After spending several years performing for audiences in Broadway shows and on the road, Julie Benko had to make some major adjustments when she stepped into a studio to record her debut album.
“It is so different to be working with a microphone and no live audience. I’m used to being on stage and part of an experience with an audience. But I tried to imagine the people I was singing for,” the Fairfield native says of “Introducing Julie Benko,” in which she puts a jazz twist on such classic show tunes as “Matchmaker Matchmaker” and some of her own songs.
The resulting 11 tracks display Benko’s gifts as an actor and singer, as she breathes new life into old tunes such as “I Love Paris” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.” Benko will be celebrating the release of the CD with a concert at the Fairfield Theatre Company on Jan. 27.
Since she left New York University seven years ago, the performer has been living out her dream of performing in shows that knocked her out as a child, such as “Les Miserables,” which she did on tour. Benko was featured in the most recent Broadway revival of another favorite classic, “Fiddler on the Roof.”
But during those years, the actor-singer harbored a hope that she could put together a jazz recording and perform in clubs and cabarets as herself, rather than a theatrical character.
“I’ve been thinking about this a really long time,” Benko says of the months she spent considering and rejecting songs for her album. There was a lot of experimentation involved in seeing if a show tune could be given a different twist. She is especially happy that “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” worked as a swinging jazz song, after the year she spent in the Bartlett Sher-directed Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The performer was greatly aided by her boyfriend, Jason Yeager, who served as arranger, co-producer and pianist on the album, which features 10 other top New York musicians.
“Since we started dating, Jason has worked on three albums, so I’ve seen how much goes into something like this. He was a major help,” Benko says of her partner.
Benko and the musicians worked in the jazz recording tradition of everyone performing live in the studio together. “That’s the jazz way,” she says. “It’s all meant to be done live because the musicians keep getting new ideas from each other as they play.”
In the high-pressure world of studio recording, where time is literally money, Banko benefited from the eight-shows-a-week theater chops she has developed over the past seven years, laying down many tracks in marathon recording sessions while she was still in “Fiddler.”
The performer’s theater experiences also fueled a love for songwriting. Benko’s tunes blend seamlessly with the vintage material on the album. “I try to write in the tradition of the great American songbook. You aim for something simple and singable, but I hope my songs are complex in their simplicity,” she says.
Benko is fascinated by the way jazz artists have been able to take very old standards, such as “My Funny Valentine” and “Surrey with a Fringe on Top,” and work so many changes into the tunes decade after decade.
Like many other singers, Benko has been inspired by the jazz stylings of Ella Fitzgerald, but she is also a fan of such contemporary vocalists as Jane Monheit (citing the latter’s rendition of “Over the Rainbow” as the equivalent of “pitching a no-hitter”).
Kate McGarry is another favorite. “I went with Jason to hear her sing at Jazz at Lincoln Center and just started to weep,” she says. “She somehow manages to mix jazz and folk together.”
Benko believes jazz singing and cabaret work add to her acting chops and future casting possibilities because she finds drama in every song.
“You have to look at every song as a play and figure out who the characters are,” she says.