Ben Winkelman: ‘I’m searching for my own take on the piano trio’

Every time that Ben Winkelman comes back to Australia is a happy time, as it provides us with the opportunity to see how he is evolving as an artist. This time round, the New York – based pianist has planned a touring schedule that will allow him to touch base with jazz fans all around Australia (and a bit of New Zealand), presenting the tunes from his new, brilliant album, Balance. Which is what his music is all about.


What would you say to someone not familiar with your music to invite them to one of your concerts?

The trio plays music that I write – contemporary jazz pieces that draw on a variety of influences, including Cuban, Brazilian, gospel and classical music. There are a number of pieces based on Latin rhythms in odd meters, which is a theme I’ve enjoyed playing with since I started playing with Ben Vanderwal in 2005. I like to think that I’m searching for my own take on the piano trio; that may come across to some listeners. The music is often complex, especially rhythmically, but it’s fun to play and I think fun to listen to. People can expect a performance of original creative jazz music with a lot of group interplay. Hopefully we’ll be able to play the pieces a little differently every night.

There are lots of different influences that are evident in your playing, stemming from a wide array of genres. How do you describe your sound?

I enjoy listening to and playing a range of music. I played in Latin bands for years, I play gospel music for an African-American church on Long Island, New York and I like studying classical piano pieces when I can make time for it. It seemed natural to me to allow some of these influences to be felt in my jazz compositions. Recently I’ve been thinking more about independent lines and counterpoint; there’s one piece from the new album that is a sort of three-part invention.

What is the backstory of Balance?

I chose the title because 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.

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 onit, 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.

How would you compare Balance to The Knife?

The pieces on Balance further develop themes from the music on The Knife– odd meters, Latin rhythms in odd meters, some gospel influence. The rhythm sections on the two albums are different – Eric Doob and Sam Anning on The Knife, Obed Calvaire and Matt Penman on Balance.

On my previous albums I recorded with people I’d been playing with regularly. With this album I tried something I’d never done – recording with musicians I admired but hadn’t played with much or at all.

You are touring with a different trio than the one which was on the album recording; How does this affect the outcome?

I love playing with both line-ups. Sam Anning, Ben Vanderwal and I (the line-up for most of this tour) were a regular band for a number of years, so there is a special connection there. Some of the themes in my writing developed at least partly because I was trying to write for the way Ben Vanderwal plays. Ben, Sam, Obed and Matt are all very strong and creative players who bring a lot to the music. Ben Vanderwal and Obed Calvaire are both very versatile and fairly active drummers; I think my compositions need a drummer of this kind to bring them to life. Alex Hirlian is playing drums on a few of the gigs on this tour. I’d never played with him before, but he was in New York recently and we got together to play. He’s a really great drummer, I’m looking forward to playing more with him.

What does it feel coming back to Australia?

I always love visiting Australia. It’s great to get a taste of home, there’s a lot that I miss about it: family, friends, nature, beaches, the more relaxed lifestyle, and the culture that I grew up in.

How has your New York experience been so far?

It’s been a mixed bag, but positive overall. There’s always a lot going on – it can be exciting but also difficult and exhausting. The best part is the music scene, in the sense that there’s so much great music to see and the possibility of playing with so many great musicians. The bad part is the compromise in lifestyle quality. Any Australian would only need to go to a New York area beach once to understand what I mean. But even at its worst, it still has a gritty charm.

Musically, I think I’ve learned a lot by being there, by being exposed to more music, by getting in challenging musical situations, and by studying. I took lessons with Kevin Hays for a few years, and had a few lessons with Fred Hersch. I’m glad I made the move; even though I have a love/hate relationship with it, I plan to stay.

Having had insight on both the US and Australian Jazz communities, what is your take on both?

Not sure I want to open this can of worms.

New York has a much larger music scene, and its top level is very high. Many of the musicians I admire the most live and/or perform there. Jazz is alive there in a way that it isn’t in other places. Australia’s music scene is smaller, but punches above its weight, and produces a lot of great musicians and great music, especially for the size of the population.

I’ve sometimes thought that Australia’s isolation encourages jazz musicians here to develop their own music independently of the rest of the world. There’s an emphasis on writing your own music in Australian jazz. There is as well in the US, but I think playing standard jazz repertoire is generally taken more seriously there and has a higher status in jazz culture than it does here.

The jazz field is a lot more crowded in the US than here, there’s more competition for playing opportunities. Living there has taught me to appreciate more the chance to tour in Australia to such great venues.

How did you get into jazz?

My father had two jazz records in his collection: Soul Trane by John Coltrane and The Way I Really Play by Oscar Peterson. That was probably where I first heard it, but I also remember listening to jazz shows on PBS as a kid. As a young teen I told my piano teacher that I was interested in jazz and he showed me some jazz theory and encouraged me to start improvising. A bit later I studied with Mickey Tucker and Paul Grabowsky.

What does jazz mean to you?

I think the magic in jazz for me happens when I’m able to fully inhabit the moment. One of my favourite aspects of jazz is the interplay between musicians. I like that jazz engages a range of faculties – intellect, emotions, senses, intuition, and that it can be playful.

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

‘Bx12 Part One’ is pretty representative, it’s one of my tunes based on an odd meter clave.

I named it after a really unpleasant and crowded bus route that crosses the Bronx that I used to take to see my girlfriend.

Ben Winkelman Trio on Tour: