RIP Benny Soans: A true artist, devotee of jazz and drummer par excellence

Sunil Sampat

Jan,14 2017 09:34:58 IST

It seems ironic to write of Benny Soans in the past tense. He was a vital, active person with a quiet sense of humour. Sadly, Benny, born Benoni Asher Soans, jazz drummer par excellence, passed away quite suddenly on 6 January at age 70.

In the fairly rarefied space that jazz occupies on the Indian music scene, Soans has been a rarity himself, a one off. Much like jazz guitarist Carlton Kitto of Kolkata, Benny Soans was immersed in the music of Bebop in jazz. Both these stalwarts left us within a month of each other.

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File image of Benny Soans. Twitter @bandra_buzz

In the past decade or so, Benny Soans achieved a fair amount of international recognition as the fine musician he was. In 2013, during the festival "Jus' Jazz" held in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, and which featured such American jazz greats as Renee Rosnes, Houston Person, Regina Carter, Helen Sung, Lewis Nash and others, Benny Soans led a band which featured Japanese jazz stars Hideaki and Junichi. Ever modest and self-effacing, Soans asked to be introduced to the world renowned drummer Lewis Nash, who was actually a fellow musician of Benny's on the programme!

In the summer of 2015, American saxophonist Greg Banaszak visited Mumbai and played a concert at the NCPA. During an "after hours" nightclub visit, Banaszak encountered a jazz band playing there. Benny Soans was the drummer with the local band and Banaszak, in a typical impromptu move, played a few numbers with this band. During the customary break taken by the band, Greg Banaszak requested Benny to play a saxophone-drums duet. They played Charlie Parker's insanely hectic paced composition, Donna Lee. One was fortunate to have witnessed this event. They played at breakneck tempo for almost fifteen minutes! Sweat pouring from both, Banaszak and Soans realised that they had created a sensational jazz performance as they embraced each other.

When Greg Banaszak returned in 2016 with his American band, he insisted that Benny Soans played the drums with the band, which included Theron Brown, a pianist who played the part of Herbie Hancock in the recent Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead and Christopher Anderson, who plays regularly in Aretha Franklin's band.

When contacted about Benny's demise, Banaszak said, "'he was one of the finest jazz drummers around. I had hoped to include Benny in my band for a European tour next summer". Alas, the fates decreed otherwise.

Benny has been a part of Mumbai's jazz scene since the 1960s. He was the drummer in Johnny Baptist's big band which had a full section of saxophones, trumpets and trombones and at any time one or two vocalists. It was a vibrant, exciting time for "Bombay" jazz and Soans was part of it as were others like Tony Pinto, 'Baby' Menezes, Winston D'Silva and trumpeter Pete D'Mello.

This phase of jazz waned in the 70s and work was hard to come by. The purist in Soans adjusted to the economic realities and played in several others genres of music. He played the drums and toured with classical Hindustani musicians Shubha Mudgal and Aneesh Pradhan, created and led a versatile band playing Beatles' music in two moods, one in the style of the Beatles and also in jazz style!

Soans' first love was always the challenge of bebop and in the late 80s and 90s he teamed up with Noel and Ramona Borthwick to play serious bop. They also made a few successful albums together. This phase too came to an end when the Borthwicks emigrated from India.

Benny Soans was also Louis Banks' drummer for a number of years. He has played with almost all local and several visiting international musicians. He was also a part of Ash Chandler's Redux jazz band, for whom he played his last ever gig in December 2016.

Jazz music is used extensively as 'entertainment', as background music or simply to create an atmosphere. At it's best, Jazz is a pure art form. It transcends the mundane, utilitarian and 'popular' types of music. Benny Soans was always striving for and lived for the "art" in jazz. He was not just a timekeeper behind the drums. He was a true artist and devotee of jazz. His will be a void which will be hard to fill.

Published Date: Jan 14, 2017 09:34 AM | Updated Date: Jan 14, 2017 09:34 AM