Dave Bennett doesn’t fit the mold.
For starters, you don’t find many jazz clarinet players who name Alice Cooper, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Chris Isaak among their influences. You won’t find many musicians under 30 who are equally conversant with the music of Benny Goodman (the “King of Swing”) and Roy Orbison (“The Soul of Rock and Roll”). In fact, you may not find even one other clarinet virtuoso who occasionally breaks from his swing era repertoire to sing rockabilly hits while accompanying himself at the piano—where he plays a mean barrelhouse boogie-woogie.
In the early days of jazz, the clarinet joined with trumpet and trombone to create the music’s signature sound and it ruled the roost in the swing era, when jazz was America’s popular music and dance-party soundtrack. If anyone can return the clarinet to its heyday, it’s Dave Bennett, who fuses serious jazz improvisation with a host of modern pop influences.
On his Mack Avenue debut, Don’t Be That Way, he shows that his skills and interests make him perfectly suited for the job. He stays within the mainstream repertoire and even covers several of the most famous hit records of the 1930s (by Goodman and such contemporaneous clarinetists as Woody Herman and Artie Shaw). But Bennett reworks these songs with up-to-date twists and surprising new arrangements. The result is an album that blazes his own path while still acknowledging his predecessors, and spotlights the jazz clarinet for a new generation.
“St. James Infirmary,” the ancient New Orleans blues tune, offers one example of Bennett’s tasteful revisionism.
“I took some ideas from listening to pianist Bob James, and to some smooth jazz and funk, to come up with those voicings,” says the 29-year-old prodigy, referring to the contemporary harmonies that underlie both the clarinet’s theme statement and his own laconic, sweet-tobacco vocal. On the title track, Bennett and company apply a lightly bossa-inspired beat, stretching the melody here and there to create a contemporary rendition that’s more relaxed than the original 1938 recording but equally memorable.
The most striking evidence of Bennett’s approach comes on the classic “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Benny Goodman’s 1937 recording was an extended-length barnburner in which Gene Krupa essentially “invented” the drum solo with his simmering and then explosive trap-set improvisation. Bennett’s version stays close to the original in tempo and mood. But when it comes time for the solo with which Krupa galvanized the jazz world of the 1930s, it’s Bennett who steps to the fore, with an improvisation just as exotic, mysterious and ultimately exuberant as that long-ago drum break—and with an even greater degree of nuance, variety and virtuosity.
By turning the song into a modernist showcase for his clarinet, Bennett turns the song on its ear, yet retains its design as an exhilarating showstopper. This is no longer your grandfather’s “Sing Sing Sing”; now it’s Bennett’s.
“Since my early teens,” says the Michigan-based clarinetist, “I’ve been influenced by many other genres besides jazz. My clarinet solo on that tune keeps the same outline, but it’s different every time we play it; it’s based on chord progressions I hear in movie soundtracks, and I even stole some licks from some Alice Cooper tunes and from some solos by Stevie Ray Vaughan and other blues guitarists, just to get that kind of intensity. I think I’m finally finding my own voice, and I wanted to make that solo as dramatic as possible, so people wouldn’t say I was just copying Benny.”
Bennett hastens to share credit for the re-conceptualization of this music with the album’s arranger, Shelly Berger, whom he met through Tad Weed, the pianist in Bennett’s group. “I had told Tad that I was really frustrated with where I was musically and he said, ‘I know this arranger in Toronto who seems to think the same way you do, in terms of blending pop with classic jazz.’ So I listened to some of his music and then sent an email, out of the blue, to introduce myself; I just told him ‘I really like your stuff, and would you like to do this project with me?’