Popdose Flashback: Jazzy David Foster With a Snappy Beat

Written by Music, Popdose Flashback '89

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I was a pretty confused kid in 1989. Well, not a kid, really — I was 17 going on 18. I had a couple of hundred vinyl records, and David Foster was my guiding light , but when I bought my first CD player that year, I didn’t really know which direction to take my budding CD collection. I had calculated that Lionel Richie would release his fourth solo album in 1989. That didn’t happen. I hated my old favorite band, Chicago, with a passion after they disposed of David Foster and released the Diane Warren-infused trainwreck Chicago 19 in 1988, so I couldn’t care less what they were up to. Level 42 were more or less in shambles after the departure of Boon and Phil and I didn’t expect a new Toto album until the next year. Pet Shop Boys released the glorious single “Left to My Own Devices” but I wasn’t really into singles, and their 1989 remix album (Introspective) wasn’t great. The whole New Romantic/Sophisti-Pop movement was waning, and while I was still listening to Johnny Hates Jazz and trying to make my hair look like Clark Datchler’s with Studio Line, the girls in my class got into Guns ‘n’ Roses and suddenly they dug long-haired dudes on motorbikes.

I had one foot planted on the dancefloor at the time as well, but Italo Disco didn’t sound quite as appealing to me as it had in 1986, and Black Box’s “Ride on Time” wasn’t exactly my idea of fun. I tried to get into house music and bought a volume in the “House Sound of Chicago Megamix” series, but I quickly realized that it wasn’t for me. I was getting sick and tired of the synth gurus that used to thrill me in the mid-’80s — Jean-Michel Jarre was turning into Napoleon Bonaparte with a Laserharp, Tangerine Dream swapped their Moogs and ARP’s for rhythm presets on a cheap Korg Wavestation, and the Miami Vice/Jan Hammer thing wasn’t really happening anymore. And where was David Foster? Foster was almost invisible on record in 1989. Rock wasn’t really an option yet, and I didn’t get rap at all. So what was I to do?

One day after school I listened to the radio. They presented a batch of new releases, and suddenly I heard these sweet piano tinklings that reminded me of David Foster’s “Winter Games,” only slightly jazzier and with a snappy beat. Oh, yes. Jazzy David Foster with a snappy beat. Groovy. This couldn’t be wrong.

David Benoit. Hm.

Not at all wrong.

Urban Daydreams“Sailing Through the City,” by David Benoit. From Urban Daydreams, 1989.

Cool bass. Abraham Laboriel? No, Jimmy Johnson. Sax solo! Dave Boruff? Eric Marienthal. M-hm. I added new names to my ever-expanding shortlist of important session musicians. David Benoit recorded for GRP Records, and at the time they listed their entire catalog in the CD sleeve.

Their catalog became my bible for the next six months. Lee Ritenour — wasn’t he the guy who played classical guitar on David Foster’s Symphony Sessions back in ’88? Check. Tom Scott? The lyricon dude on the Alessi album. Cool. Daryl Stuermer? Phil Collins’ guitarist. Awesome. Hey, this just couldn’t get any better.

Most GRP records had a pretty similar sound at the time, and labelmates often played on each other’s recordings. They even went on tour together, laughing and playing their way through America in their white trousers and pointed shoes. They are probably all still good friends. I say that because their music is so gentle. These are not angry people. To them rock is a rumor, and rap is a gentle blow. But this was before smooth jazz evolved into its current generic state. The sound was a bit fresher, funkier and more fusion-oriented than smooth jazz is today, but inevitably ridden by bad synths, this being the 1980s and all.

“When the Winter’s Gone,” by Jennifer Warnes and David Benoit. From Urban Daydreams, 1989.

Behind a couple of noisy and synth-heavy tracks on Urban Daydreams appeared this peaceful, classy and acoustic ballad featuring Jennifer Warnes. Completely different from anything else in my music collection at the time — the closest may have been Pet Shop Boys’ “Later Tonight” — it quickly became my favorite track on the album. Yes, I was definitely up for something new. But little could have prepared me for the shock I was in for when I went out to buy Benoit’s second 1989 album later that year.

Waiting for Spring“Cabin Fever,” by David Benoit. From Waiting for Spring, 1989.

You see, I had come to trust GRP Records. I thought I knew what I was getting, and when I read that Benoit had released a new album I went out and bought it. I didn’t read the liner notes or listen to the record in the store. I trusted David Benoit to bring me my weekly dose of jazz-funk muzak. But what did he do? I kinda got the picture when I read the liner notes — there were only four supporting musicians. He betrayed me. Chaos. A million notes going nowhere to the beat of an upright bass – this was jazz, for God’s sake. I hated jazz.

Four months later I wrote a school essay describing the beauty of the hustle-bustle feeling of “Cabin Fever.” I started buying Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Wes Montgomery records. I found jazz in rock. Steely Dan. I started with the sophisticated Gaucho (1980) and dug my way back to Dan’s raunchier years, listened to Skunk’s fiery guitar solo on “Bodhisattva” and in a sense I actually discovered rock and roll through jazz. Of course, it didn’t stop with Steely Dan. I had a lot to catch up with after a decade of synth worshipping, and I have continued my discoveries into the beautiful, but separate, worlds of jazz and rock and roll ever since.

David Benoit? Well, I bought his last album, and it wasn’t jazz.

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