Ahead of his upcoming show and Album Launch New York based jazz pianist and composer Ben Winkelman shares insight on his musical journey.
Enjoying music from such a young age did you always feel the calling to be a musician?
I always liked music, but I didn’t always know I was going to make it my occupation. I made the decision when I was 15, on the basis that it was what I thought I enjoyed the most. I didn’t play very well then, so I don’t know why I thought I’d be able to do it full time. There’s no explaining the blind willfulness of teenagers, but now I’m glad that I didn’t know any better.
I see your first ever gig was performing in an animal rights punk band at just 14 years old! Can you tell us a little bit about that first show, do you remember what it felt like to be on stage that first time?
It was a number of decades ago, but I remember our youthful idealism bordering on arrogance, and that it felt good doing something together that we believed in passionately. We rehearsed together a lot, and I think co-wrote some of the songs; the feeling of collective effort was special. The experience gave me a lasting fondness for the idea of a regular band, something that’s not always part of jazz culture. My animal rights activism didn’t last, I’m looking forward to enjoying some meat pies on my upcoming visit to Australia.
You mention John Coltrane and Oscar Peterson sparked your jazz interest, what is it about them that excites you?
My father had a pretty eclectic record collection; those were the only jazz albums he happened to own. There’s a lot of joy and passion in their playing, I think I was drawn to that. I probably wasn’t conscious of it back then, but now I notice how strong their time feel is – it makes everything they play feel really good.
This is your fifth album release you must be excited! Can you tell us a bit about the name you have chosen ‘Balance’ and what it means to you?
I think a lot about balancing opposing elements in my pieces: planning/spontaneity, complexity/simplicity, density/openness, intellect/emotion. Music has a lot of scope for self-expression (emotions) and experimentation with ideas (intellect). This might be especially true of creative jazz. I think the dilemma over how much weight to give these potentially competing tendencies is an interesting aspect of writing and playing music. For me the ideal is both: music involving sophisticated ideas and a high level of craft that moves me.
Also, jazz compositions double as vehicles for improvisation. Putting a lot of detail into a composition can be a way of stamping the composer’s personality on it, but if the composition becomes very detailed there can be less room for improvisation. That’s another interesting dilemma to wrestle with. The voice of the composer versus room to move for the improviser.
This was the first time I asked people I didn’t know well, established New York jazz musicians whose playing I admired (Obed Calvaire and Matt Penman), to record with me. In the past, I’ve tried to cultivate a band dynamic by playing a lot with the same people. I thought I’d try something different this time.
New York City is a fantastic place to live for a jazz musician, do you have a favourite venue you like to play at?
So far my favourites have been Smalls and The Jazz Standard.
What about as a customer, is there a jazz club you like to spend a lot of time in?
I go pretty often to hear music at the Village Vanguard, Jazz Standard, Mezzrow, Smalls, the Jazz Gallery and the 55 Bar. They’re all great for different reasons, the programming is a little different in each one. Mezzrow is very intimate, it programs a lot of small groups mainly featuring piano, which is nice.
There’s a lot of great music being played in New York, that’s a nice thing about living here. When I first moved here I went to hear music every night. I go less often now, but I still like to go when I can.
Do you have plans to tour anywhere else in the world? Is there anywhere specific you would love to play?
I played with a friend’s band in Paris last year, and since then I’ve had a fever to do more playing in Europe.
If you couldn’t be a musician, what career would you like to pursue the most?
I like reading literature, and sometimes fantasize about writing novels.
If you were given the opportunity to jam with any musician in the world who would you choose?
I’d have to say Brian Blade, many a jazz musician’s dream drummer.
And finally, if you could pass on a few words of wisdom to Brisbane’s emerging talent, what would they be?
Not sure how wise my words are, still figuring it out myself! But here are a few thoughts. Be prepared to work hard at music, but remember to enjoy the work, and to enjoy the ride. I think the best musicians stay curious and humble enough to keep learning throughout their lives. Well-meaning people may try to talk young musicians out of pursing a career in music because it’s such a difficult occupation, offers little security and doesn’t pay well. All those things may be true, but there’s a lot to be said for doing work that you’re passionate about and that you find meaningful, not everyone has that.