Release date: March 15, 2021
By Mundo Rivera
Composer and multi-instrumentalist Severin Behnen has been busy at work. When he is not exacting high standards to his students in the Music Department at Los Angeles Valley College, Behnen is performing original and thought-provoking classical compositions at his church as music director. He has put on shows in a variety of venues across the country as well as in Asia, bringing a warmth and breadth of skill to collaborations with artists in diverse capacities, whether it’s composing choral music for healing in humanitarian causes, playing alongside Korean geomungo master Ik-So Heo or washing over the Latin folk of Los Angeles-based band Cuñao with the signature flourishes of his accordion. On Standard Demolition, Behnen convenes an assortment of talented craftsmen with his adroit piano leading the way. They fearlessly take on a new challenge of exploring and unearthing the possibilities in the popular jazz songbook.
For people familiar with Severin’s work, categorizing the tracks on this album merely as covers would be an inaccurate designation. Being a multi-instrumentalist and enthusiast of a variety of music styles ranging from avant-garde to bluegrass, Behnen’s arrangements do not disappoint. The opening track is based on the ‘34 song “Blue Moon,” which became a hit in recordings by Billy Eckstein and Mel Tormé and reached number one on the international charts for the doo-wop group The Marcels in the early ‘60s. In Billie Holiday’s version for Clef Records, she showcases her trademark lilt and swinging swagger, accompanied by a refreshing burst of brass in Charlie Shavers’ trumpet solo. In “Nue Bloom,” Behnen and his crew mine a parallel dimension of this standard, reimagining its structure and playfully tapping into different tones. Saxophonist Sam Robles and trumpeter Daniel Rosenbloom are front and center, exuding a darkly comical mood on Holiday’s otherwise sweet and light-hearted take on the theme indicative of the era. The swampy and lush dissonance and its prowling bass line puncturing the canvas are testaments to Behnen’s affection for convention yet a natural inclination for eccentricity. After the brass players cast the melodic line, Behnnen vaults into an inspiring improvisation. You can hear his fingers in the midst of an exploration, playing with tempo and working around the beats with Lady Day-channeling blues figures.
In another standard popularized by Holiday, Behnen deploys his full cast of instrumentalists in enthralling peaks and waves. “Summertime” has endlessly thrived through so many incarnations in its history, in the poetic tones of its timeless lyric and bluesly trancelike harmonic progression. In Behnen’s arrangement “Don’t You Cry,” he seems to translate the stream of consciousness of the song’s verses into the very fabric of the music itself. Out of the gate, the rhythm section establishes a subdued tone of suspicion that instantly draws a contrast with the standard. Sax player Robles shines a light on the all-too-familar melody albeit exploring an unchartered terrain in mood. The song bursts into flourishes, most notably in a building interplay between Behnen and Robles with violinist Tom Moese reaching into the flurry. As intriguing as the ebbs and flows can be, there’s always a steady rhythmic pulse, embellished midway through by Isaac “El Rabioso” Rodrígues’ tender touches on the conga. As Behnen and Robles continue their spirited exchanges, Moese surreptitiously guides with a brooding harmony that soothes the palette. This keeps things anchored and the listener appreciating the heightened level of communication between players and their service to Behnen’s stylistic vision. In one of the greatest and most memorable standards of the 20th century, the band simultaneously harnesses an oppositional force between songs and contradictions within them.
As with jazz standard collections or more conventional cover sets, the underlying story is in Behnen’s adoration for fusion. It’s also a collection that reflects his meticulous nature choosing exactly what version of a standard he wants a crack at. In the midst of Behnen’s genre-bending embellishments on “How High The Bird,” he clearly demonstrates a keen interest in Charlie Parker’s version. Bassist Michael Saucier and drummer Don Littleton lay down a calming groove bounce feature that they revisit as Behnen engages in a meditation on the keys, showcasing a deft skill in and around the original’s chord changes. In the classic “Ornithology” Bird borrows the original’s chord progression from “How High the Moon.” His signature frenetic improvisations, especially in this defining tune, commonly inspired jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald in their scat solos when performing their own takes. At the peak of his tune, Behnen breaks into a scat of his own not so much as a showcase but a tightly structured homage.
From the beginning, it’s evident that Behnen presents a curated toast to tradition yet the breadth of skill and talent displayed here is quite adamantly not beholden to its strictures. In some cases, he extracts the essential meaning of the original thus rendering them close to unrecognizable. In “What Is This Thing?,” based on a standard that is usually performed at fast tempo, Behnen delivers a piano solo that carries the air of an interlude, displaying a deft, slow-paced exercise in restraint. In “Don’t Kid Around Much Anymore,” he channels the rootsy and bluesy romp of Duke Ellington’s horn section into the intimate space that a trio commands. And “Sunnyside,” with its mystical cymbal clashes and spirited piano trills, sounds like a piece that would fit nicely into an Alice Coltrane or Pharoah Sanders suite.
Standard Demolition delivers a transformation narrative of our most prized jazz standards, delightfully challenging our perspectives with innovative interpretations that strike a balance between holding back and letting loose. Behnen and his band don’t solely offer a deconstruction of harmony and melodic figures. They unlock a potential that redefines our terms as jazz listeners.