By Howard Lawes
Having spent a lifetime studying and performing music, multi-instrumentalist Benet McLean's new album Green Park represents partly, a backward glance, re-visiting some of his earlier compositions and also, in common with many musicians following the covid pandemic, looking forward and developing new ideas. Six of the seven tracks are his own compositions, a mixture of old and new, while the other is a cover of the Jazz Messenger's version of Bobby Watson's Fuller Love. His band has long-time collaborator, Duncan Eagles, on tenor saxophone with Liam Dunachie on piano and organ, Rio Kai on double bass and Zoe Pascal on drums. Benet who in the past has sung, and plays piano, guitar and saxophone restricts himself here to the violin, the instrument he first learned to play at the age of three.
The new album has already brought much praise:
Talking to Benet by phone and Whatsapp he recalls attending the Purcell School at 8 years old; Britain's oldest, specialist music school for young musicians. Other jazz-leaning alumni of this school include Jacob Collier, Alexandra Ridout and Asha Parkinson. He particularly remembers being mentored by the virtuoso violinist Adrian Levine who was able to inspire the young Benet to travel along career paths, including jazz, that might not otherwise have been available. Another outstanding violin teacher was Yehudi Menuhin at the Royal College of Music. Along with his ability on the violin, Benet is also an exceptional pianist and it was as a pianist that he ventured away from classical music. One of the first albums he is featured on is called Bachology (1995) where he plays piano on the track Eleggua with Kevin Haynes. Some years later he started to make a name for himself, first playing Fender Rhodes with Denis Rollins on the funky album Bad Bone and Co. (2001) and then again with Kevin Haynes, on the spiritual, Afro-Cuban album, Ori Ire (2002) by Groupo Elegua. A BBC review of the album described Benet's playing; "... his improvisations are vibrant, percussive flashes of colour. On the superb "Egun" he provides shifting, foggy atmospherics behind a beautifully judged Haynes solo".
Benet's first album as a leader was called Cliches (For Another Day) (2005) with Roger Crosdale on tenor saxophone, Chris Dodd on bass and Nic France on drums. Reviewer, Kevin Le Gendre particularly admired the track, Angels Walking Upstairs, and suggested that Benet McLean "could evolve into an outstanding artist."
At about the same time Benet became involved with Jason Yarde's new band Acoustic Bombastic playing a new commission from the Jerwood Foundation called Random Wishes and Abstract Dreams. Jason Yarde was also part of Benet's quartet and at the end of 2007 Benet received a glowing endorsement from Steve Rubie of London's 606 Club describing him as "a fine pianist who has put together a genuinely successful mix of jazz, hip-hop and nu-jazz". In 2009 reviewer Jack Massarik was positively ecstatic about Benet's new album, In The Land of Oo-bla-Dee, with Benet on piano and vocals, Jason Yarde on saxophones, Chris Dood on bass, and with drumming shared between Troy Miller, Shane Forbes and Steve Washington, describing it as "an extraordinary achievement". At the end of the year, it was Julian Joseph who picked out Benet as 'one to watch' describing him as a "pianist of uncanny musicianship, technique and imagination".
In 2010 Benet was interviewed by Jack Massarick for the November issue of Jazzwise magazine. Massarick described Benet McLean as "the Northolt wild man of neo-bop" and Benet talked about how he first got into jazz at the age of 12 but continued with the violin as his brother played the piano in the family home. By the time he was 20, Benet decided to commit to jazz piano rather than classical violin as he did not believe he could do both. His jazz heroes as a teenager were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Later on, when he was playing piano he admired Art Tatum, Kenny Kirkland, Herbie Hancock and Oscar Peterson and also vocalists such as Mary Lou Williams, Billy Eckstine, Cab Calloway and more recently Michael Jackson. It was Mary Lou Williams who sung the song Oo Bla Dee.
In 2011 Benet McLean performed at Pizza Express Jazz Club on a double bill with the band Partikel led by saxophonist Duncan Eagles. Duncan also joined Benet for the first set and this may have been the start of a series of collaborations that has continued. In 2013 Benet released the album Live At The 606, playing piano and singing, with Duncan Eagles on saxophone, Jonothan Harvey on bass and Saleem Raman on drums. Here they are at the 606 club playing In The Night.
