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Full Focus

Alan Benzie Trio

Sunken Ruins

From the album Little Mysteries

 

Alan Bnzie TrioLittle Mysteries

 

'Full Focus' is a series where musicians and others discuss a jazz track or tracks in detail. The idea is that you are able to listen to the track that is discussed as you read about it.

This month, pianist Alan Benzie writes about the track Sunken Ruins from his 2018 Trio release, Little Mysteries. Alan is a talented young jazz pianist and composer from Scotland. He started his musical education on violin at the age of 8, with little interest in piano until he discovered jazz in his teens. Inspired by encounters with the Swedish trio, EST, he switched to piano and within a year he was a regular on both the Scottish youth and professional jazz scenes, appearing alongside established Scottish and visiting international artists. He won the BBC Scotland Young Jazz Musician Award when he was just 17. In 2007, he went to Berklee College of Music where he also won the prestigious Billboard Award. (Previous winners include Japanese pianist Uehara Hiromi, and saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Walter Smith III) - Alan is the first musician from the UK to win the award.

Little Mysteries is Alan's second album; Traveller’s Tales, his debut album was released in 2015 and recorded with his working trio of friends and long-time collaborators Andrew Robb (bass), and Marton Juhasz (drums). Inspired by his travels, the landscape of his native Scotland and his love of Japanese animation, the music has its roots in European and American jazz, with influences from impressionist piano music, Scottish and Japanese folk musics, and film music. Andrew Robb and Marton Juhasz join Alan again on his latest recording.

Little Mysteries was released in February 2018 and was followed by a European and UK tour. You can play the track as Alan describes and discusses it below:

 

 

 

Before I get into the tune itself, I just thought I’d write down a couple of thoughts. It’s actually quite an interesting challenge to write about your own music - not so much from a technical point of view, but rather in what to share and how to share it. Reading through what I have written, it’s hard not to feel a little pretentious about some of it, but I’m hoping that just comes from the somewhat self-critical and introspective nature of being a jazz musician… Despite loving the relative freedom of jazz and its surprising twists and turns, my personality definitely leans towards liking things clear and organised, and I think you can see that from the way I have put things down!

So, what to share and how to share it? All of my tunes have a wee story or image behind them, and so I’ve written about that. Then there are the more technical details of the process of writing the tune, how it is structured, etc. I’ve tried to keep jargon to a minimum while still leaving some insight into that side of things. And lastly, there are thoughts about how we actually bring the tune to life.

I might add that I struggled to pick a tune from all the ones on the album, so I ended up just picking one out of a hat - well, a box actually, not having had any hats to hand. The one that came out is called Sunken Ruins.

 

What is it about?

I think there is a fair amount of influence from the likes of Japanese animation legend Studio Ghibli, and possibly my love for video games like Legend of Zelda in this one. I love the idea of discovering things that have been secreted away, as well as the combination of man-made structures and the natural world, all with a decent helping of fantasy! I had the image of a serene but surprisingly large and deep pond in a forest clearing, and a ruined, but still magnificent old building (perhaps a castle or temple) under the surface. I wanted to capture the beauty and calm of that image, but also the gravitas and grandeur of the building, and the excitement of discovering something so beautiful and strange - how did it get there and what secrets does it hold?

 

 

How did I write it?

There is a very strong influence from Claude Debussy on this tune, and I think that may be fairly obvious to any fans of classical Claude Debussypiano - in which, despite many kind comments to the contrary, I am actually not particularly studied! The tune is in 3 sections: an intro/outro; the main melody; and a vamp (which is a repeating phrase/melodic fragment/groove/series of chords/combination of these).

 

Claude Debussy

 

Many of my favourite writers have the ability to generate a lot of material from just a couple of ideas, and to have little threads connecting seemingly disparate elements together (Maria Schneider springs to mind), and I like to aim for that in my writing too. I also like to have tunes that don’t just do the usual “tune - everyone solos on the same material - tune” format - not that there is anything wrong with that, but it’s nice to have some variety! I wanted the opening section to conjure up an image of grandeur and solemnity, and though I’m not religious or anything, I found myself gravitating towards the sound of plainchant in medieval church music.

