I was in a good place when I learned of Jay Bennett's demise. Thick, fleshy clouds gave way to a few strong shafts of sunlight on Memorial Day. It was morning; nine or ten and and my retinas struggled to adjust after 8 solid hours of sleep. Good sleep, brought on by a night of nine-ball, raucous singalongs and free flowing beer. The calm was welcome, and I sunk into a cushioned lawn chair on the screened patio and swirled my coffee. Sarah had been showering, and I heard the lightswitch flick before she stepped out to the patio with me, and broke the news she'd read online while I slept.
It can't be emphasized enough what a loss this is to the music community. Jay's contributions to Wilco were trackable, and invaluable. He fathered the lush indie pop sensibilities that disappeared after Yankee Hotel Foxtrot in favor of a less ironic, statlier sound. Without the Bennett-era albums, Wilco would not be selling out auditoriums or playing mainstages. Not to mention that those albums will sculpt a new wave of bands who were influenced by Wilco. Would the Fleet Foxes have opened for Wilco if it wasn't for Summerteeth, arguably Bennett's pièce de résistance? Who knows.
Obviously a techie, he also seemed to have a keen sense of melody and the gift of sonice foresight, hearing the completed song from the onset. Jay was the perfect musical foil for Jeff Tweedy. Jay could take Jeff's ideas and fashion them into these movements, these grand expressions that Jeff likely wouldn't have arrived at on his own. I get the feeling that theirs was a similar dynamic as Wayne Coyne and Steve Drozd. The creator and the refiner.
I'd only followed Jay loosely as a solo artist, acquiring The Magnificent Defeat some few years ago and being largely underwhelmed. But he'd always been in the outer rings of my radar, and I would never have dreamt of writing him off as an artist. His stretch with Wilco yielded three of my all-time favorite albums, which were very much the soundtrack to my college years. I've gone on record (although perhaps not here) as saying that he was one of my favorite pure musicians. It's such a tragedy that he had to exist in relative obscurity while the band whose sound he defined saw its mythical status continue to crystallize.
Music blog www.glono.com was a huge fan of Jay's and has some fascinating material on him, including a blow-by-blow account of his contributions to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.