John Benitez – Latin Jazz Bassist of the Future
Latin Jazz Bassist of the Future
by Eugene Holley, Jr.
A new kind music has emerged in New York City. It blends the swing and the sound of surprise of North American jazz with the Afro-Iberian derived rhythms and musical forms from the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Ever since he arrived to the Big Apple from Puerto Rico in 1993, acoustic/electric bassist John Benitez has been one of the key players in this vibrant, Pan-American genre. He’s performed with an impressive array of musicians including Danilo Perez, David Sanchez, Eddie Palmieri, The Mingus Big Band and Wynton Marsalis.
His debut recording as a leader is entitled Descarga in New York(Khaeon). It features a hemispheric assemblage of young musicians: Cuban Drummer Dafnis Prieto, Puerto Rican conguero Richie Flores, African-American tenor/soprano saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and the gifted Venezuelan pianist/composer Luis Perdomo. “I didn’t want to do just a ‘Latin jazz’ record,” the large-framed Benitez says from a recent gig at Manhattan’s Zinc Bar. “I wanted to emphasize a trio playing jazz, but with clave.” The record is an excellent representation of this generation’s take on Afro-Latin improvisational music. Save for a few tunes like the engaging, uptempo grooves on “Nuevo Montuno,” and the electric pianisms on the brisk-tempoed of “B Smooth,” the majority of the compositions were written by Perdomo.
His genius for melding modern melodies and folkloric drum patters is evident on the driving “Sun and Shadow,” with Coltrane’s snaky soprano lines and on “Procession,” and “In the Dark” which merges an ECM records vibe with an ensemble sound which evokes the Cuban supergroup, Irakere.
Although Benitez wrote only one song, “Descarga Vieques,” he leads through his ability to support the band. His tone is deep and rich like Charles Mingus and he’s equally adept at delivering urbane walking basslines and danceable montuno figures. “I started playing music in a Pentecostal church.
I started playing guitar, percussion and piano, and then I switched to bass because its size,” he recalls. “I started checking out Ray Brown, Art Davis, Oscar Pettiford, Ron Carter, Paul Chambers … all the main cats. ” He continued his musical studies at Puerto Rico’s famed Escuela Libre Musica (Free Music School), where his homeboy, David Sanchez also matriculated.
“As in all of Latin America, they teach you classical music, big band music, dance music. We learned jazz from records,” Benitez says. “We listened to it from a record store called Dom Pedro’s Jazz. We also hung out and jammed at [venue] called The Place.”
Benitez enrolled at the University of Puerto Rico and studied with Freddy Silva, the principle bassist of the Puerto Rican Symphony. “He was one of the first jazz musicians in Puerto Rico,” Benitez says. “He taught good technique, and he knew that I was going in the jazz direction, so he helped me go that way.”
In his homeland, Benitez played in a number of bands, including the great group, Batacumbele in the ’80s. He traveled with them to Colombia. He not only met his wife in that country, but his studies of that nation’s musical idioms expanded his own artistic horizons. “I Lived there for about a year, teaching Latin music” Benitez relates. “There are a lot of African extensions in Colombia. Your talking about a nation which has about 425 native instruments. When they talk about Latin music, they talk about Cuban music, but is bigger than that. So for me, all the Caribbean, South America and New Orleans is an extension of African music. For me it’s all the same, because jazz is dance music. The bass has to keep that bounce. Everything that has a black or world music, the bass player has that groove, no matter how experimental you could be, you need to have that foundation.
It’s the same in Latin music.”
Benitez hit the ground running when he came to New York in the early ’90s. His most impressive recordings as a sideman, include Roy Hargrove’s Grammy Award winning Habana,” and David Sanchez’s Obsesion. Firmly rooted in the city’s musical scene, John Benitez teaches a jazz workshop at Boys Harbor, a predominately Hispanic arts school in Manhattan, the place where he will lay down the grooves for years to come. “This is the Mecca. Everybody’s here,” he says. “Everything’s here. I could never move from New York.”