Drumming takes skeleton control as homo sapiens moves stiffly, sometimes in contorted ways, to carefully maneuver sounds across the drum set. However, jazz artist, Clement Benny, wants to do it differently, and his debut album, By Way of Introduction, presents his own sound with a fluidity and grace that pleases.
Born and bred in the Eastern Cape, Benny arrived in Cape Town just in time to join the independent music school, MAPP, for several years to obtain an initial musical footing, after which he joined the growing UCT Jazz Studies crowd in the mid 1990s. Exciting times brought Benny in contact with a set of musicians now renowned for their 20 years plus experience in transforming South Africa’s jazz music. Hence, his choice for his album of pianist Hilton Schilder with whom Benny toured Reunion Island, and who remains a vast influence on his life; saxman Buddy Wells whom Benny first met through a music competition in 1997 and whom he continued to play with through UCT study days. Others on the album, double bassist Dave Ridgeway and guitarist Allou April were all emerging dons during that early era. His studies under Cuban percussionist, Efrain Toro at UCT, sustained his undying thirst to learn more and more about the drumming craft. Very humbly, Benny admits this as his future mission… to keep on learning.
We talked more deeply about his musical vision and his album.
CM: You’ve got 9 tracks on your album with interesting mixtures: some ghoema, some mainstream be-bop, lovely ballads, some lamentations, a little bit of minor keys. What‘s the album all about?
CB: I’m not much of a composer, but I’ve worked with these young composers at the forefront of what jazz is about. And also with Khaya Mahlangu and Africa Mkize – these incredible musicians. But I didn’t want this to sound like a drummer’s album, because I’m still busy practicing. I’m glad I did the last track on the album, ‘Drum Speak’, as you will hear my solo with me falling over my own self and making ‘mistakes’, although Miles Davis said there is nothing like a mistake in jazz! The nice part of the album was that the tracks were all recorded basically live in studio and once. My band members were simply happy with the spontaneity of our collaboration and sound. The only edited track was the Spoken Word one, ‘There I Were’, which featured an amazing influence in my life, the Reverend Robert Steiner whom I had met in my favourite sports bar, and he became my good friend. He being part Italian, I asked him to write me a poem about what it means to become a God. That’s what that song is about – There I Were – which is also a play on words leading to the title of my album, By Way of Introduction, where I’m introducing myself as a digital debutante!
CM: That Track, ‘There I Were’ …. it sounds like a lamentation, it’s sort of funereal, yet sounds celebratory in a melodic sort of way.
CB: Well, it’s a bit of intellectual music because it’s inside me, and we hear music in beats of 3s as waltzes, and in beats of 4, and then the counterpoint between the bass and the sax searching for the beginning of this song. I didn’t mean the song to be confusing, but I trusted the band would find a solution. And if you meet the Reverend Steiner, you will find him a very relaxed, approachable man. He’s very serious about being the best version of oneself.
CM: Yes, it’s a very moving piece. I also found your album cover rather intriguing with a drummer, arms flying about, but in the shape of an octopus. And then a written form “@seven of nine”. What was that all about?
CB: The seventh daughter of nine refers to a character on Star Trek, and I thought a name like “Seven of Nine” was an unusual way to call someone. And then, when I was studying with Efrain Toro, he made reference to the 9 colours of the rainbow, that we can only see seven primary colours, but not the other two. He told me a rhythm is only up to 9 beats and homo sapiens really doesn’t function beyond that, just as we have 88 keys on the piano, but we actually only consciously hear two. This is how playing divisions of 7 inside a metre of 9 becomes actually 7 bars. So to me, it’s really an intellectual reference to how I came up with the Seven in Nine on the album cover. Again, a play on words….a bit of math… At a time when musicians talk about technical terms like ‘reharmonization’ and ‘modulations’ and ‘inversions’ ….. For me on drums, I can understand the 7 of 9 rhythms where musicians on other instruments may not know these rhythms. It’s like your body rhythms are ordered, are like the planets: they don’t crash into each other, but rather carry a rhythm!
