Benny Benack III
One of a Kind
The name Benny Benack has been synonymous with Pittsburgh jazz for more than two generations. Trumpeter Benny Benack Sr. led a big band and recorded the single, “Beat ’Em Bucs,” which cheered on the 1960 Pirates. Junior became a saxophonist, and has played with a variety of local musicians. And Benny Benack III has mastered his grandfather’s instrument, in addition to developing some vocal chops that could offer a career as a crooner.
While Benack has played around the Pittsburgh jazz scene, he has been developing a reputation in New York City, where he recorded One of a Kind. The album includes eight original compositions, one by pianist Emmet Cohen and three wide-ranging covers. Along with Cohen, the solid group of players contributing includes bassist Alex Claffy, drummer Ulysses Owens Jr., saxophonist Joel Frahm and guitarist Yotam Silberstein.
The album reveals both sides of Benack, as a vocalist and musical soloist. The title track combines both, as he sings the full chorus of the song, launching immediately into a trumpet solo, followed by another from Cohen. As a vocalist, he balances his crisp delivery with a bit of grit in his phrasing, perhaps borrowing a concept from his trumpet playing. It ensures that the vocals have immediacy without sounding slick or stylized, a pitfall that impacts some vocalists who try to evoke the classic style of Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett. Additionally, Benack comes across as a strong writer, particularly with the bossa nova groove of “Kiss Me Slowly.” Versions of Burt Bacharach’s “Close to You” and the standard, “I Only Have Eyes for You,” add some swing to their structures, but they aren’t as successful as the originals.
Although vocalists get more attention than instrumentalists, Benack’s horn playing could support a whole album on its own. The band evokes the hard-bop era of the ’60s, especially when Frahm’s tenor blends with the trumpet on the front line. More than simply paying tribute to that era, the members play with the same drive and intensity that made that source so influential in the first place. After this strong debut, it will be interesting to see where Benack goes next.