Benito Gonzalez: ‘Music can be a really powerful healing tool’

Most modern jazz pianists would dream to get the chance to play alongside legends like Jackie McLean, Curtis Fuller, Bobby Hutcherson, Pharoah Sanders, Roy Hargrove and Kenny Garrett – Benito Gonzalez has done all that, making a name for himself as a bonafide modern jazz master. But the Venezuelan pianist’s true claim to fame is his astonishing tribute to another living legend, the great McCoy Tyner. His albumPassion Reverence Transcendencehas been one of the most widely acclaimed US jazz releases of the past couple of years and now the fiery pianist is presenting it in Melbourne, at Bird’s Basement, with a superb trio featuring star drummer Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and Melbourne’s own powerhouse bassist, Phil Rex.

“Come down and see one of the very best jazz shows with world class musicians, at one of the top jazz clubs in the world,” Benito says, inviting us to the gig. “Expect to hear some classics from McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. Also, I’d like to share some original songs by myself, and other masters I’ve played with through my career.”

Why did you decide to do a tribute to McCoy Tyner?

McCoy Tyner has been my piano hero since I first discovered his music back when I was starting out as a jazz pianist. His music its very meaning full to me. It means freedom, love, God and infinity.

I always knew I wanted to do a tribute album to pay my respect to [McCoy Tyner’s] music and legacy.

I had the opportunity to play for him a few times. So, when making a tribute album came to be a reality, I felt a wealth of confidence to do it. That album became one of the top 5 albums on the jazz charts nationwide.

You have played with some of the greatest jazz masters – legends and modern ones; what is the most important thing that you have learnt from them?

I have been blessed to work with some great masters and legends of music. I’ve learnt so much and so many different things from each one of them. For example, from Jackie McLean I learnt to be true to my Afro/Latin roots, from Kenny Garrett I learnt to be meaningful with whatever I decide to play, but also mean it and find myself in that process. From Pharoah Sanders I learnt so much freedom and reached a higher level of musical consciousness.

The highlight among all of these experiences has been finding myself inside so much great music that I have learnt from these masters. Also understanding that music can be a really powerful healing tool.

How has your family background influenced you as an artist?

I grew up in a musical family, on both my mother and father sides. On my mother’s sides we had Venezuelan folk music and from my father’s side we have African drumming and Afro-Venezuelan music. I grew up around this music every day of my life.

My cultural heritage is very important to me. Like African American music or Afro-Latin music, we are the messengers of that tradition and we understand that is a powerful tool to change the world in a positive way.

Music is definitely the best tool that we have to bring peace and form bridges among cultures and nations, joining us together as one whole family.

How did you get into jazz?

I listened to jazz for the first time when I was like 12 years old in Venezuela and loved the freedom of it immediately. Since I was growing up surrounded by music, I knew I wanted to learn how to play and improvise. I love that about music, and its strong cultural ties.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

The song that describes my state of mind the best has to be ‘Fly with the wind’ by McCoy Tyner.

Benito Gonzalez presents his tribute to McCoy Tyner at Bird’s Basement, in Melbourne, until Sunday 26 January