Tom Scott Remembers Bassist Max Bennett

The composer and saxophonist pays tribute to his partner in the L.A. Express (5/24/28 – 9/14/18)

Max at Radio Recorders2

Max Bennett at Hollywood’s Radio Recorders studio in the 1960s (photo: courtesy of Kate Varley)

It’s a given nowadays: When you hire a bass player, they ask, “Do you want upright or electric?” It’s understood that they have to play both. That was not the case when Max Bennett started. There was an abrupt transition to electric bass in popular music during the ’60s, and Bennett was one of the first people to make that transition successfully—in other words, Bennett could play the hell out of the instrument. Bennett and Carol Kaye were the bassists on my first solo recording for Impulse! That’s when I first met Bennett. I found out later that he’d been an upright player with Stan Kenton and Peggy Lee and all these people, but he had become a king of the electric bass in L.A.

After that I would see him at sessions with John Guerin all the time. I called them “the Maxnjohn” because they were joined at the hip in many aspects. They both had matching Jensen sports cars and they both prided themselves on being smartly dressed in all the hip fashions of the day. We kidded them about it, but they didn’t care. They both could back it up with great, great playing—and they were making money!

Then, of course, the next step was what became the L.A. Express. I had a straight-ahead jazz quartet with Joe Sample, Chuck Domanico, and John Guerin playing every Tuesday at the Baked Potato in L.A. One day Chuck backed out, and John immediately said, “Why don’t we get Max?” I said, “I don’t know, do you want to go with electric bass instead of upright?” he said, “Well, try it, I think you’ll like it.” So Max came in, and in fact I did like it.

Max was the key to the start of our funk/jazz sound. He brought in a tune called “T.C.B. in E,” which didn’t get recorded till several years later. It was R&B-based, but we improvised on it in the bebop tradition. It was fun, it was different, and equally important, the audience ate it up. So we kept bringing more of these kinds of tunes into the repertoire. Then somebody suggested we get a guitar player, who ended up being Larry Carlton, and we had what became the core of the first L.A. Express record. There was a real nice creative match that Max and I had. The one inspired the other. Sometimes it was competitive: “Oh, that’s a really good tune, Max. Okay, wait till you hear what I write—I’ll show you!” I still get requests for the tunes he brought to the band, especially “Rock Island Rocket” and “Nunya.”

Joni Mitchell and I had hit it off recording For the Roses. She came and saw us in a club and told me something that I found very striking. She said, “Listen, Tom, I’ve never made a record with a full live band before. It’s always been one person at a time. Would your band be interested in working on my next album?” I didn’t have to think very hard. She sent me some demos, I wrote up rhythm charts, and that turned into Court and Spark. We were supposed to go on a six-week tour with Joni after the album came out, opening up for her and then joining her for the last 25 minutes of the show. Then the album wouldn’t leave the charts, the live demand increased, and before we knew it were in the summer of ’74 playing arenas around the U.S. and Canada, culminating in a show at Wembley Stadium in front of 100,000 people. Max and I were compatriots through all of that and a lot more in the years that followed.

Eventually Max moved to San Diego. He formed his own Maxx Band and had me play on his record [1995’s Great Expectations]. He seemed the same, really taking charge. I also played at his 80th birthday celebration. He was feisty till the day he passed. Kind of a know-it-all. But that was not arrogance based on bullshit. Bennett had a reason to feel good about himself.

Max was a big contributor not only to our band but to that whole genre of music. And he should also be remembered as a guy who, for at least 50 years, was a mainstay of the recording business in Los Angeles. Personally I always admired him, and any time anyone asks me about the L.A. Express, I always say that I owe it all to Max.

[as told to Mac Randall]