I heard about H. Jon Benjamin’s new endeavor, a jazz music album, through social media. It’s not surprising that a voice actor would dabble in music; many voice actors come from music backgrounds or eventually dabble in singing. Both are artistic trades, not to mention that some of the principles (around breath support, muscle usage, and lots of other technical details) tend to have some overlap and can be applied to both professions.
However, that’s actually not what this is at all. H. Jon Benjamin has released a jazz piano album…although he doesn’t play the piano and is not really into jazz. The album, released under the artist name Jon Benjamin- Jazz Daredevil is titled “Well, I Should Have…Learned How To Play Piano”.
Some additional words about the album from the man himself:
We all start from the same place and build from there, gathering references, structures, techniques, modes, nuances, etc. and, as artists, we strive to build some- thing purposeful. Well, I Should Have…* is the culmination of hours (almost 3) of conception with the goal to bring something, in the tradition of the great vanguard jazz artists like Miles Davis, Roach, Mingus, Monk, et al, close to pure spontaneity. Jazz is the ocean…I am just one wave forming one curl, crashing once onto some remote beach somewhere in time. And that wave makes a small imperceptible change in the slope of the sand, upon which at some point in time a baby turtle will walk across, leaving his trail for just an instant, before the tide washes it clean. That’s a pretty cool analogy. More to the point, I do not play piano and I made this jazz album. Some tell me, “Hey, Jon, tone it down.” Some even say, “Really, Jon?” A few have said, “Get the fuck away from me or I’ll fucking punch you in the face.” I know the risks in making this album. I know what it is like to do something that no one else would think to do. Most would call this reckless. I call it jazz. What you are about to experience is an aural auto da fe. I am the jazz daredevil.
– Jon, New York City, July 2015
I was initially baffled by the concept of his album. It’s hard enough for good instrumental musicians to sell albums, but you’d have to buy this album either because you like H. Jon Benjamin or you see something in his idea: that it might be humorous to create a body of work about something which you know and care little about. You can’t even call the idea a parody; it’s literally just…poorly performed music. However, I watched the above video several times and was crying laughing through it, so I have to say that it has some merit, at least to me.
I decided to buy the album and review it.
The album cover features Mr. Benjamin posed at a piano wearing a strange American flag jogger suit thing and a matching helmet. I can only suppose this is to protect him from the people threatening to punch him over his album.
The track listing is as follows:
- Deal With The Devil (feat. Aziz Ansari and Kristen Schaal)
- I Can’t Play Piano, Pt. 1
- I Can’t Play Piano, Pt. 2
- It Had To Be You
- Soft Jazzercise
- I Can’t Play Piano, Pt. 3
- I Can’t Play Piano, Pt. 4 (Trill Baby Trill)
- Amy’s Song (The Bum Steer)
In addition to being generally curious about how it would turn out, my burning question was: Would the album continue to hold my interest after the novelty wore off?
The Album Review
The first track is more of a humorous introduction to the album and not a musical track at all. The second track is really where we get into Mr. Benjamin…erm…playing the piano (poorly.) I cracked a smile several times through the track.
I think one thing that helped me get through the album is that the rest of his jazz ensemble is totally top-notch. The drummer, tenor sax, and bassist are all extraordinarily competent and have many solos where they are featured, which is definitely a nice reprieve from the piano-playing.
I wondered coming into this exactly how much or little piano experience H. Jon Benjamin had. My assessment is that we are not far out of Hot Cross Buns/6th grade band territory. I do not play the piano, and Mr. Benjamin’s music sounds a lot like what I’d probably end up with if someone sat me at a piano and asked me to play with the band. There’s a clear understanding expressed of rhythm (not obediently followed), no concept of dynamics or any real style, and the playing is…just all around rudimentary at best. If not for the stellar supporting cast, the album would not be worthwhile in any way.
I Can’t Play Piano Parts 1 and 2 were fun to listen to. I don’t think they’re going on my iTunes playlist anytime soon but I didn’t hate them. I did not enjoy It Had To Be You. The novelty really wore off on this song and I spent most of the song fighting the urge to skip to the next track.
Soft Jazzercise (a track title I think a jazz professional would probably die of embarrassment over) was actually another interlude. It consisted of Jon Benjamin narrating stretching exercises with colorful embellishments over simple piano chords. It was fun since I like Jon Benjamin and enjoy his sense of humor.
After Jazzercising away, we arrive at I Can’t Play Piano Parts 3 and 4. Part 3 in parts sounded like Jon Benjamin was playing bits of Chopsticks in the songs, which mostly turned into duels between the piano and saxophone solos. There was one point during a piano solo (four bars or so) where he just played the same note over and over again which left me in stitches, and then the band all started yelling at each other. (Or maybe it was just Jon Benjamin yelling at everyone else.) “Come on, man!” “You can do better!”
Part 4 had some lovely saxophone solos that were not totally marred by the piano. The piano solos were another story. There were not many humorous piano parts in this song and the whole thing basically showcased poor rudimentary piano skills. The drum part sounded pretty impressive to me and the bassist was really killing it with his solos. The song has “Trill Baby Trill” in the title but to be honest I couldn’t figure out where the trills were. Did I miss them? It seemed like other songs had more.
Amy’s Song (The Bum Steer) was the last song on the album. It’s actually one minute and thirty seconds of H. Jon rapping. About anal. I kind of left this song wondering what exactly I’d just listened to.
Overall, I don’t think this album was worth the $10 purchase, although I might put a couple of the songs on my playlist when I want something funny. If you’re an H. Jon Benjamin fan, though, I think this album is a must. There’s a lot of his personality injected into it.
Finally, as a musician I feel like I can’t just leave you with something I’m not sure I would really recommend, so I’d like to strongly recommend the music from another voice-actor-turned-musician: Seth MacFarlane. Despite any preconceptions you may have about Mr. MacFarlane from his various exploits, he is a stellar, top-notch, class A musician. He has multiple albums available on Amazon, and I’ll leave you with one of my favorite tracks below.