Benje Daneman: Improvising on the Bible

The Good Book meets "The Real Book" on the trumpeter's debut album

Benje Daneman

Benje Daneman is slightly uncomfortable with the idea that you might hear his new album, a 10-part suite based on Biblical scripture, as explicitly religious. “I don’t want to become that Christian jazz guy, because that’s not what it’s all about,” the trumpeter says in a recent phone interview from Michigan, where he lives with his family.

Not that jazz and religion can’t be intertwined. Alice and John Coltrane, of course, were “blatantly spiritual,” notes Daneman, who counts Be Still, an album of hymns released in 2012 by trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas, as one of his favorite recordings. But Daneman, who is 34 and describes himself as an “on-again, off-again Christian,” hopes you won’t think his record is an act of evangelism.

His concern is unwarranted. Light in the Darkness, commissioned in 2015 by the nonprofit organization Spark+Echo Arts, is best described as a jazz album that happens to have a devotional subtext. It’s inspired by several well-known Bible passages—“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” for instance, from the Gospel of John—but it isn’t preachy or didactic.

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“I feel like there’s a lot of truth in the Bible,” Daneman explains. “The book is meant to be a spiritual guide, in my eye, of positivity and growth, but it’s often used so negatively.”

With that in mind, Daneman set out to wring complexity from the good book, focusing on liturgical texts that deal with light, a source of fascination for him. The album is made up of six movements, with four improvised interludes whose titles—“Eventide,” “Dusk,” “Twilight” and “Darkness”—allude to the phases of a setting sun.

If that sounds gloomy, it’s because Daneman believes that light and darkness are inextricably linked, and so the record’s last movement, “You Are the Light,” is, in many ways, a metaphor for salvation, a suggestion to the listener that it is in our darkest hours that we may see most clearly. “I feel like I’ve hit bottom before,” Daneman says. “Sometimes you have to hit bottom to go back, to recover.”

Religion and music have always been a part of Daneman’s life, but more recently, he says, he’s grappled with what that really means—and how he can incorporate the two artistically.

Raised in Grand Rapids, Mich., Daneman got his undergraduate degree, a double major in jazz studies and music education, at Western Michigan University. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to teach or play professionally, but in 2007, he studied in a program at the Henry Mancini Institute in Los Angeles—since relocated to Miami—where he networked well enough to get a spot touring, at 23, in Doc Severinsen’s big band. After that, he got his master’s in jazz at the Manhattan School of Music, where he met his wife, the jazz singer Ashley Daneman, an Ohio native who appears on Light in the Darkness.

Daneman and his wife, who now have three children together, have bounced back and forth between New York and Michigan over the past few years. Being Midwesterners at heart, they’ve chosen to settle in Kalamazoo for the indefinite future, close to a support system of friends and family. Daneman began working on his new album when he was living in New York and playing with local artists, but the final product features a roster of excellent Chicago jazz musicians, with whom he feels a close connection. “I don’t know if it’s a Midwest-type feel, but there’s a lot of friendliness involved,” he explains. “People are just open to the music.”

Collectively, Daneman refers to his group—alto saxophonist Greg Ward, pianist Rob Clearfield, bassist Andrew Vogt, and drummer Jon Deitemyer—as Search Party. On Light in the Darkness, the band puts forth a loose, windy form of jazz with many moods: inquiring, contemplative, earnest, thrashing, portentous. Daneman plays trumpet and flugelhorn, and his tone shines through: bright, with a dry, rounded edge.

Daneman currently serves as the education manager for the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Previously, he worked as a faculty teaching artist for New York Pops and the Afro-Latin Jazz Alliance. In 2012, he released an EP, Estelle’s Farewell Gift, recorded live in Kalamazoo. Light in the Darkness is his first major release.

Though some may dismiss the album out of hand for its connection with the Bible, Daneman hopes that more open-minded listeners will take the work at face value. It’s an attempt, he says, by one man to grapple with his beliefs and his identity through music and liturgy.

“He’s someone whose faith means a lot to him,” says the bassist Ike Sturm, who played with Daneman in New York on an early version of Light in the Darkness and serves as the director of music for the jazz ministry at Saint Peter’s Church in Manhattan“And so this music is the most personal and loving statement he can make.”