The first few chords are made of stacked-up perfect 5ths, recalling the sound of “organum” (a style of plainchant), but with a fuller, more modern sound. The little snatches of melody in between the chords use the sustain pedal to kind of blend the notes together - which gives an effect similar to the long reverb in spaces like cathedrals - or could also be an “underwater” kind of thing.

The second section (0:41) is the main melody. I think it would take pages to go into how I wrote all of it, but I wanted something bright, calm and warm, and went for a fairly straightforward melody in Ab major. This finishes with a wee pause before a key change and that upwards sweeping figure (very Debussy…).

I think the whole tune so far slowly opens out towards the landing point of that figure (1:04) and the subsequent richer sounds, and I added a bit of extra “oomph” to the sweep by staggering the entries of bass and drums, which really pushes towards 1:04. Around 1:08 - 1:12 is actually one of my favourite moments in tunes that I’ve written - there isn’t really anything clever or particularly specialAlan benzie about it, I just really enjoy the feeling of that little run of sounds, perhaps especially in the context of the whole tune. That hasn’t faded even after all the practising, rehearsing, recording and 2 week tour!

 

Alan Benzie
picture by William Ellis

 

The 3rd section (1:14) is the aforementioned vamp, which just came along as I was messing around with the tune. It is a little darker, perhaps just a suggestion of rock in there - and I think hints at the mystery and possibly strange or turbulent events that might lie in the past of the now serene and beautiful scene. This also happened to end up in 9/4, which can be a slightly tricky time signature. Many people enjoy tricky time signatures for their cerebral challenge, and practise and write tunes specifically to enjoy that (and why not?), but in my case it is usually just a quirk of how the melody turns out, not something that I enjoy in and of itself.

I then expanded and tailored the first two sections for the bass solo, which slides into a quick return to that upward sweep and subsequent melody, before a piano solo over the 3rd section vamp. This culminates in a deeper version of the upward sweep in a different key and a contortion of the subsequent fragment of melody which, in turn, fades away into a reprise of the very first section to end the tune.

 

 

How do we play it?

Marton Juhasz

 

 

Marton uses soft mallets for the opening section, and I use the left pedal on the piano for a slightly muzzier sound. This keeps things from being too bright or sharply defined, which I think really suits the vibe I wanted. Marton then switches to brushes for the main melody section, which allows for a bit more propulsion without too much low end or hard attack, and I release that left pedal for a clearer, fuller sound. Marton then switches to sticks, allowing us to really inject some energy into the 3rd section.

For the bass solo, I play that opening figure much higher up the piano, and Marton is back to brushes again - this allows us to provide a nice texture for Andrew without getting in his way.

 

Marton Juhasz

 

 

 

 

Andrew Robb

 

 

 

 

I love the space Andrew leaves and how he takes his time and allows the solo to develop, before pushing things a bit towards the end. I mentioned earlier that I sometimes like to write things other than the “tune - everyone solos on the same material - tune”, and while that is true of this tune, we are also trying to avoid the typical situation where each solo has a similar shape and intensity - starting off relaxed and building until it is burning, then the same for the next one. Instead, we are looking for one longer arc, where Andrew’s solo builds slightly, the little melody in between takes things up another notch and then the piano solo builds from there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

I like that the 9/4 of the piano solo doesn’t feel too “boxed in” - when we first played this it did feel quite rigid, so we made a conscious effort to practise it a little, separately and together, focusing on having more flow and variety of phrasing - needless to say, we had even more freedom by the end of the album release tour!

All in all, while there are always little niggles that only you, or only the band hear, I’m pretty happy with the way this one turned out.

 

Click here for Alan's website and details of the album Little Mysteries.
click here for Alan's Facebook page.

 

Alan Benzie Trio

The Alan Benzie Trio

Andrew Robb, Alan Benzie and Marton Juhasz

 

© Sandy Brown Jazz 2018

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Visit some of our other Full Focus pages:

Tom Green - Equilibrium
Sam Braysher - Braysher On Bird
Henry Spencer - The Reasons Don't Change
Alastair Penman - Sandbox