums like Off The Wall and Destiny, wonderful records, plus the stuff he did as a kid. I also love contemporary R&B singers like Joe, Take 6 and the vocalists of the 1990s band Blackstreet, but not as far as wanting to play their way. I've never got the mind set of saying that such-and-such are my favorite artists so I'm gonna try and sound like them."
Today, after further journeyman time with Haynes, Dave O'Higgins, Steve Williamson, singer Carleen Anderson and Badbone trombonist Dennis Rollins, the thirtysomething McLean is daring to sense an upward shift in his fortunes. Even though he is still seeking a label deal and better exposure, McLean recently guested on tenor man Jean Toussaint's gritty SpaceTime release 'Live In Paris And London', and signed a promotional deal with the agency UKJazzNow. This followed glowing reviews for his two self-financed albums, 'Cliches For Another Day' and the recently relaunched 'In The Land of Oo-Bla-Dee'. With Jason Yarde, bassist Chris Dodd and on seperate tracks, drummers Troy Miller, Shane Forbes and Steve Washington, 'In The Land' captures some of the zest of Benet's live gigs, with lightning-bolts of Monk, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Errol Garner streaking through his high-energy solos. There is a vast range of jazz tradition at play in his hair-raising updates of 'Giant Steps' and Charlie Parker's 'Klactoveedsedstene', plus an elemental jolt of rhythmic power more and more difficult to find.
'Cliches For Another Day' involved Dodd, tenorist Roger Crosdale and drummer Nic France. "We did it in just one afternoon as a demo. Later I realised it was alot more than that, a real statement, so I started thinking about going back into the studio with a proper theme-plan in place. I intended the album as a story to take the listener on an emotional journey and ever since I heard that particular Mary Lou Williams song on the radio as a teenager, I'd wanted to sing a version of it, and bring in other parts of my past, like my violin playing and vocals. The music was recorded in three seperate sessions and featured arrangements for violin, viola and cello. I played all the parts and overdubbed them track by track, as with the various backing vocal harmonies. As we went along the album seemed to take on a life of it's own, so much so that I ended up scrapping my original narrator idea and let the music tell the story."
Recently Benet took the bold step of disbanding his regular group of Ben Hazelton, Rod Youngs and Jason Yarde to form a new quartet featuring former Jazz Warrior bassist Neil Charles, rising star drummer Saleem Raman, and Empirical's alto saxophone heavywight, Nathaniel Facey. "I'm really excited by playing with these guys, excited about the future," he says. "I see high profile work. I look at piano players like Mathew Bourne and Jason Moran and feel I am every bit as original as them. I don't want to sound arrogant here but I really do believe that."
Benet McLean has pulled few punches over the last five years delivering his arresting brand of dusted-down post-bop. Now, with two albums under his belt as a leader, he's ready to move up an extra weight.
by JACK MASSARIK