Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ben Sidran: The Cat in the Hat

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Once a drummer, always a drummer.

It’s a different orientation, a different way of looking at and listening to Jazz.

It’s what you listen for first and then the rest of the music falls into place.

As a result of this percussive point of reference, it seems I’m always getting to other musicians through drummers: Philly Joe Jones got me to pianist Bill Evans [I bought Bill’s Everybody Listens to Bill Evans’ album because Philly is the drummer on it]; Larry Bunker got me to vibist Gary Burton; Kenny Washington got me to pianist Benny Green; Steve Gadd got me to pianist-composer arranger, Ben Sidran, et al.

“Bad” Steve Gadd came into his own as a drummer in the 1970s and, as a result, he easily absorbed and blended Rock beats and Latin accents into his style of Jazz drumming.  His drumming was as much a reflection of what was then contemporary in music as it was steeped in the traditions of Jazz drumming.

With Steve you could be listening to a marching band cadence on the snare drum one minute, a cow bell clave the next followed by a Rock backbeat; sometimes all three together.

He combined these drum rudiments, percussion “influences” and the extremely unique sound from the way he tuned his drums into a style that became instantly recognizable as “Steve Gadd;” not an easy thing to do on a drum kit. And while he was putting all of these rhythmic devices together in a new way, he constantly swung his backside off in whatever the setting he played in.

So when I came across a radio broadcast with a version of Seven Steps to Heaven that featured Steve’s inimitable drumming, I feverishly swung into my Jazz detective mode to find the source album [in other words, I called the radio station].

The track was from an album entitled The Cat in the Hat [AM CD 741] by “Ben Sidran,” whom I originally came to know as a pianist with a gift for writing lyrics to Jazz tunes and solos in the style of Jon Hendricks - what Jon refers to as “vocalese.”

You can hear both Steve’s intriguing approach to drum fills, kicks and solos and Ben’s ultra hipster lyrics on the Seven Steps to Heaven track from this album as we have used this Jazz standard by Victor Feldman and Miles Davis as the soundtrack for this video tribute to Ben. Joe Henderson is his typical first-rate self as the tenor saxophone soloist [see if you can pick-up Joe's reference to Johnny One-Note when he comes back in at 3:14 minutes].

Just in case you are in the mood to sing-along, here’s Ben’s vocalese to the tune:

© -Ben Sidran, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


One. two three, four. five, six seven
Steps to heaven
Five. six. seven, eight, see them pass
Free at last.

Trying to relate to the great masters
of our art Breaks my heart
As they depart
One. two. three, four. five. six. seven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven
Steps to heaven

When Miles was in style
The boys wouldn't smile
The girls wouldn't clear the aisle
Now the man’s in exile

When Trane led the pack
There was no looking back
There was no doubt about the fact
You had to catch that act

Now Charlie Parker he's a movie star
But they just wouldn't listen
When the man wasn't missin'
Now the man's gone
Say there, can you tell me where the
man's gone So long.

The record machine
t came on the scene
And closed down the nightclubs clean
It sure is mean.

They're gone for good
Free at last
They took those steps to heaven

As Michael Cuscuna explains in his insert notes to The Cat in the Hat, Ben already had eight CDs to his credit by the time of its issue in 1979 so I had a lot of catching up to do.

Fortunately for me, my awareness of Ben bridged beyond just his musical accomplishments to include the Jazz Talk program that he hosted for a number of years on National Public Radio.

The interviews that Ben conducted with Jazz greats on these NPR programs have all been issued in book form and are also all available as CDs.

Here are a few more background notes and observations about Ben and his music by Michael Cuscuna.

© -Michael Cuscuna, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It is not surprising that a kid from Madison. Wisconsin, who gigged in college with friends Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs and then went home to memorize Bud Powell and Sonny Clark records would turn out the way he did.

Ben Sidran played piano in that first Steve Miller band, but was really noted for the lyrics he wrote for many of their classic songs, including "Space Cow­boy" and "Seasons." Later, he went to England to study at the University of Sussex, and emerged with a PhD. in American Studies plus a brilliant book on American black music entitled Black Talk. He has continued to write, mostly for Rolling Stone, as well as liner notes on albums ranging from Jackie McLean and Eric Dolphy to Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks. He's produced records for Steve Miller. Tony Williams. Jon Hendricks, Sylvester and a few British rock bands that you've probably never heard of. As a pianist, he's done session work with the likes of Gene Clark and The Rolling Stones.

From all this, one might gather that Ben is versatile and eclectic, or that he has a multi-personality split to rival Sybil's. But the point is that his own music (documented by eight albums in as many years) is shaped by all of these diverse elements, not as in a patchwork collage, but existing simultaneously, congruently. welded together by Ben's personal vision and creativity. His is not some kind of "fusion" music: rather, it is simply Ben Sidran Music, forged through his own perceptions and detail­ing a style that's completely his own.

It you are a bebop junkie, the phrase 'the cat and the hat' will probably con­jure up images of Lester Young or Thelonious Monk, two famous knights of the lid. Or if you are a former kid. it may well remind you of the Dr. Seuss story of similar name about the feline in the striped stovepipe, who appears during the absence of adults to perform star­tling acts of turmoil and magic. That description might also apply to Lester and Monk, and not just a few other jazz masters as well, whose lyricism has that childlike simplicity and irrepres­sible inner logic. And this album could well be considered Ben's nod to all those cats who appeared, through their music, and touched him in that way. opening his soul and imagination to that which can only come from within.

The Jazz musician is the spellbinder, the consummate artist of great training who nonetheless still flies by the seat of his pants, taking chances and celebrat­ing life through the act of surprise. In his music, Ben often reminds us of the old tongue-in-cheek adage that 'in Jazz there are no mistakes, only opportuni­ties,' either through his deceptively simple lyrics, which detail the bitter­sweet ironies of life, or through his highly personal conception, which serves to reinforce the impossibility of stepping into the same stream twice, but the im­perative of trying it at least once.

Michael Cuscuna