In 2014 Benet, still playing piano, joined a sextet called Projection of Miles led by trumpeter Jay Phelps. However, in 2015 he changed to playing violin and led the string quartet on the acclaimed Partikel album String Theory (2015) which, reviewer Daniel Spicer described as "an ambitious and convincingly realised project" and noted that Benet McLean swapped from piano to violin with astonishing ease.
Benet McLean's album, The Bopped And The Bopless (2016), also received great reviews with Benet leading a large ensemble of top-quality musicians and playing piano, violin, viola, guitar and singing as well. Reviewer Andy Robson noted the "mix of hard swinging post-bop keys, imaginative arrangements and strikingly original writing". 2016 must have been a defining year for Benet, not only was he playing both piano and violin but, contradicting an earlier assertion that jazz and classical were incompatible, he also performed at classical concerts (e.g. 'Preludio' from Violin Partita No.3 in E major - J.S. Bach).
It must be a huge decision for any musician to change instruments mid-way through their career and then a lot of hard work to retain their reputation for virtuosity. Understandably, Benet stood back from the limelight for a while and then came the Covid pandemic creating further delay before he could get back to performance and recording. Benet took advantage of the lockdown to learn new music from an American saxophonist and musicologist, Steve Coleman, who co-founded the M-base movement. Steve Coleman has researched the origins of jazz in Africa and particularly its development in Cuba which no doubt resonated with Benet who worked with Kevin Haynes, another devotee of Afro-Cuban jazz. Finally, Benet's new album, Green Park (2023) has been released on Sea Mammal Records and Benet pays particular tribute to his partner, Christine Kyme, who is credited as producer and photographer and who also assisted with choosing the material and musical arrangements.
Listen to Mr Bap from the album
Since returning to the violin Benet has once again established himself as a top-flight jazz musician; renowned jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty remarked "I really like Benet’s approach to improvisation on violin” while musician, band leader and educator Julian Joseph is quoted as saying “Benet McLean is an exquisite violinist with a tone equal to that of the finest classical virtuosos and a soulful affinity with the highest level of jazz creativity. He’s inventive, charismatic and expressive with the nuances that bring spellbinding energy to his every performance. He’s a serious and magical violinist able to make the furiously complex feel simple and effortless.”
Six of the seven tracks on Green Park are McLean compositions while the seventh is a Bobby Watson composition that was covered by Art Blakey and called Fuller Love. Benet explains the title of the album as providing a setting in which he imagines people relaxing, playing and enjoying life and additionally, as a synaesthete (where senses may overlap with each other), the colour green has musical significance for him. The first track, Blue Fingers, has Benet opening with some lovely violin, reminiscent of Snarky Puppy violinist Zach Brock, there is also the influence of Steve Coleman and finally Duncan Eagles provides a snippet of Summertime in his solo. Here they are playing Blue Fingers :
Lucy is a catchy swinging melody that features a Rio Kai solo followed by Red, another lovely melody, named after Benet's colour for the key of G. The melodies on Green Park are purposely uncomplicated, designed to provide a framework for improvisation, which, in the best traditions of jazz produces new and exciting music at every performance. Fuller Love is a frenetic rendition in the style of the Art Blakey version that features Benet and Duncan playing in unison, a reprise of the skillful technique they employed on Partikel's String Theory album. The Pharaoh is a very different piece in a calming ambient style, which highlights the shimmering and glissando properties of the violin that are not possible with other instruments. The album launch gig at World Heartbeat was a sell-out and in the audience was Benet's teacher from his school days, Adrian Levine. Benet relates that Adrian came to visit him after the performance which was a very emotional meeting for both of them.
Listen to Fuller Love.
The music on Green Park is full of variety and invention and is an excellent example of how jazz can be played on violin. For Benet McLean it is the culmination of a process that began many years ago and has turned full circle. Despite often being described as a virtuoso pianist his first love has always been the violin and now that he has returned to it, playing the music that he enjoys, he looks forward to a future that should, as so many have predicted over the years, realise his outstanding potential. Benet is upbeat about the future; reaction to Green Park has been very positive and he is excited to be part of award-winning saxophonist Binker Golding's new septet which should also be well worth a listen in due course.