February 24, 2024

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Interview with Ben Rosenblum: Jazz is a way of approaching music through improvisation: Video

Jazz interview with jazz accordionist and pianist Ben Rosenblum. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Ben Rosenblum: – I grew up in New York City, surrounded by music from all over the world and in all genres from a young age.  I first started classical piano at age 5, but at a certain point my mom, who is a lifelong jazz fan, introduced me to jazz, and it really resonated with me.  I always loved sitting down at the piano and improvising before I knew what improvisation was, so jazz was a way for me to hone that.

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

BR: – As musicians, I think we’re always evolving and trying to learn more, or else the music doesn’t sound fresh and exciting.  But I also listen to the advice that one of my teachers, Ben Waltzer, gave me, which is that our personal voices are often set very young, and practicing is a way to hone this and edit out the unnecessary information.  I’ve always been interested in melodic development, musical story-telling and raw emotion, and I try to channel that.

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

BR: – Since I love melodies, I’m always learning new tunes as a way of getting new melodic perspectives.  I’ve been continuing to learn new standards, but I also have been trying to develop my repertoire in various world music traditions: Brazilian choro and forró, klezmer music, Irish reels and jigs, Bulgarian folk music, etc.  With regards to rhythm, the world music traditions have particularly helped my odd meter sensibilities.

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

BR: – We’re all a product of our diverse influences.  My teacher at Juilliard, Frank Kimbrough, said that we put our unique set of influences in a blender with our personal spark, and at the end it becomes our style and our voice.  So I never try to prevent other musics from influencing me, provided that I have a genuine love and interest in them

JBN: – How do you prepare before your performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

BR: – I think the most important thing before a performance is just to reconnect with the music mentally.  Often during a performance, there are a lot of other non-musical things that are taking up your mental energy, and it’s important to just get in a mental space where the music is re-centralized.

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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?

BR: – I am absolutely shaped by my time on the road, especially given that the rhythm section from the album (Marty Jaffe on bass and Ben Zweig on drums) are my two main collaborators on the road over the past three years.  I’ve grown immensely as a bandleader, not only musically but also in my ability to shape a set and imagine a musical concept, and Jaffe and Zweig have always been there to challenge me and help me grow.  I chose the musicians on this album both for their individuality, their deep listening and their personal commitment to my project.

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

BR: – I think the intellectual part often happens off-stage – the preparation of the compositions, the choosing of repertoire and collaborators, the discussion of where the music could have gone and how to keep it interesting.  When you’re in a performance, all of the music has to be in the moment and there’s no time to think about what should or shouldn’t happen.

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

BR: – I think the audience is just as much part of the performance as the performers, and so their presence shapes the way we play the music whether we want to or not.  So given this, I’m happy to play repertoire that is going to draw them in and allow us to feed off of their energy.  I won’t play anything I don’t feel strongly about, but there is plenty of overlap for me personally.

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

BR: – I have so many memories from the road – memories that have kept me feeling positive in spite of everything that is going on with COVID right now.  It would be a very long discussion to get into all of the special moments, but I’ll say that I feel deeply moved by how well people have treated us all over the country and all over the world, and how much they care about keeping music alive and thriving in their communities, no matter how big or small.  Their energy inspires me.

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

BR: – I never consider jazz as inextricably tied to certain repertoire. For me, jazz is a way of approaching music through improvisation rather than a particular set of tunes. So while I love standards and do play some on my albums and in my sets, I also play movie soundtracks, video game music, music from various world music traditions, classical music – whatever is going to engage the audience and make them realize exactly what it means to be improvising.  I think young people are absolutely willing to be engaged by jazz, but they just need an avenue in.

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

BR: – This is a very deep question that could be a whole essay.  What I’ll say is that music is very spiritual for me, and all deeply connected to my personality, my mood and my engagement with the world.  When I feel like I’m expressing myself well with my music, it is the happiest thing in the world for me, and when I feel inhibited in some way, it can be very upsetting.  As musicians we put ourselves into the music in a very vulnerable way.

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

BR: – I’ve had so many beautiful experiences in the music world and I owe it a lot in terms of personal development.  So I’ll just put forward a simple answer to this question, which is that I wish there was a little more support for the arts in the United States, especially for small venues that are real cornerstones of their communities.

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

BR: – Recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of Brazilian music – artists like Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal, João Bosco, Chico Buarque, Beto Guedes, Milton Banana, Dominguinhos, Sivuca – the list goes on.  There’s such a wealth of information in this music, and especially as an accordionist, the tradition is so rich.

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

BR: – The message is a simple one of inclusion and collaboration.  I’ve always been deeply moved by music around the world, and I’ve always felt that any music can be appreciated by any community.  So I try to bring in as many influences as I can, and share the music with the widest range of people.

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

BR: – My first thought is Edo period Japan, a famously golden age of peace and art-making.  Some of Japan’s most famous artistic and culinary disciplines – ukiyo-e, kabuki, haiku, sushi, tempura – either originated or began to thrive in this period.  I grew up in a household with a lot of Japanese art and many close Japanese family friends, so I have a deep love of the culture.

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

BR: – These have all been great questions!  I don’t have too much to add, except that I always appreciate the opportunity to think deeply about the music I make and its connection to the world.

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

BR: – I think it’s all just a matter of continuing to develop and put the music first.  Many of my mentors have always said, if you take care of the music, the music will take care of you.  I’m trying to get a little better every day at taking care of the music.

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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