The case of Benito Gonzalez raises interesting questions about the distinction between influence and imitation in jazz. Gonzalez (now of Brooklyn, originally of Venezuela) has been called a McCoy Tyner clone. He has admitted that Tyner’s music caused him to become a pianist. On some tunes here, like “Sounds of Freedom” and “Views of the Blues,” when Gonzalez hits full tilt with thunderous left-hand chords and careening right-hand runs, the sound of Tyner is unmistakable.
But Gonzalez not only draws inspiration from Tyner’s passion; he also exerts his own fierce touch on the keyboard, and he injects the color and energy of his own Latin rhythmic ethnicity. He has now made five fresh, exciting albums since 2004.
A major reason for this success is his taste in collaborators. Some of the sidemen on Sing to the World are new to Gonzalez (trumpeters Nicholas Payton and Josh Evans); some are long-term associates (bassist Christian McBride and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts). Payton is an ideal partner for Gonzalez because he’s capable of generating blistering heat, as on “Smile.” Evans appears only once but he kills. He enters “Flatbush Avenue” after Gonzalez has set an impossible velocity and speeds things up, with long lines like streaks of flame. McBride takes quick-on-quick solos and Watts is his relentless self. A Russian drummer, Sasha Mashin, trades tracks with Watts and holds his own. (The Rainy Days label is based in St. Petersburg, Russia.)
But back to Gonzalez: His Tyner-esque wild rides are fun, but proof that he is a special piano player comes on tracks like “Offering,” where he stays within himself. He establishes a baseline of percussive power and then transcends it, allowing the moment to carry him free, into rarefied lyricism tempered like steel.