Home > Events, Interviews, Profiles > Exclusive Island Jazz Interview With Young West Coast Saxophone Sensation Eli Bennett

Exclusive Island Jazz Interview With Young West Coast Saxophone Sensation Eli Bennett

June 4, 2009

24You need look no further than the truckload of awards 20-year-old Vancouver saxophonist Eli Bennett has collected to realize that he’ll soon be a major force on the international jazz scene.

About to enter his third year on full scholarship in the jazz program at Humber College, Bennett has been playing professionally since he was 14. At 15, he was named the best high school saxophonist in Canada.

Since then he’s collected Fraser MacPherson, Dal Richards and Oscar Peterson scholarships and grants, the Yamaha Kando award for the best young musician in the country, a Downbeat award, Grammy Foundation honours, and the International Yamaha Young Performing Artists Award for the best international saxophonist in any genre under 21 – the first Canadian to win that award since the program began in 1989.

Most recently he received the CBC Galaxie Rising Star award at the National Jazz Awards in Toronto.

Bennett, who is back home on the coast for the summer, will be appearing with his quartet (Amanda Tosoff on piano, Josh Cole on bass, and Darryl Bennett on drums) in Courtenay this Sunday, June 7,courtesy of the Georgia Straight Jazz Society. He’ll also be at The Cellar in Vancouver this Thursday night.

Island Jazz sat down with Bennett to learn more about him.

1. How did you find your way into jazz?

I first picked up the saxophone when I was around 12 years old, around grade 7. I was home-schooled from about grade 4 to 12, and my parents suggested I pick up an instrument to play in a marching band. My dad – a great musician, drummer, and film composer – had an old saxophone lying around from when he played in high school, and I immediately fell in love with the sound of the instrument, especially when I heard my first jazz recording: Michael Brecker with Steps Ahead playing Pools, and numerous recordings of Charlie Parker. I never ended up playing in a marching band, but I began practicing about 7-9 hours a day and did that for a few years, especially when I was studying with my mentor, Stan Karp, who was a huge influence in my finding my way into jazz.

2. Did you miss out on opportunities to play in school jazz bands because you were home schooled?

I actually did play in a school jazz band at Magee High School in Vancouver for 3 years. And in the latter part of high school, I had the opportunity to travel extensively for award concerts and special music programs where I had the honour of playing with some of the world’s greatest musicians at a young age.

3. A lot of jazz education today is very institutionalized. In the past young players learned strictly on their own, closeted away with the masters via a pile of records. You’ve experienced both ways of learning. What are the relative strengths and weaknesses of each approach?

It was great to be able to lock myself away in the practice room and play along with jazz records, and I was able to progress very quickly by doing that. I was also able to develop my sound, patience, endurance, and a deep commitment to the music.

While that’s extremely important, being associated with an institution is invaluable because you can practice all you want, but at the end of the day, the music is all about about playing with other musicians. Learning how to communicate directly through improv and playing together to achieve a band sound is one of the goals.

Also, the practical experience that an institution provides is invaluable. I am going into my third year at Humber College in Toronto, and the opportunities so far have been great. This past year my hero, Chris Potter was the artist-in-residence and we had the privilege of playing a featured concert with him. The College also has a multimillion dollar recording studio that I frequently record in, an amazing faculty, students, touring opportunities and many other things. An artist needs both approaches to contribute to all areas of artistic development.

4. You’ve won quite a few awards now – most recently a National Jazz Award. What do those mean to you?

It’s an honour to have been recognized with the awards and scholarships, and I’m very grateful for that. But, at the end of the day, I feel that it all comes down to the playing, having a personal sound, and the many unique qualities that define me as a musician. It will always be my goal to sound unique and do something different than everyone else. That’s most important for me, but receiving awards is a nice source of encouragement in the process.

5. How did you go about creating your personal sound?

After a few years of playing, I was able to begin hearing my own sound in my head, and was slowly able to develop it on the horn. A personal sound is really unique and important to me, and it thrills me to be able to hear myself on the radio and know it’s me because of the way it sounds. Influences help you get there, but ultimately its up to an artist as to what he or she wants to sound like.

6. Besides completing your degree, what are your immediate musical goals?

After I complete my degree at Humber in the next two years, I’ll be looking to record my debut CD with my quartet and begin traveling to promote it and the band. I really enjoy writing, and I also hope to be able to explore writing soundtracks for motion pictures down the road as well.

7. Where do you see yourself going with jazz in the long term?

It’s hard to say, and I’m not really concerned with that right now. As long as I keep doing what I’m doing, I know great things will present themselves and we’ll see what happens. I would like to travel extensively as a sideman and with my own group as well.

For more information on Eli Bennett, visit his website at http://www.elibennett.com/

For details on his Courtenay gig this Sunday evening go to http://www.georgiastraightjazz.com/special-events/elibennet.html

And for The Cellar gig in Vancouver this Thursday night visit http://www.cellarjazz.com/

– Rick Gibbs

© 2009 Rick Gibbs and Island Jazz. Please see the copyright info in the sidebar for permitted uses.
Categories: Events, Interviews, Profiles
  1. Ron Bull
    June 14, 2009 at 6:21 pm

    I hope I live long enough now in retirement to be able to figure out/realize my “own sound”.

  2. June 7, 2009 at 5:56 pm

    I had the great pleasure of playing a concert with Eli last year at Milner Gardens. The future of jazz is in good hands with his kind of talent and determination.

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