Alan Benzie - on the night shift
It was ten minutes to midnight when Alan Benzie’s mobile phone buzzed. The next day being a school day, he was in bed, just drifting off to sleep. But not for long. When the caller, Bill Kyle, mine host at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar, greeted him in his usual laid back way, said that they were a piano player short for the late night session and asked if Benzie fancied the gig, there was only one possible response.
"I told him I’d be there in ten minutes," says Benzie, who has just completed his first semester at Berklee College of Music in Boston. "I mean, I’m sure I was the last piano player they could think of but I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity, especially when Bill said that Colin Steele was playing."
Steele isn’t the only trumpeter that Benzie has found himself working alongside as a last minute replacement in this venue. When the former Art Blakey’s Jazz Messenger Valery Ponomarev arrived at the Jazz Bar for his annual Fringe run a couple of years ago, Benzie happened to be in the audience as the "is there a piano player in the house?" call went out.
Ponomarev is a tougher, more demanding customer than the avuncular, perpetually enthusiastic Steele and having occupied the piano stool, Benzie was told there was no sheet music for the next number, he’d have to work it out for himself as it went on. Scary stuff, and Benzie laughs at his sixteen year old self, but says that such experience can’t be bought.
It wasn’t meant to be this way for Benzie. Having taken up the violin at the age of eight, he enrolled at St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh four years later, obviously gifted and thinking, distantly, about a career in classical music. Then along to St Mary’s came Richard Ingham, teaching a class called Jazzbase. Benzie joined in on violin, skiving off other classes and telling his other teachers that Ingham needed him – a scenario that resulted in Ingham, appropriately enough, improvising hastily when the other teachers sought verification.
Meanwhile, on car journeys back to Glasgow when his father would tune into BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction in between playing Soft Machine, Caravan and Frank Zappa and all manner of other tapes, Benzie discovered Swedish trio EST. He became besotted, turning up in the front row at their every Scottish concert, shouting out the names of their tunes when pianist Esbjorn Svensson affected to forget what pieces they’d just played and hanging around afterwards.
"I’d be waiting for autographs and Esbjorn was always willing to chat," says Benzie. "This made a really big impression, as you can imagine, because here was the guy at the helm of the biggest jazz attraction in Europe taking time, sometimes up to an hour, to speak to this, well, wee lad basically about music. But I’ve since found that a lot, with people like Colin Steele and Tommy Smith and Steve Hamilton, they’re keen to encourage the younger generation."
By this time, Benzie had decided that it would be good to do the Jazzbase classes on piano instead of violin, much to the amusement of the sixth year common room, he later discovered.
"Yeah, they laughed when they heard I wanted to be a jazz pianist," he says. "But I persuaded the school to let me switch to piano and as well as classical lessons, which I shamefully put no effort into until I realised in my final year at school how much they would help me, they arranged for fortnightly jazz piano lessons with Steve Hamilton. I have to say that the school was really supportive and Steve would come in and just inspire me to play for hours."
Hamilton, who played with top jazz names including Freddie Hubbard and Bill Bruford’s Earthworks before settling back in Edinburgh, had recently joined Tommy Smith’s all-Scottish quartet and was playing alongside Smith in the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra. He was enthusiastic about his young pupil’s promise and presently, as well as playing with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland – he featured on their Scotland Suite CD, released late last year - Benzie got the call to join Smith’s youth orchestra.
"Oh god, I remember the first tune I played with the Tommy band," he says. "I got hopelessly lost but Tommy must have heard something he liked in my playing because he asked me back."
A tour with the Tommy Smith Youth Jazz Orchestra, featuring New York vibes virtuoso Joe Locke, followed – the recorded evidence, Exploration, is just about to be released on Smith’s Spartacus label. But as well as playing with NYJOS and TSYJO, Benzie was building up great experience with his own residency and other gigs at the Jazz Bar. He laughs again at his own naivete when Bill Kyle, having heard him in a jam session, asked if he’d like to play the club’s Sunday spot.
"I said, oh yeah, I think I can do that. Which Sunday are we talking about? And Bill said, er, every Sunday."
If winning the Young Jazz Musician of the Year title was a confidence booster – Benzie wasn’t going to enter until bassist Mario Caribe told him to stop being silly – then arriving at Berklee has been, at first, a reality check and subsequently hard but rewarding work. Rated on arrival, Benzie was assigned to one of the highest streams which means that every Wednesday he has to transcribe a solo by someone of the order of Herbie Hancock or Keith Jarrett, rehearse it and play it. It also means that he’s been placed under the tutorship of the brilliant JoAnne Brackeen, who as well as being a first rate pianist and composer in her own right has also played with Stan Getz, Art Blakey and Joe Henderson.
"When you get here – and I’m not saying that I was famous in Scotland or anything – you’re nobody," says Benzie. "Winning competitions means nothing because the place is full of really, really good musicians and you’re never short of a great drummer, bass player or horn player to have a blow with. It’s absolutely fabulous. You really have to live it to appreciate how inspiring it is and JoAnne Brackeen is amazing as a pianist, a composer and as a teacher who really wants to share her knowledge and bring out your own ideas too."
A few months into – all being well funding-wise – a four-year course, Benzie isn’t thinking too far ahead. Ultimately he wants to play his own music and he’s coming up with ideas all the time. But for now he’s happy to be studying what’s gone before.
"You have to check out the old tunes because the fact that they’re still known means that they have strength," he says. "Finding your own way of playing them is a challenge but that’s what I like about jazz: it’s a new challenge every time and it’s taking on and overcoming challenges, particularly when you’re thrown in at the deep end, that makes you better."
From The Herald, December 2007