Finding Her Voice

Listening to Heather Bennett is like strolling through a music store: '50s bebop over here, Dixieland over there, originals down the center aisle, classical in the back room, post-bop to your left, and modern interpretations of pop tunes on the right. Like many of her contemporaries, the 30-year-old pianist seems just as much on easy street playing standards and originals as she is interpreting Lennon-McCartney's "All My Loving."

While Bennett is no mere copy of her many influences, her authentic '50s grooves can invoke the Village Vanguard. And when she taps into the deep classical well, the ensuing flow can sweep listeners away to Carnegie Hall.

So undeniably fluent is she in the tones of masters from both the cafe and the conservatory that at times her own voice is hard to hear. "I struggle with that," Bennett admits. "Sometimes I'll do a gig, and I'll go, 'Man, I should have just one sound.' It's hard, because I am influenced by a lot of stuff, and I like a lot of different kinds of music….It would be easier if I had, like, a lot of different projects. [But it's] hard to keep all that afloat and trying to make a living."

The native Northeasterner moved to Dallas at age ten. Weaned on classical, a teenage Bennett grew to prefer Johnny Rotten over Rachmaninoff, and thus enlisted in a series of punky garage bands. The jazz muse didn't beckon until Bennett turned 19 and heard her music teacher Bert Ligon play. There and then she was sold. "I'd never heard anything like that before. I just immediately said, 'That's what I'm going to do,' " Bennett recalls. More specifically she was drawn to "the improv factor and the rhythmic stuff," she says. "The harmonies also, definitely, because his band, when I heard them, they were using a lot of advanced harmonies that I heard in stuff that my mother played around the house, like more modern classical music."

It was a galvanized Bennett who left the University of North Texas and followed Ligon to the University of South Carolina. She later moved to Austin in 1994 and was a popular player in the capital, releasing two independent albums. Austin at first was comfortable, but ultimately proved stultifying to Bennett's burgeoning urge to explore. The City That Never Sleeps' siren song was keeping her awake nights, so there she moved in 1997. "I love Austin," Bennett says. "I just felt a little limited. I'm really into those advanced harmonies, more the modern edge of jazz, and I think that there wasn't a whole lot of that going on down there. And I just wanted to keep growing, and I knew that coming here, I'd just be bombarded with all sorts of influences. It's been great for me, and it's kicked my ass."

Getting heard in NYC was Bennett's first priority, so she hit the jam sessions and made a point of meeting pianist Richie Bierach. Bierach, a slightly left-of-center pianist notable for his advanced harmonic style, became Bennett's instructor for a couple of years. His influence is evident in her post-bop work.

Gigging on the ultracompetitive New York City scene is always a dogfight. A jam is always easy to come by, if not in a club, then in a musician's apartment. It's not uncommon for Bennett to woodshed in her digs several days a week. As for paying jobs, she takes what comes her way, within reason, and her gigs reflect the diversity of her influences: She leads a straight-ahead trio, plays in the soul group Ella Funk, and recently cranked up a regular Dixieland duo.

Last fall Bennett independently released her third CD, All Through the Night. She's been trolling the disc around to labels, and while she has yet to get a nibble, it may just be a matter of time. The album is a strong effort. Mixing originals and covers, Bennett reveals her polyglot expressions in full glory. Her rendition of Oscar Peterson's "Blues Etude" rings in the '50s, but she doesn't mimic Peterson's fabled technique or style, choosing instead to insert post-bop fancies. Eden Ahbez's classic "Nature Boy" is replete with unusual harmonies, while "When It's Sleepy Time Down South" is given a stride treatment. Bennett's originals, on the other hand, are fragrant of the '90s progressive NYC jazz scene and are filled with unusual harmonics and twists.

As if being a solid pianist with broad tastes weren't enough, Bennett is also developing her singing chops. It's worked for a few jazz pianists in the past, including Nat "King" Cole, not to mention the most recent sensation, Diana Krall. Krall planned to be a pianist, but singing has defined her career from her first album. "I'm still torn, to be honest," Bennett says of stalking the Krall path. "I would love to just go that route, but I feel like my writing is pretty important to me."

There are critics in the jazz community who loudly dismiss Krall and her disciples, but Bennett is not one of them. "I think they're just jealous," she says. "The way I see it is -- and I even used to say this about Kenny G. and whoever -- if they have an audience and they're successful, more power to them. I'm not going to say that she's the pianist that maybe Nat 'King' Cole was, or even Fats Waller. She's very conservative, but she has her own audience. I think it's great."

But she does have certain reservations. "I have to admit she's very packaged," she allows. "And it's not something that I would be comfortable with." But, then again, maybe it is… "Give me five more years of struggling here, you know what I'm saying? You can't turn down that money."

For the moment, though, Bennett's focus is on her playing. She has composed two long-form compositions and has been working long hours on her stride and solo piano playing. Though she does sing at those gigs where she feels free to ham it up, she's not ready to lay down her voice on tape -- yet.

"I want the singing to be at the level of my piano playing. Maybe I'm a little shy about it, which everybody tells me I don't need to be. But I don't know, I hear people like Ella….I just want it to be right. No rush. And with my singing, when I'm up there live, I feel like I can be a ham and entertain. But it's a whole other thing when you [record]. Because my music I feel is pretty serious. It's still something I'm figuring out."

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Paul J. MacArthur