The last time we profiled award winning Scottish pianist ALAN BENZIE was when he had won a Billboard Scholarship during his time at Berklee in 2010. Sebastian has just caught up with him again prior to a trio tour:
LondonJazz News: How many years did you spend at Berklee and how was it?
Alan Benzie: I was at Berklee for 4 years. Being surrounded by some of the best teachers and young musicians around was a total joy – once the initial gut-wrenching nerves wore off that is. I played and made friends with people from all over the world and with all sorts of musical interests, so it was an interesting cultural experience on many levels. There’s such a wide range of things all being done at a very high standard there, so it can be very intense (many alumni refer to it as Berserklee!) but also very vibrant and motivating. I remember having Joe Lovano as an ensemble tutor, standing right there and playing the horn with us every week, always ending his thoughts, advice or remonstrations with an exclamation of “YOU DIG?” and a twinkle in the eye. I feel so lucky to have been able to have that kind of experience across different musical activities for 4 years.
LJN: What’s it been like since then?
AB: Things initially felt a bit quiet after being in a constant flurry of activity in Boston, but the couple of years after I graduated allowed me some breathing space to just live life and put things in perspective a bit. It also allowed 4 years of information and experiences to sink in and distill into what’s hopefully a more personal sound, both in playing and writing. At home, I’ve been involved in some tours around the highlands and islands, which allowed me to see more of my native Scotland. I just love the landscapes here and living in such a beautiful country. I’ve also had the chance to travel, perform and teach in Japan, India and Eastern Europe.
LJN: Have you formed a band?
AB: Yes, I have formed a trio with Andrew Robb on bass and Marton Juhasz on drums. We are about to launch my debut album, “Traveller’s Tales” with some UK dates. It took quite a while to find two people that made me go, “This is it!”, but I’m very happy with the way this trio sounds.
LJN: Why did you choose these musicians?
AB: First of all, they both get a beautiful sound out of their instruments, something that I’m pretty picky about. They have excellent technical command and knowledge, but more importantly, are both very musical and have great ears. There are lots of more specific things in there too: Andrew has great intonation, and Marton has a very wide dynamic range, but I could go on for pages and pages about all of those! I was also really good friends with them both before I formed the trio – I have known Andrew since I was about 13 (we were in the National Children’s Orchestra of Scotland together back when I played violin!) and I played and hung out with Marton all the time at Berklee. So it’s good fun on and off stage and I do feel it gives us something extra as an ensemble, something that I think definitely comes across when we play together.
LJN: Where have you been performing?
AB: With this trio we’ve performed throughout the UK, and also in Hungary and Poland so far. We’re back in Poland this summer, and off to Austria and Germany in the Autumn.
LJN: This is your first appearance in London with this trio.
AB: Yes, I’m looking forward to finally bringing this trio to London, especially the Vortex. We will be playing music from our new CD in the first half and there is a great band playing the music of Steve Lacy in the second half, so it should be a really good night. Andrew lives in London, so at least one of us will know their way around around…
LJN: And you have written all the material.
AB: All the songs on the forthcoming album are my originals, inspired by my travels in the last few years, Japanese animation (particularly the films of Hayao Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli and TV series like “Mushishi”) and my love of slightly fantastical, quirky stories. People have been asking why I don’t have a CD yet for quite a few years, but I wanted to wait until I had a good body of material that I felt really communicated my sound and my personality.
LJN: And you also speak Japanese. How did that happen?
AB: It so happened that some of my first friends at Berklee were Japanese, so I was hearing conversational Japanese quite a lot and grew to really like the sound and flow of it. I think my interest in learning the language started there. I’m not really an “8 hours a day” kind of guy when it comes to practicing, I prefer shorter spans of focused practice, so I found myself with quite a bit of spare time after I graduated. I like having new things to work on or learn and so I ended up teaching myself Japanese, I think it took about 2 and a half years to get to where I am now. I am out there twice a year and it’s definitely allowed me to have an experience beyond the normal tourist thing, not to mention being a big help when rehearsing and recording with Japanese musicians. Somewhat in need of a new obsession, I found myself getting into the Japanese version of mahjong. Unfortunately, that has led to nightmares about endless tiles and number combinations – maybe it’ll be a tune about that next!
LJN: Who/what from there/elsewhere inspires your writing?
AB: From Japan, the biggest things are definitely animation and the landscape. Both Miyazaki’s films and my favourite animated TV series are really beautifully drawn and often have quite imaginative stories, something that has definitely had a big impact on my writing, as almost all of my tunes have a story or image behind them. I’ve got a tune about a town of frogs, and another about a sentient mist going for a wander in beautiful, Ghibli-esque landscapes, though there are more ordinary themes as well.
As for musical inspiration, I’m rooted in European and American jazz, and there are impressionist, film and some folk music influences in there, but for me it is all about a good tune, regardless of style. Just as I love a good story, I like the music to have a sense of narrative and feel that it is the tune that carries that narrative. Week to week I can be listening to quite different things, but recently I’ve been listening to James Taylor (I’m loving his collaboration with the Dixie Chicks!), Marcin Wasilewski and Earth, Wind and Fire.
LJN: Is there a tension between your Scottish heritage and the Japanese influence?
AB: If anything, I would say that they complement each other very well! We sometimes play a song by a Japanese folk musician/singer-songwriter that I came across, and it could easily be a Scottish folk tune, so perhaps there’s more common ground than it seems at first. As for my own writing, neither Japanese nor Scottish influences are particularly overt, just in the fabric somewhere. I think it’s the same for me as it is for many creative musicians – all our interests and experiences kind of get chucked into the pot, and it’s then up to us to make something coherent and compelling out of that. That’s what I’ve been trying to do these last few years, and hopefully I’ve succeeded with “Traveller’s Tales”. I think my next project will be trying to convert Japan to the deep-fried Mars bar.