Review and photographs by J Hunter
School should be all about education, and that’s what was happening at the drop party for Michael Benedict & Bopitude’s second Planet Arts release in two years, “Five and One.” The proceeds from the evening – after expenses – were to go to the Greenville Educational Foundation, and thanks to underwriting from a local insurance agency, those expenses were completely taken care of. (While revealing this, drummer/Greenville HS music czar Michael Benedict threw a smile at baritone saxman Gary Smulyan, who’d broken his ankle stepping off a bus the previous month, and cracked, “You need insurance, man!”) The real education happened when Bopitude showed Greenville Central Schools’ students what master musicians look and sound like when they’re plying their craft.
Anyone who saw Bopitude at the Albany Riverfront Jazz Fest last fall knows they hit hard in concert, but the power with which they launched Sonny Stitt’s “The Eternal Triangle” really snapped heads back. Teaming Smulyan up with tenorman Brian Patneaude and trumpeter Chris Pasin straps a supercharger onto an already-hot front line, not to mention expanding the harmonies tenfold. As a result, Bopitude in full cry is – in a word – massive! Smulyan may have limped onstage with the help of a cane, but he leapt on his solo spot like a famished wolverine and simply tore it to shreds, inspiring Patneaude and Pasin to do exactly the same. Benedict was dropping bombs from the back, and really brought the noise before the group nailed the last chorus. After the applause, Benedict deadpanned, “We like to start the evening with a ballad…”
I’ve often wondered why Benedict dropped his Jazz Vibes group, given the solid quality of the two discs that came out of that project. But if I’d had any doubts left by mid-set, they were extinguished during his dynamic trade-off session with Smulyan on Kenny Dorham’s superfast “An Oscar for Oscar.” Quite simply, the love he has for this music flows like a river with every solo and every fill. If Benedict’s students didn’t know their teacher kicks ass on the skins, they sure knew it after this show. Mike Lawrence’s always outstanding (and always PHAT) foundation let Benedict flex his muscle whenever the situation called for it; Lawrence also interjected his own solo voice at several points.
Patneaude’s own solo voice has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, but he really seems to open a whole new door with Bopitude. He was totally off the chain during Nat Adderley’s classic “Work Song” and doubled down during the closer “Infra-Rae,” sub-referencing “Happy Birthday to You” in a nod to Smulyan, whose birthday was this past Wednesday. I don’t know how many smiles Patneaude inspired, but he had Pasin grinning at multiple points. Pasin’s been eating and sleeping this music for years, thanks to his work with Buddy Rich and the Tokisho Akiyoshi/Lew Tabackin Big Band, and his muted solo on J.J. Johnson’s ballad “Enigma” was Old School in the best sense of the phrase.
Bopitude was actually one member short on this evening, as pianist Bruce Barth was playing a gig in London. They weren’t without a piano, though, as Patneaude Quartet keyboardist David Caldwell-Mason stepped right into the role. He kept it pretty spare to start, but his feel for the music grew as the night went on, giving a very nice bounce to Thad Jones’ “Three and One” and making Gary McFarland’s lovely “Last Rites for the Promised Land” float like a cloud. Although Smulyan had been hitting them out of the park all night long, his breathtaking work on this tender ballad was worthy of the bari-sax gold standard, Gerry Mulligan. Smul is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla, because he can do anything he wants to do with his axe, but watching him play a ballad is an absolute joy.
To be blunt, it’s usually not a joy to sit through middle-school and high-school band concerts; if the music is played in tune 60 percent of the time, you’re ahead of the game. That yardstick was easily snapped by Greenville Middle School and High School Jazz Ensembles, who showed during their opening set that they’ve learned their lessons well: The middle-schoolers did an admirable job on Maynard Ferguson’s arrangement of “Eli’s Coming”, while the high-schoolers demonstrated real prowess on Dizzy Gillespie’s iconic “A Night in Tunisia.” (Smulyan gave the kids a musical nod by working “Tunisia” into his own solo on “Infra-Rae.”) How many of these kids will stick with this music, or music in general, is unknown. But if they stick with it, and if they succeed, I hope they remember Benedict’s closing comments: “If it weren’t for my teachers, I wouldn’t be here.”