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Music Review: Chris Bennett – Sail Away: The Tahiti Sessions

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When it comes to vocal jazz, sometimes simplicity is best. Chris Bennett’s new album, Sail Away: The Tahiti Sessions, exemplifies this rule. Bennett, a singer/songwriter who has been performing since the 1970s, remains an underrated interpreter of jazz standards as well as a creator of new classics. Sail Away’s back-to-basics approach may expose her talent to broader audiences.

Bennett began her career as a dancer and choreographer, gradually forming her jazz singing and composition skills. Her break came in 1978, when producer Giorgio Moroder asked her to join his disco group Munich Machine. Bennett emerged as lead singer on their sophomore album, which contained a dance cover of Procol Harum’s “Whiter Shade of Pale.” She further explored disco, singing backup on Donna Summer’s hits “MacArthur Park” and “Heaven Knows.” During this time she gained acclaim for co-writing and performing the theme to the film Midnight Express. After forging a successful career as a songwriter, producer, and vocalist for artists such as the Manhattan Transfer, Tina Turner, Rita Coolidge, and Johnny Mathis, she returned to her jazz roots in the early 1990s. Her self-titled 1993 release showcased her jazz vocal skills, and since then has over 10 albums to her credit.

Sail Away: The Tahiti Sessions was recorded in 2010, although the songs do Chris Bennettnot necessarily contain any particular elements of the island. Instead, the album maintains an intimate vibe, with sparse arrangements that effectively showcase Bennett’s smooth, deep voice. “These Foolish Things” features just piano and strings, beautifully arranged to highlight the song’s melody. Bennett gives a heartfelt performance, never over-singing the words. A similar arrangement also benefits her interpretation of Hoagy Carmichael’s “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” with Bennett taking a cue from some of the best pop and jazz vocalists: she carefully considers every word in the lyrics, lingering over certain phrases while emphasizing other key words. Again, along with arrangers Eric Doney and Bill Augustine, she retains the song’s grace and simplicity.

Not limited to ballads, Bennett also demonstrates her ability to interpret Latin rhythms. Her warm voice wraps around the words of “Perfidia,” while percussionist Ariel Cruz provides a soft, subtle rhythm that perfectly accompanies Felix Vilchez’s deceptively simple piano playing. Like Ralph Sharon, Vilchez knows how to create complicated fills that accent certain parts of the song, yet plays straightforward chords that cushion rather than overshadow the lead vocalist. The classic “Besame Mucho” also benefits from the elegant treatment, with Vilchez’s piano and Armando Castagnoli’s soprano sax perfectly complementing each other. Bennett effortlessly croons in Spanish, the entire production stressing the song’s seductive qualities.

In addition to standards, Sail Away: The Tahiti Sessions also includes original compositions. Bennett’s songs seamlessly fit in with the album’s overall tone, with lyrics describing love lost and regained. The best of these originals, “I Can’t Think About It,” could become a modern standard. Singing over a gentle samba rhythm, Bennett sings of recovering from a love affair gone sour. “I’m ready for a new romance…Time for me to slam this door/Use the fear, don’t cry anymore,” she croons, the subtle percussion intermingling with the piano and saxophone. The song’s melody lingers long after the album ends. “Won’t Let Me Go” suits a jazz chanteuse, its highly emotional lyrics and intimate arrangement (sans percussion) conjuring images of a smoky room and a vocalist dramatically singing the words, accompanied by piano.

Sail Away: The Tahiti Sessions is a pleasant surprise, a stellar collection of standards and originals performed by a gifted, seasoned artist. Perhaps this album will draw more attention to the underrated Bennett, and will demonstrate that sometimes simplicity is the key for creating memorable, inspiring jazz.

For more information, visit Chris Bennett’s official site.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Emm

    Given her impressive credentials, I can’t beleive I haven’t heard of Chris Bennett before. Nice review. I’ll definitely be giving this one a listen.

  • Thanks for commenting, Emm. I had not heard of her, either, and I’m glad to be introduced to her fine work. Yes, do give her album a listen!

  • Dinn

    Sensual and outstanding!!! A real Diva!!!