In his early 20s he began playing keyboards in various bands. Slowly his focus became piano and in 2005 he released his first album ‘Clichés For Another Day’ (self-release) which featured Nic France on drums (Nic has played with Ronnie Scott, Andy Sheppard, Kenny Wheeler and recorded with Pete Townsend, Nigel Kennedy and David Gilmour to name but a few). This was followed in 2008 by ‘In the Land of Oo-Bla-Dee’ which featured Jason Yarde (original saxophonist nominated for the Bird Award at the 2004 North Sea Jazz Festival and for the Jazz on 3 Innovation Award in 2005 and 2006 and member of J life and Quite Sane groups) and Troy Miller. His third album was released on 33Jazz records ‘Live At The 606’ in 2013 and his fourth ‘The Bopped and the Bopless’ is now released on 33JazzXtreme.
This album is an absolute gem and deserves all the praise it is getting.
The opening track ‘The Bopped and The Bopless’ is just a bit sneaky as it begins like a straight ahead jazz number – all well and good but then Benet comes in with his vocals and the licence for the number to take off it willingly taken by the band. There is everything here to entice the listener from the intense vocals, a ridiculously good sax solo from Duncan Eagles and a dextrous piano section from Benet. Underpinning this is a strong, multi-layered arrangement with the full band creating a solid mesh under the solos. The recurring theme is big-band, ambitious and delivered powerfully. As an opener, it is the perfect choice and a shedload of fun. Gil Fuller/Gillespie’s ‘I waited for you’ announces itself with a fanfare from the band and then digresses into a gentle, sashaying number again with strong vocals from Benet supported by the entire band along with some beautiful harp from Isabel-Maria Asbjornsen. Benet’s vocals slide easily over the theme producing strong, sometimes just a tad sharp, but impressive tones. Mid way comes a bass and percussion section into which the piano drops with an energy infused piano and rhythm section which is extensive but nowhere near long enough before the vocals finish the number. Monstrously good. ‘The Planets’ is a short but sweet interlude from Jonathan Harvey on bass and conjures up a spacey, open feel over a constant rhythmic line. The Ruts ‘Babylon’s Burning’ is covered really cleverly with the group finding a good deal more in the layers and textures of the song than perhaps were ever there in the first place. Taking on such an iconic song is brave but the group take it and create their own mesmeric version with boogie woogie piano, added vocals from Aydenne Simone and even a bit of scat thrown in. This is nothing perhaps like Messrs Fox, Jennings, Owen and Glen envisaged but it still holds energy and fire with which it was written and this is a glorious interpretation. ‘Lucy’ is a great number again incorporating intriguing vocals, deft piano and a bass line which lurks in the background but is intrinsic to the nature of the tune and develops into a solo half way through. Benet uses the entire rhythm section to buoy the theme and send it straight to the mind of the listener over a bluesey beat. ‘Introduction to Polly’ and ‘Polly’ blend together with the introduction penned and performed by Isabella-Maria Asbjornsen melding seamlessly into the number which starts with beautiful, simple piano over which Benet’s vocals soar telling the ballad of love – or is it? Some interesting tweaks in the vocals creep in but somehow add to the warmth here – and you can forgive anything when you listen to the piano line and the tenor sax which sees the song out – taking us to ‘Electric Bopland’ which is insane – a completely quirky, irrepressible noise machine, this track is a bit of lots of things but mostly just fun, jazzy, and had a touch of dissonance which keeps the interest, whilst never leaving the theme – a return to the first track – in hand (just). Great number. ‘Shizannah’ is the final track and offers something different again. The chorus is based on Faure’s Opus 50, ‘Pavane’ and the theme based on Benet’s ever explorative theming and musical scheming. Benet shows an impressive vocal range and expressive tone here.
What makes this album just a bit more than special is that Benet totally understands what he wants his music to do and has the expertise to do exactly that. He understands the music he is playing – and it shows. The arrangements are generous to the musicians with which he surrounds himself and rightly so given their credentials. Not just that but he knows exactly how to place an emphasis, a tweak or change to allow the music to say precisely what he wants and that is down to his highly honed musicianship. His expressions, delicate painting and intonation pitted against some pretty powerful vocals which range from falsetto to almost feminine, Hagan-esque sounds, through to strong, resonant rich tones. Benet can create musical pictures and manipulate the listener in ways subtle and yet so effective. It is as if he is a sponge and has soaked up influences from the jazz greats, some good vocalists and to this he adds his own natural talent. The result is something different, impressive and totally engaging. This music has life, energy and a vitality borne not just of technical expertise but intuitive, effervescent comprehension of the effect each tune can create. The album is produced with crystal clarity in most places and this adds to its appeal because you can hear and feel almost every detail. The term ‘amazing’ is over used in reviews and long ago I vowed only to use ‘awesome’ on rare occasions when I was struck by something exceptional sometimes one is left with no choice. This album is awesome. Amazon Purchase Link for The Bopped And The Bopless
Benet Mclean – vocals, piano
Gareth Lockrane – piccolo, alto flute, flute
Noel Langley- trumpet
Duncan Eagles – tenor sax
Ashley Slater – trombone, bass trombone
Jonathan Harvey – bass
Donald Gamble – bongos, conga
Saleem Raman – drums
Isabella-Marie Asbjornsen – harp
Jason Yarde – baritone, alto sax
Text by Sammy Stein
Photos: William Ellis, and from Benet McLean FB page