Benito Gonzalez Explores Freedom

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Benito Gonzalez

(Photo: Eugene Petrushansky)

With a myriad of perspectives to draw on as a Venezuelan-born, New York-based jazz pianist, Benito Gonzalez considers the idea of freedom, one of jazz music’s most cherished values, on his fifth recording of originals, Sing To The World.

Gonzalez’s relationship with freedom is multifaceted and surprising, and those qualities shine through. Shaped by his own personal journey toward greater self-expression, and his musings on a world that, in his eyes, is increasingly jeopardizing people’s rights, Sing To The World addresses the concept of freedom with a ferociously melodic and often rhythmically explosive approach.

Gonzalez was born in Maracaibo, Venezuela, to parents immersed in traditional Venezuelan folk music. It was through them and his musically saturated Venezuelan culture that his own interest in music was piqued.

“We had musicians on my father’s and my mother’s side,” Gonzalez said. “And from my mother’s side, they used to play Venezuelan music like this rhythm called gaita. So, my father’s side was mostly African, the African music was drum. It’s Venezuelan, but it’s really African music, so I learned as a kid how to play this drum, and I play gaita with my aunt and uncles, so that’s what I knew since I was 3 years old.”

Traces of gaita, and other Afro-Venezuelan rhythms like chimbangle, can be heard throughout Gonzalez’s discography, including on Sing To The World — and they have a unique tie to Gonzalez’s theme of freedom, as they many of these rhythmic traditions originate from West Africa and were disseminated through the Caribbean and Venezuelan slave trades — not unlike how many of the underpinnings of jazz were spread throughout the United States.

But, it wasn’t until he was 10 years old that Gonzalez was first given a cassette tape of American jazz. He noticed just how related it was to the Afro-Venezuelan music he was raised on, and was grabbed by how it was also infused European musical ideas.

“A friend of mine gave me a tape and it was ‘Afro Blue’ played by McCoy Tyner on solo piano. I never heard anyone playing piano like that,” Gonzalez said. “I kind of understood a little bit of the similarities because jazz also [has] African [roots].”

From his first listen to Tyner, who continues to be a major influence and whose tunes “Fly With The Wind” and “Song Of The New World” he tributes on Sing To The World’s title track, Gonzalez was hellbent on being a jazz piano player. Still, he struggled with feeling free enough to pursue that route because of how he was raised.

“I’m 10 years apart from my siblings. I was raised very different than they were. They were studying so much and working so hard. That’s why probably why I’m in New York and they are still in Venezuela,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t like to be comfortable and stay in the same place so much. That’s why I moved from my house when I was 15 years old, because I just didn’t feel comfortable. [My parents] wanted me to be a lawyer, and I wanted to play piano.”

In 1999, Gonzalez had the opportunity to come to the United States and eventually moved here permanently to pursue his music, an expression of personal freedom that he acknowledges would be more difficult to pull off in Venezuela. In fact, Venezuela and other countries like Russia — where Gonzalez’s record label Rainy Day Records is based, and where he sees freedom being considerably constrained — served as further inspiration for this concept album.

“I’m noticing that people are looking for freedom everywhere,” Gonzalez said. DB



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