Q&A with Ben Winkleman – 2006 NJA finalist

Welcome to Jazz Australia’s second series of interviews with finalists in the National Jazz Awards, which will be announced at the 2006 TAC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz. This year the National Jazz Awards feature piano, for the first time since 1999. At the finals, to be held in Wangaratta in the first weekend of November, the finalists will play with bassist Brendan Clarke (winner of the National Jazz Awards in 2001) and drummer James Hauptmann.

Ben Winkleman is from Melbourne

When did you start playing piano and why? For example, was there a ‘moment’ when it came to you as a calling or vocation?

My Dad taught me my first piano piece at age 10, the first Prelude from the Well-Tempered Clavier, he loves Bach and so do I. After that I struggled through piano lessons making very indifferent progress until I started getting interested in jazz at age 15 or so. I still regret not working harder on classical music when I was younger, but I was more into playing drums at the time and spreading the gospel of anarchist insurrection through punk music. I’m not sure how the piano took over as my main instrument. I always liked composing and did a lot of it at the piano, so really that’s where I started to find my musical voice.

My parents thought I would be an academic like them, but I wanted to either play jazz or bring down the new world order. I decided that playing jazz would be easier but now I’m not so sure.

Which musicians (jazz or otherwise) have been your greatest influences? What about them stood or stands out for you?
Bud Powell and Herbie Hancock. For me, Herbie is still the most brilliant improvisor on the piano. He plays stuff that other people play, but he has this special way of putting it together, I can only think of calling it the element of surprise. There’s so much style and sexiness about everything he plays. I love lots of other pianists too, of course, but Herbie’s the star. I admire Duke Ellington a lot as a pianist, and Monk and Keith and some of the pianists who are famous now like Mehldau, Danilo Perez and Geri Allen.

On gigs I’ve played more salsa than jazz, and I developed my soloing style in that context by hearing pianists like Eddie Palmieri and Pappo Luca among others.

I’ve been lucky to have some really good teachers too, I studied with Mickey Tucker and Paul Grabowsky in my late teens, they were very influential. In the last few years I’ve studied Chopin, Ravel and Mendelssohn pieces with a classical teacher, Linda Kouvaras. It’s fantastic music, I can’t believe I missed out for so long. And I guess I’m making up now for my laziness as a kid.

When composing or arranging, where do you get your inspiration? For example, do you ever find that other art forms (painting, writing etc.) feed into your own creative process?
Ideas for compositions tend to come to me while I’m noodling around at the piano. The hardest part is coming up with four bars that I like. After that it’s just a matter of time before it turns into something. I read a lot, and I?find that I’m often “in the zone” if I’ve recently been reading something stimulating, which is why the titles of some of my tunes are taken from phrases in novels. It’s not that I try to write pieces about the books I’ve been reading, more that they put me in a certain mood which I try to evoke through the piece. I get especially inspired by writers that explore philosophical themes, like Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse. I love Marquez too.

What does the TAC Wangaratta Festival of Jazz represent for you?

Something I should have started going to a long time ago. Somehow I’ve never been before, I always forget to keep that weekend free and then it gets booked up with gigs. I’m looking forward to finally getting there. I’m excited about playing there with my trio and with Luis Valle, I feel more comfortable about presenting my own music with my own group than about the competition. The competition is scary. I face the terrifying prospect of having my ass kicked by people ten years younger than me. I think it will be a lot of fun, though.

What are you listening to now?

Joao Bosco, the new Los Van Van album (it’s a killer!), Danilo Perez, a collection of Stravinsky chamber works. I keep finding out about these great Brazilian singer/songwriters, like Joao Bosco, Djavan, Joyce, Chico Buarque. I look forward to discovering many more, Brazil seems to have so many.

Return to the main Q&A page… These annual Q&As with National Jazz Awards finalists are coordinated by Miriam Zolin.