CD review

Ed Benstead Quintet – ‘Places and Faces’

Ed Benstead Quintet – Places and Faces
(Self-released. Album Review by Jeanie Barton)

This eclectic album opens with an unaccompanied, stripped back rendition of Cherokee from Ed Benstead (flugelhorn) and Vasilis Xenopoulos on tenor saxophone. Together they display the finest of chops; a duo of titans who weave and chase one another with jaw-dropping skill. Somehow, they exude urgency while at the same time being completely relaxed. The two met in the early 2000s in the Sound of 17 big band, and quickly became the best of friends, both with and without their instruments. Their synergy, and that of the whole band on this CD, is apparent – they are all as solid as a rock.

The playful bebop opening leads us to a more groovy track called Poem for Pat, an original by Benstead. Rob Barron’s smooth electric piano throws jazzy as well as classical Bach-like shapes – combined with Xenopoulos’ sax featuring quite a bit of reverb, this ballad possesses an ’80s vibe. Rob Statham slides in an understated yet elaborate bass guitar solo and Nick Smalley’s subtle, brushed drums and cymbals are like a glue holding it all together. While Benstead’s first love is clearly ’40s bebop he is just as comfortable in all eras.

Back to swinging with Vas ‘n’ Ed ‘n’ Rhythm; based – unusually – on the changes to Gershwin’s Fascinatin’ Rhythm, it has a new catchy syncopated head reminiscent of a ’60s TV theme. It’s not corny though, it’s fun and tight as a nut.

The album takes a relaxed funky turn next with another original, Spanish Sue, who features sprinkles of Latin; she might be Watermelon Man’s girlfriend?

Kenny Dorham’s Shifting Down gives the band opportunity to share a blues and stretch their solo legs; they all respectively go mad for it – this band would undoubtedly fill a dance floor. Ed Benstead is usually a very busy performer in the Ambassador Band who travel the world playing for lots of celebrities – as with all of us during this pandemic, function work has dried up, but the silver lining is he has taken this opportunity to record. Too many of our best gigging players don’t get around to recording; it is a relief he has taken the time and effort to put this down now. It is obvious however he is missing the party times and a full-on funky Hooray for Hugh takes the mood to the next level. Co-written with saxophonist and vocalist John Fry, in whose band, Big Chief, Benstead has performed for almost 20 years, this number displays their love of lively gigs.

From the ridiculous to the sublime, Time Heals Everything by Jerry Herman is the most poignant ballad, a solo by the leader whose tenderness in performance is simply extraordinary – he resolves with the longest, warmest vibrato free note I have ever heard. Some performers play busy all the time just because they can, but here we see what reserve brings to the table emotionally– it’s all in the spaces and it’s very powerful.

Not only has Ed Benstead created the majority of the music on this record, he has also employed his serious hobby, having drawn the album’s artwork too. On the front are portraits inside the word Faces of some of his inspirations: Lester Young, Chet Baker, Jaco Pastorious, Billie Holiday and Clifford Brown. The inside of the record features a self-portrait and the disc and rear display architecture including inside the Natural History Museum.

The final track is another about turn stylistically as well as spiritually – Farewell to Stromness by Peter Maxwell Davies has folk-full harmonics and features seagull sounds, swelling cymbals and heavily reverbed trumpet. I can almost smell the fresh sea air and feel the gentle rock of the boat. Benstead has a chameleon-like ability to reinvent his sound and tone; I’d like to hear another album along this line – it was so soothing to hear in these stressful times.

It was a total pleasure to hear this top-drawer band pull together such a stunning, varied repertoire; they exhibit both fun and feeling in spades.

Bandcamp Link

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