May 23, 2024

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Interview with Ben Zucker: Ways of processing and relating yourself in the world: Video

Jazz interview with jazz vibraphonist Ben Zucker. An interview by email in writing. – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Ben Zucker: – I really began taking music seriously in a top-notch middle school jazz and band program in Lafayette, California. I’ve always liked building things, like games and buildings. A few eye-opening, deeply felt musical encounters in my music classes pushed me towards wanting to build music as structures for feeling (to name just two, in that program we played Thad Jones charts and even attempted John Adams’ “Short Ride In A Fast Machine”).

JBN: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

BZ: – My sound has grown as I’ve grown as a person. I’ve continued to play several instruments in various situations: not just vibes, but trumpet, trombone, keys, even some singing, and working with all of these instruments, as well as with various genres, has required me to be very intentional with what I want that ‘sound’ to be. And as I’ve gotten more patient and secure over the years, I feel better about building that intentional search into the sound itself, to foreground that exploration in the music itself.

JBN: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

BZ: – I’m the first to admit that my practice routines aren’t the most steady! But I’ve tried to make practice about visualizing a certain kind of sound or spectrum of possible sounds, and making sure I can reach every point on it. As an improviser, my main focus is on spontaneously establishing structures of growth, stability, and change, and regarding something like rhythm, that means something like making sure I can make some kind of ‘groove’ or pulse, and transform it or play around it while implicitly keeping it perceptible.

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

BZ: – Disparate influences are key to a good practice! We take in so much from the world on a regularly basis, so there’s no use in rejecting anything, but finding where it fits. Sometimes that takes a while, but everything finds a way into you somehow.

JBN: – Ism is culled from a variety of lives dates with various performers over the course of a few years. Did your sound evolve during that time? And how did you select the musicians who play on the album?

BZ: – The Fifth Season band consists of some of my most trusted collaborators and friends that I’ve made since moving to Chicago. Each of them has a thoughtful and wide-ranging musical career, and they were the folks I knew who would be receptive to the unconventional material. In each of our performances, as well as the recording session, the sound was never quite the same, and now, I’d like to think we’ve carried the discipline and freedom from the recording ever forward.

JBN: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

BZ: – I’d say they’re the same–ways of processing and relating yourself in the world. They might not feel like they function similarly, but any music is inevitably given its outward shape and inner motivation by the sum of your being.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

BZ: – If they don’t want it, I guess we’ll find out the hard way! But people don’t always know what they want–I don’t mean that condescendingly, but that something new and unexpected can bring out new dimensions of your tastes and desires which keeps them active. What people want changes, or needs fresh perspectives and a rejuvenating push. Otherwise, why would we make new music at all?

JBN: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

BZ: – Of my own? In one memorable late-night cross-disciplinary jam at an arts residency a few years back, I ended up “playing” a Casio keyboard by ballroom dancing with it. As part of a performance of (John Zorn’s) Cobra in Montreal, I took a spastic spoken-word solo that may have involved sea shanties and a hardware store receipt. The 2017 Garden Of Memory in Oakland, CA was the longest show I ever played, a four-hour solo improvisation in a beautiful mortuary chapel moving between trumpet and vibes. Many of my favorite Chicago gigs took place in the tiny Slate Arts gallery, which I have to make space for to memorialize here. There’s a lot that could go in a space like this, some good, some bad, some I still don’t have words for…

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

BZ: – Young people have all kinds of interest in all kinds of jazz! From the technical skills of improvisation to the nuances of feel, I see jazz in all kinds of music being made and heard now. Sure, it might not be the standards, but it was never about the standards–those were just the vessels for the spirit of the times and people. Now those vessels look different, and that’s great. How can we get young people interested in making the music that brings all their soul and intellect and drive for the future to the table? That’s the important question. It may not look like this album, or a Coltrane album, but that’s more than okay.

JBN: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

BZ: – I don’t! But that’s the great thing about it. Everyone from Hegel to Octavia Butler has said the spirit and life is changing, and music has changes (chord or otherwise), so if I can keep up with the changes, inside or outside of them, then I guess I’ll be okay, and can’t ask for much more than that.

JBN: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

BZ: – We need our musicians, and the people around them, to have bodily and financial and spiritual stability–change the “real world”, and the “musical world” will change for the better. In the ballot box, in the street, in your mind–fight for initiatives for equitable health care, for climate justice, for the end of racist policing and all power that can be abused, for the sharing of power and production amongst workers, for the formation of real communities facilitated by mutual exchange of resources and emotions instead of colonized and capitalized creativities. Whatever music comes out of that world, I want to hear it.

JBN: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

BZ: – I guess I’m trying to listen to kindred spirits in sounds, ideas, and place. As I wrote these answers, I listened to albums by Sarah Hennies and Mal Waldron, but there could have been so many others. And I absolutely have to shout out to my peers: the other releases on Amalgam, and recent records made by the rest of the band: Mabel with Restroy, Eli with Devouring The Guilt, and Adam in a duo with Jason Stein.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

BZ: – Something about the vital experience of flow and change, as meditated on in real time? I might send out the message, but whoever’s on the other end is going to have to complete it for themselves.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

BZ: – 5,000 years ahead? 10,000? That’s such an unthinkable scale of future, only way to believe it is to see it.

JBN: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

BZ: – So, Simon–what do you think you’ve brought from writing about jazz to the rest of your world? Cornel West said we have to be “jazz men and women” in our thinking to adjust to injustice, what’s that mean for you? Also, have you hydrated enough today?

JBN: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?

BZ: – Just trying to keep and aware and as open as possible to the world, I guess, while staying safe and considerate. Music’s been a great avenue for making that happen, and I hope it keeps being so.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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