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Benny Benack

Hot Flashes By Seton Hawkins

Benny Benack III: A Lot of Livin’ to Do

A Lot of Livin’ to Do, the sophomore release of trumpeter and vocalist Benny Benack III, highlights the incredible artistic development of this exceptional artist, and represents the arrival of one of New York’s most charismatic virtuosos. Indeed, as a kick-off to the new year (the new decade, even) A Lot of Livin’ to Do portends a busy and promising new chapter in Benny’s career.

Central to shaping the album was drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., who took on producer’s duties as well. “He’s been a big mentor of mine, and the synthesis of the record came together with Ulysses as producer,” Benny notes. “Creatively, the goal was to rein in the focus. My first album showed the different styles I have an affinity for, but here I wanted to dial in both the singing and playing in music where those two things serve each other.” To be sure, the album offers a clear and exciting vision. Drawing inspiration from classics like Chet Baker’s 1974 comeback album She Was too Good to Me, Benny’s work successfully threads the needle of exciting swing and exceptional playing with some tasteful and welcome nods to pop sensibilities. He’s backed by a veritable dream-team rhythm section of Takeshi Ohbayashi on piano and Christian McBride on bass.

The influence of the Baker album is immediately clear. Nevertheless, the overriding joy and accessibility of this outing suggest that the influence of Louis Armstrong is also ever-present—if not in direct musical reference, then certainly in spirit. “The way Pops conveyed his music and made it inclusive for everyone is important to me,” Benny explains. “If I had a mission statement, it would be something like that. Jazz isn’t elitist, and I wanted to make an album that mom could cook to in the kitchen, but also that jazz musicians could check out and get something out of. I’m really happy with how it came out.”

The spirit of inclusion and fun informs Benny’s album release party at Dizzy’s Club, where he is joined by Ulysses as well as frequent collaborators like bassist Yasushi Nakamura and pianist Keelan Dimick. Additionally, guest appearances by Veronica Swift and Alita Moses—each of whom duets with Benny on the album—as well as by Benny’s father, saxophonist Benny Benack Jr., promise a particularly special evening.

The new album and busy month—in January Benny tours the Midwest, moderates a panel on audience development at Jazz Congress, and kicks off a lengthy run at Café Carlyle with vocalist Isaac Mizrahi—portend an exciting year. “I want to continue to develop and grow the audience and get to new places in the country I haven’t yet toured,” he notes. “That’s my goal for this year.”

Benny Benack III celebrates the release of A Lot of Livin’ to Do at Dizzy’s Club Jan. 27. To learn more about Benny, visit

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Gabriel Alegria Afro Peruvian Sextet

Another Reason To Celebrate By Elzy Kolb

We are family

This year marks the 15th anniversary of trumpeter, arranger, composer, bandleader Gabriel Alegria’s Afro-Peruvian Sextet. In explaining the ensemble’s longevity, he recalls words of wisdom he heard from Russell Ferrante, the pianist of another long-running band, the Yellowjackets. “You don’t get rid of your family. You don’t get rid of your band.”

Band members evolving into family “either happens naturally or not at all,” Gabriel muses. “You fight, you stay together, there’s music and movement.” The sextet has had the same four core members ever since its 2005 inception, and even the subs have staying power. Playing several nights a week during a nearly three-year residency at Tutuma, “We had a lot of opportunities to need other players,” some of whom appeared with the band dozens of times. Ron Carter, Essiet Essiet, Melissa Aldana, Camille Thurman and Camila Meza were among those joining the sextet on stage. “They become honorary members, part of the extended family. Some of them who were just starting out then are jazz-famous now,” the trumpeter says.

“At the very beginning we were in experimental mode, our attitude was, let’s try this and see what happens. Now, we think of our music as a language we share in common,” Gabriel explains. “Over 15 years it’s become a language for jazz based on Afro-Peruvian principles. We realized we’re onto something that needs to be heard and experienced by more people. It’s not intimidating, we have fun on stage. The music is complicated, but it feels like a party.”

The band celebrates its anniversary Jan. 31 at Minton’s Playhouse, an apt location, according to Gabriel. “Roots are important to us, this is a landmark place, with a historical connection to the music. We have high respect for the music and tradition, for Harlem and for Minton’s. It’s inspiring and important to me. We’re a very progressive band with very progressive ideas and it’s fitting to present them in this historical landmark.”

Gabriel has thrown out an open invitation to everyone who has ever played with the Afro-Peruvian Sextet to show up and join in the fun at the anniversary gig. He expects some Peru-based musicians, such as drummer Hugo Alcazar, to contribute to the festivities on screen.

For the first time ever, a singer is scheduled to join the Afro-Peruvian ensemble at Minton’s, when Abigail (yes, she’s going the single-name route like Cher and Beyoncé) performs some brand-new material. “I have lyrics for all my music, but we usually play instrumentals. Introducing a vocalist into the mix is a big deal for us. We’ll see how it evolves,” Gabriel says.

In the audience are likely to be some out of towners who are very good friends of the band. In addition to the musicians, the Afro-Peruvian Sextet’s extended family includes alumni of its Tour Peru program. Each year, a dozen or so music lovers accompany the band to Peru for 10 days of travel, gigs, workshops, cultural immersion and fun. “They’re living life on the road, seeing the country through the eyes of the musicians, getting a look behind the scenes. People come from all over the world, they share their stories, it’s life changing for the band and for the fans,” Gabriel says.

Tour Peru activities may include visits to museums and cultural centers to deepen the travelers’ understanding of what they’ll see and hear in their time together. They could also have hands-on percussion basics tutorials, a talk with a shaman providing insights on local rituals, cooking lessons, visits to Cusco and Machu Picchu, and opportunities to get to know local people.

Besides marking an anniversary very few bands ever reach, Gabriel also views the Minton’s gig as an occasion to celebrate and imagine the next 15 years. He hopes the band will record in the new year, and wonders, “What are we gonna come up with next?”

Photo Credit: Bex Wade

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