Phil Benoit and his brother, David, were very different growing up in Hernando Beach, California. While Phil and his other brother Dan were “surf rats,” David, cofounder of Maui jazz fixture Benoit JazzWorks, was at home, sitting at the piano. “He was playing the piano certainly as long as I can remember,” Phil says.
Those long hours at the keys paid off: David went on to earn five Grammy nominations and become the man many consider one of the founders of contemporary (smooth) jazz. Phil, meanwhile, picked up his axe while a teenager in the early ’70s, inspired by the phenomenal proliferation of rock, blues-rock and beard rock that was unfolding at the time. The first song he learned was John Denver’s “Sunshine on my Shoulders.”
Neither brother has to look far to find his musical roots. Their father Bob was “an avid jazz fan and guitarist,” Phil says. “We had jazz in our house since I was a little kid.”
Phil played in various bands over the ensuing years, before coming to Maui in 1978. It was here that he met and, 21 years ago, married a Maui girl named Angela. He never put down the guitar, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s—when he began to study jazz guitar with Tom Conway—that something clicked.
“The lightbulb went on,” Phil says, “and I just couldn’t get enough of it.” The first jazz tune he learned was “Black Orpheus,” a song from the 1959 Portuguese-language film of the same name (Orfeu Negro).
He started gigging in 1997 and signed on as rhythm guitarist with legendary gypsy jazz outfit Gypsy Pacific along with Conway on lead guitar, Willy Wainwright on violin and Marcus Johnson on standup bass.
It was around that time that Angela, one day, nonchalantly began to sing along to a tune Phil was practicing on guitar. This could work, Phil thought.
Since then, Benoit JazzWorks, with Johnson on bass, has been playing steady gigs at various venues on-island. They play Thursday through Saturday at Ma‘alaea Grill from 6:30-9pm, and at Moana Café in Paia from 6-9pm.
Their sound is not one you’d expect to hear on Maui; you couldn’t find a more incongruous soundtrack for sucking down Heinekens and playing pool.
It’s a warm, sophisticated and easygoing sound with sets that rely on originals, newer covers and old standards. Angela’s vocals are incredibly smooth and embrace the bittersweet sound that rests somewhere between high alto and low mezzo-soprano.
Diana Krall’s “East of the Sun,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Desafinado” and Mancini/Mercer’s “Days of Wine and Roses” are among the cover tunes in their repertoire.
Phil says he composes his originals using common jazz chord progressions—he’s big on bossa nova—and building melodies around them. He and Angela collaborate on lyrics.
Phil and David have also collaborated on some tunes, namely “Swingin’ Waikiki,” for which Phil penned the lyrics and David wrote the tune.
The two will likely play it on Saturday, when Benoit JazzWorks will join David on stage for a song or two during David’s set.
David is considered one of contemporary jazz’s most accomplished musicians, and most people have heard his music whether they know it or not, either through his Peanuts concertos, on The Weather Channel’s Weather on the Eights, or from one of his 23 solo recordings.
The Benoit brothers have come a long way from their early California days. One thing hasn’t changed: their enduring passion for music. MTW