April 25, 2019 | 52° F

Nick Benitez Group puts personal twist on tribute to jazz legend

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Jazz, a longtime institution in the cultural and musical landscape of New Jersey, is alive and well, especially with new talent surfacing weekly right here in New Brunswick. 

On Tuesday, Nov. 28th, The Nick Benitez Group performed the music of hard bop pianist Horace Silver at the George Street Ale House in association with the New Brunswick Jazz Project (NBJP). The program was another edition of the NBJP’s free “Emerging Artists” Tuesday night programs, held at the George Street Ale House every week.

Walking into the basement bar of the Ale House was like walking into jazz’s past, as the dimly lit narrow strip of tables and bar only took up a few feet compared to the main floor of the venue. The small, intimate setting was reminiscent of the dive bars in which jazz rose to prominence. 

Nick Benitez, a 23 year-old trumpet player from New York City took to the stage and introduced his bandmates, a group truly indicative of the New Brunswick Jazz Project’s interconnected jazz community. Musicians from Montclair State, William Paterson and Rutgers performed together, with Mason Gross student Zach Lorelli on drums. The small strip was still able to accommodate the musicians. Packed tight into the front corner, they launched into their set in front of a small but appreciative crowd.

Horace Silver’s 1961 album "Doin’ the Thing" opened with “Filthy McNasty,” and the track was used to open the set as well. Filthy McNasty, a fairly uptempo tune with a call and response introduction between the horns and the rhythm section, was a fitting way to quickly grab the room’s attention. After the intro, the piece dissolved into lively blues.

Benitez took the first solo after the main melody, and his warm tone filled the room. His solos throughout the night were well paced, and it was evident that he possessed a good understanding of when space was needed over unneeded filler. On occasion he went on a tear, consisting of rapid-fire chromatic runs that evoked a sort of rollercoaster feel. 

The rhythm section dutifully moved along under his melodic twists and turns and consistently made smooth transitions into the next soloist, saxophonist Christopher Gold. Gold usually opened solos with strong blues-influenced riffs, sticking to the hard bop style that propelled Horace Silver to fame.

Silver was a legendary piano player, and pianist William Gorman seemed up to the task of playing his work. His right hand flew up and down the keyboard for his solos, while his comping was subtle but enhancing. Bassist Jake Morris didn’t get much solo time, but he stuck to the roots of his instrument, keeping the group grounded harmonically and rhythmically. 

Zach Lorelli’s playing fit right into the 50’s and 60’s style of drumming. Licks borrowed from drummers like Art Blakey and Philly Joe Jones were clear in his playing and were a fitting tribute to the jazz giants.

There were only a few hiccups in the set, with one botched song opening and a few moments when the soloist and rhythm section seemed disjointed, but overall the group performed honest renditions of gems from Silver’s legendary catalog. The performance ended with Silver’s first hit, 1956’s “The Preacher,” a shuffle that sounds lifted straight from the streets of New Orleans. 

By time the last note sounded the small venue had been nearly filled, with people coming in throughout the hour-long set to enjoy live music with a drink and some food. There were a few notable guests in the audience, including New Brunswick Jazz Project co-founder Virginia DeBerry, who took some time to talk about the NBJP’s vision. 

“We realized you could graduate with a degree in performance and only perform eight times in your four years in a recital hall, that is not what jazz is about. It’s basements, dives, bars and clubs.” DeBerry said, explaining why the “Emerging Artists” series meant so much to her. “It also gives the young musicians a chance to learn how to talk to an audience, how to prepare a set, how to put together a band. All of these things are not necessarily part of the course curriculum, but things that are required out there in the world.”

When Benitez first got involved with the NBJP, it was as a part of Chris Gold's band. The NBPJ gave Benitez a platform to then grow his own band and get more performing experience. 

“The first time I did it was the beginning of this year with Chris Gold, and he was the band leader, then after I did that they asked me to bring my own band,” Nick Benitez said. “(I really dove) deep harmonically and rhythmically into Horace’s music. (It) really stuck with me, and so I’ve always wanted to do that with my own band.”

Jordan Levy

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