In January of 2015, the GRAMMY®-nominated pianist/composer/arranger David Benoit, a founding father of contemporary jazz, and Jane Monheit, the First-Runner-Up in the 1998 Thelonious Monk International Vocalist Competition who soars through and above the genres of jazz, Broadway, standards and pop, recorded 2 In Love. Released on June 16th, 2015 on Concord Records, this stunning, critically acclaimed collaboration paved the way for the duo’s follow-up.
Set for release on October 16th via Concord Records, Believe—their enduring and epoch recording of heart-warming holiday-themed favorites—is an equally vivacious, vivid and varied masterpiece. Featuring Benoit’s trio, with drummer Jamey Tate and bassist David Hughes, and The All-American Boys Chorus, a California-based ensemble, Believe is composed of trio, choral and orchestral renditions of the music of Richard Rodgers, Mel Tormé, Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, and the legendary Charlie Brown composer, Vince Guaraldi—along with an original composition from Benoit.
“I’ve done a couple of Christmas records,” Benoit says. “My first one, Christmas Time, came out on the AVI label in 1983. And I did another one called Remembering Christmas on GRP in 1996. The challenge of this record was to search for songs that weren’t done as Christmas songs.” It’s also a challenge Monheit welcomes as well. “We just wanted a classic, really warm-hearted sound. Something that felt sincere,” Monheit says. “Both Dave and I really love the material. And we enjoy playing together quite a bit.”
Fueled by Benoit’s fluid and formidable pianism, and Monheit’s finessed and formidable vocals, the material on the album’s nine tracks sing and swing in a variety of moods, grooves and meters that elaborate and expand upon the jazz Christmas canon. “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” is a straight-ahead 4/4 number, graced with Monheit’s zesty scatting, and it also shows off her skills as an on-the-spot arranger. “It’s nice to do that in the studio, and figure out a way to play a tune,” Monheit says, “ and have a little more casual [approach] as a nice balance to the more heavily arranged pieces.”
Monheit also shows off her talents on the John Coltrane-associated, Richard Rogers classic “My Favorite Things,” which at first blush is a song identified more with The Sound of Music than with the holidays. “It’s not necessarily associated with Christmas. But it feels very ‘Christmas-y’ to me,” Benoit says. “And, of course, it has a jazz lineage too. So it’s kind of a cool thing at both ends. And it was perfect to put this on the album, especially with Jane’s really nice interpretation.” Monheit elaborates, “I’m a huge fan of the music of Richard Rogers. I always like to sing a lot of his tunes. And that’s one that I haven’t had the chance to do before. So it was great. And I really love a jazz waltz.”
To go where no jazz Christmas album has gone before, and to seek out new songs and include them in the Christmas canon, is what also drove Benoit to record the elegiac title track, with The All-American Boys Chorus, an ensemble he first worked with a decade ago at his Christmas concerts in southern California. “It’s from the movie The Polar Express,” Benoit says. “I thought it would be a good idea to do something new. So I went through Concord Record’s Christmas catalog, and I came across “Believe,” and I said, ‘Wow, it’s beautiful.’ So we went in as a trio and freshened it with an orchestra, and then added the boys choir. And then I thought it would be a good title for the album.” The chorus’ angelic strains are also heard on the equally evocative renditions of two Charlie Brown yuletide songs: “My Little Drum,” pianist/composer Vince Guaraldi’s bossa nova-like arrangement of “The Little Drummer Boy;” and his eternal song “Christmas Time Is Here.”
“That song has now become very closely associated with me, because I recorded it on my Christmas Time album from 1983,” Benoit fondly recalls. “And that’s how I got the attention of [the co-composer and lyricist] Lee Mendelson. He liked the way I played it. And that’s how I got to be connected to Charlie Brown, so that song is very important to me.”
“Who doesn’t like ‘Christmas Time Is Here?’,” Monheit asks. “It’s beautiful. It’s charming. It’s wonderful. And it brings back great seasonal memories to all of us. I was happy that it was a part of this recording.”
Anyone familiar with Benoit’s career knows the importance of pianist and Charlie Brown composer Vince Guaraldi to his musical evolution. And the release of this recording coincides with the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the 1965 TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, as well as the November release of The Peanuts Movie, which features Benoit’s piano playing. Benoit and his trio pay tribute to the Peanuts composer with their version of the “Guaraldi Medley,” which Benoit performs as an opener for his live Christmas shows featuring “Air Music,” “Christmas Is Coming” “What Child Is This?” (by William Chatterton Dix, arranged by Guaraldi) and the traditional standard, “O Tannenbaum,” contrasted by Benoit’s original ballad “Just like Me.”
“I was asked by Lee Mendelson to write a song about Charlie Brown picking the Christmas tree,” Benoit proudly recalls. “I came up with some ideas, and Lee came up with a lyric and we put it together. And it’s the only other lyric he’s written besides ‘Christmas Time Is Here.’”
The album concludes with an equally powerful rendition of the Mel Tormé/Nat King Cole ballad “The Christmas Song,” which for Benoit conjures up some powerful and poignant holiday memories. “I was driving home from a gig during the holidays, where I got paid next to nothing,” Benoit remembers. “I was depressed, and ‘The Christmas Song’ came on the radio, and I just started crying like a baby. It brought back everything about my childhood and my parents. So that song stayed with me.”
