Virtuoso jazz pianist Alan Benzie had good reason not to rush his debut album, writes JIm Gilchrist
After he won the first BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year Award at the age of just 17, back in 2007, it might have been tempting to ask Glasgow pianist Alan Benzie when the first album would appear. Benzie, however, was clearly keeping his powder dry. He went on to follow in the transatlantic wake of several other young Scottish jazzers, studying at Boston’s Berklee College of Music, where he won numerous awards, before graduating summa cum laude in 2011. Still no album.
Finally, the now 26-year-old pianist has released that debut album with his trio. It’s called Traveller’s Tales, and a fine piece of work it is – luminously toned, atmospheric and often impressionistic music that suggests it has been the result of careful consideration. In fact, the influences that have informed it include European jazz acts such as the much lamented Esbjörn Svensson Trio but also, perhaps less expectedly, the Japanese animated films on which Benzie nourished both his imagination and his proficiency in Japanese.
He spends a lot of time in Japan, having made friends there while at Berklee, and as he remarks in the liner notes for the album, his globetrotting has had a major impact on the music he is now producing. All the tunes are informed by a scene, a place or a story, and indeed some of their titles, such as A Wandering Mist or Frog Town on the Hill might be drawn straight from Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli films like Spirited Away, which Benzie describes as one of his favourite films ever.
“When I’m writing a tune,” he tells me. “I think there’s always, if not a full narrative, definitely an image or a story of some sort behind it.” So far as the debut album is concerned, “I wanted to wait until I really had something to say. I didn’t want it to be just me showing what I could do on standards or whatever.”
The result is worth the wait, from the atmospheric opening of Hazy Dawns, through the likes of Glass, which opens low-key but goes on to work up quite a sweat and the jaunty, Caribbean flavoured Frog Town to the tidal hiss of cymbals that wreaths the closing Stony Shores.
His two sidemen are both longstanding acquaintances, an interconnectedness to which he at least partly attributes the music’s effectiveness. Hungarian drummer Marton Juhasz was a close friend and collaborator at Berklee, while double-bassist Andrew Robb (another Young Scottish Jazz Musician winner, in 2009) he has known since he was 13 and they were both playing classical music in the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland.
Benzie actually started his musical studies on violin at the age of eight, but changed to piano during his teens, at least partly under the influence of the powerful Esbjörn Svensson Trio. Having attended St Mary’s Music School in Edinburgh, he went on to play in Tommy Smith’s Youth Jazz Orchestra and the National Youth Jazz orchestra, but had to be persuaded by bassist Mario Caribe to enter for the newly launched BBC Young Scottish Jazz musician competition: “I wasn’t going to go in for it because I thought there would be no hope of me getting it. Mario said I should.”
People tend to presume it was the award which prompted him to head off to Berklee, which he did with assistance from a Dewar Arts Award and a scholarship as well as other funding, but he explains that he’d actually auditioned for the Boston establishment before the BBC award.
“And it was probably good timing, because winning the award gave me a more confidence. When I arrived at Berklee it was a whole new standard, and, on the one hand, my confidence took a bit of a hit when I first went there, but on the other, I guess I had enough belief in myself for me to rise to it.”
Rise to it he did, studying with pianist Joanne Brackeen and saxophonist Joe Lovano, among others, gaining straight As and becoming the first British student to win the college’s prestigious Billboard Award.
Now back in Glasgow, Benzie has a European tour scheduled for his trio in the autumn, but no immediate plans for any trio gigs at home, although he’ll be playing as part of the fiery Russian trumpeter Valery Ponomarev’s quintet at Edinburgh’s Jazz Bar from 24-30 August.
In the meantime, his debut recording suggests many more highly engaging traveller’s tales to come.