CM: (chuckle)…..OK! You’ve also got on your album cover an octopus figure. I’m beginning to see between your Seven of Nine and having been influenced by Star Trek, maybe there’s an octopus message in all of this! It’s an interesting design but what were you thinking? What reference does it have to your music?
CB: I remember as a kid walking on the beach in East London on very jagged rocks, and I’d see a little octopus in the water, then it would just disappear before I could catch it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animal move that gracefully and when you see it in water, it’s like watching a beautiful ballet, a beautiful dance, so serene. I was thinking of how can I sit at the drum set, thinking of that slithering octopus, and try to get my bones, my skeleton, more liquid. I mean an octopus doesn’t have a skeleton like ours, does it? Yet it holds itself together. I was imagining how to move, to be more liquid, more fluid, and graceful behind the drum set. When I approached my dear friend, Terence Visagie…… He knew I was a Salvador Dali fan. I told him I needed something abstract and silly with a poignant message. That we should all try to move like that.
CM: So Terence did the design of the cover?
CB: Yes. I told him I wanted it to be very colourful, with purple and orange to be the theme, with an octopus playing the drum set. You take a drummer like Virgil Donati who plays like an octopus. At the end of the day, and after watching a lot of YouTubes of musicians, you have to find who you are and explore, is it enough what you’re doing. There are ten year old kids who are playing drums more than I could ever imagine of myself. So I have to have that feeling that I’m OK, and that I have to do what I have to do. And always learn more.
CM: You’ve summed up the temperament of this album with this liquidity, this graceful serene dancing. It certainly comes through when you’re drumming. In fact, I was amazed, from a sound standpoint, at how subdued your drumming was. It makes sense now, because of the flowing melodic nature of the songs in the album. Anything else about the album? Any other album to come out in the near future?
CB: You know that I’m a reluctant band leader, so am not hopeful about having another album out soon. To be honest, there was a group of people who approached me to help fund an album, but I must calculate what that means. I’m still having a debt to pay off for this present album which is why I haven’t gone out to make hard copies of it yet. So money is playing a big role. But I also think the next album I would want to do would be more of a concert album.
CM: You mean an album recorded in a live concert?
CB: I’m talking personnel, configuration, orchestration. I’m also thinking of how the drum set could be presented in a more musically creative way. I remember walking into one of my first classes with Efrain Toro and playing what I thought were complex, four way Cuban rhythms for him. And he says, but where’s the gravity? What brings everything you’re playing back to the center, back to its core? I really didn’t know the answer, and so ….. Well, I love playing music and whatever people want to hear. But, I do gravitate away from that music where the drum set is there to be just a wall paper, I suppose.
CM: Yes, well, that was certainly fulfilled in your Tune Recreation Committee work , and in Marcus Wyatt’s Language 12, and very differently in Abraham Mennen’s album, ‘The…..Story’….
CB: I remember what a privilege it was to play at the then Mahogany Room in Cape Town with these incredible young guys, like Mandla Mlangeni and Nicolas Williams, and others. How fortunate I was to be able to play with musicians as old as my Dad and as young as my son! Those days! In my next project, it’s still a mixed secret for me to unravel, but that will come if I keep studying, and practicing and be open to learning from others. And then the next idea makes up your mind for you.
CM: As you say, you allow your bones to wrap around that fluidity, in that caring environment, or spirit, to help you produce what you should be producing; what comes from within, from your talents. This album is a nice beginning.
CB: One thing I would like to change about my approach is to work more with commercial musicians. I wonder, can I do pop work now? I grew up playing pop /funk music, and didn’t really know what ‘jazz’ was until I met these other jazz musicians, like Errol Dyers, Fred Kuit, other musicians at UCT jazz studies. Then listening to Coltrane and Monk and others. But still, there’s so much to learn, even on my principal instrument!
CM: Where do we buy your album?
CB: Streaming on line. I haven’t made hard copies. You can find the album on Spotify, Apple Music, and You Tube.