For David Benoit, the music of Charlie Brown and the holidays is an integral part of his compelling and wide-ranging musicianship. Born in August 18, 1953 in Bakersfield, California, he grew up in Los Angeles, and got interested in jazz after watching a Charlie Brown special in 1965. “I was already a fan of the comic strip,” he says. But when I heard the music … that jazz piano trio was the defining moment where I decided that I wanted to play like Vince Guaraldi.”
When he was thirteen, Benoit studied privately with pianists Marya Cressy Wright and later with Abraham Fraser, the pianist for conductor Arturo Toscanini. He also studied music theory, composition and orchestration with Donald Nelligan at El Camino Junior College, film scoring with Donald Ray at UCLA, and conducting with Hejichiro Ohyama, assistant conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic, Jan Robertson at UCLA and Jeffrey Schindler, UC Santa Barbara Symphony Orchestra Music Director.
Benoit was singer Lainie Kazan’s musical director/conductor in 1976, and later began his career as a single artist, releasing records on the AVI label from 1977 to 1984. He released several chart-topping recordings for GRP, including Freedom at Midnight (1987), Waiting for Spring (1989) and Shadows (1991), which both topped Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz Charts at #5, #1 and #2, respectively. His other noteworthy recordings include Letter to Evan (1992), his tribute to another piano influence, Bill Evans, and Here’s to You, Charlie Brown: Fifty Great Years (2000). Benoit also recorded with Russ Freeman on The Benoit/Freeman Project (1994), and on their follow-up collaboration The Benoit/Freeman Project 2 (2004), released on the Concord-distributed Peak label. His other albums for the label include American Landscape (1997) and Orchestral Stories (2005), which featured his first piano concerto “The Centaur and the Sphinx,” and a symphonic work, “Kobe.” In 2012, he released Conversation on the Heads Up International imprint and in 2015 followed up with 2 in Love featuring Jane Monheit.
Benoit received three GRAMMY® nominations in the categories of Best Contemporary Jazz Performance for “Every Step of the Way” (1989), Best Large Ensemble Performance for GRP All-Star Big Band (1996) and Best Instrumental Composition for “Dad’s Room,” the latter from the album Professional Dreamer (2000). In 2010, Benoit received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Smooth Jazz Awards, and he’s worked with an impressive medley of musicians including the Rippingtons, Emily Remler, Alphonse Mouzon, Dave Koz, Faith Hill, David Sanborn, CeCe Winans and Brian McKnight.
Benoit’s film scores include The Stars Fell on Henrietta (1995), produced by Clint Eastwood, and The Christmas Tree, produced by Sally Field, which was voted Best Score of 1996 by Film Score Monthly. He has served as conductor with a wide range of symphonies including the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Asia America Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Orchestra. A long-time guest educator with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, he received that organization’s Excellence in Music Award in 2001. His musical selections have been featured on The Weather Channel, and his version of Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” is included on the compilation The Weather Channel Presents: Smooth Jazz 11 (2008). Benoit also currently hosts a morning radio show on KKJZ 88.1 FM in Long Beach, CA.
Born in Long Island, NY, Jane Monheit heard a wide range of singers, from Ella Fitzgerald to Bonnie Raitt, and also listened to Broadway pop and classical vocalists. Monheit started her professional career while she was a student at Connetquot High School in Bohemia, NY, where she graduated in 1995. She studied at the Usdan Center for the Creative and Performing Arts and was awarded their distinguished Alumna Award. She was also a student at the Manhattan School of Music and studied under voice instructor Peter Eldridge. She graduated with honors in 1995 with a BA in Music and received the William H. Bolden Award for Outstanding Accomplishments in Jazz.
Monheit burst on to the national scene as the first runner-up in the 1998 Thelonious Monk Institute’s Vocal Competition behind veteran singer Teri Thornton. In 2000, she released her first recordings as a leader on the N-Coded label, including Never Never Land, Come Dream with Me (2001), In the Sun (2002) and Live at the Rainbow Room (2003). She also recorded for Sony, Epic and EmArcy, and released two recordings on Concord, Surrender (2007) and The Lovers, the Dreamers, and Me (2009), which featured the ballad “The Rainbow Connection.” Monheit has worked with Ramsey Lewis, Steve Tyrell, Tom Harrell, Terence Blanchard, Ivan Lins, Mark O’Connor and Freddy Cole, and appears on Memphis pianist Harold Mabern’s new album, Afro Blue, and with Brazilian bossa nova icon Wanda Sá on her latest release, Live in 2014. Monheit also garnered two GRAMMY® nominations for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) for her rendition of the Judy Collins ballad “Since You’ve Asked” from the album Live at the Rainbow Room, and for “Dancing in the Dark” from Taking a Chance on Love (2005).
With an upcoming tour, Believe by David Benoit and Jane Monheit, this dynamic duo of the downbeat will rhythmically roast musical chestnuts on a jazzy, open fire for years to come. “I’m a Christmas fanatic, so these songs have always been important to me,” Monheit says. “There are so many of them that are absolutely gorgeous, and right on par with the Great American Songbook. But you only get to sing them for a month out of the year. And, of course, getting to do them outside of that [time of the year] and record them is always welcome in my world.”
“With this album, I can get back to my straight-ahead roots, with a real, simple acoustic trio,” Benoit says. We crossed over a bit with songs like “Believe” that were pop-oriented. But basically, it’s a jazz album.”