Sunday, May 14, 2017

Benjamin Herman: Soul, Funk and Blues Revisited … in Holland!

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

"Benjamin is a brilliant talent and one of the more idiosyncratic figures of the European Jazz scene."
- The editorial staff at JazzProfiles

In order to bring him to your attention, should you be unfamiliar with his music, I wanted to say a few words about Benjamin Herman.

Benjamin is a young alto saxophone and flute player who resides in Holland. For one so young, he is an amazingly accomplished musician with a number of accolades to his credit.

Benjamin Herman was twelve when he started playing saxophone and was performing professionally at the age of thirteen. He has toured with large and small combos in the United States, Japan, Czech Republic, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, South Africa and Russia, as well as appearing frequently at North Sea Jazz Festival.

At 21 he received the Wessel Ilcken Prize [named after a Dutch drummer who died in an accident at the age of 34] for best young jazz musician of the year in The Netherlands.

In 1991, Benjamin was invited to take part in the Thelonious Monk Competition, along with Joshua Redman, Chris Potter and Eric Alexander. Some grouping!

After graduating with honors at Hilversum Conservatory he studied with Dick Oatts at Manhattan School of Music in New York.

By 25 Benjamin had worked with almost every respected group and musician in The Netherlands, and had started initiating his own projects.

What is surprising and yet at the same time satisfying about Benjamin’s music is that so much of it is steeped in blues, soul and funk, qualities that one would expect to find in musicians reared in urban, Atlantic Coast US cities, or in rural southern US townships with a predominately sanctified Baptist church culture, but not in a musician raised in largely, cosmopolitan Holland.

The other noteworthy aspect of Benjamin’s approach to music is its humor, some of which is satirical almost to the point of being sarcastic at times.

One can get a sense of the qualities of character and personality that influence his music while reading the following insert notes which Benjamin wrote for his 1999 A-Records CD entitled Get In! [AL-73173].

[Does the title itself have an element of sardonic humor in it or is it just me?]

“I've been recording for A-Records and Challenge for around six years: two Van der Grinten / Herman Quartet albums, a third New Cool Collective record and another trio CD out soon, not to mention all the material in the freezer.

So when Angelo Verploegen [the CD’s producer] suggested a new so CD with me as the leader, I wondered what all the fuss was about.

It used to be big news when European musicians recorded in the States, but these days it happens all the time ...why couldn't he just give me the money for a well-earned vacation!

But I thought about it. and I knew one person who'd make the project worth­while. [Drummer] Idris Muhammad.

For years I've been telling drummers to play like Idris and check out his records. DJs are crazy about the guy: he's one of the century's most sampled drummers.

Modem music is full of his break-beats. He's the man who played New Orleans drum rhythms over the whole kit while keep­ing the groove authentic and funky.

Musicians from Lou Donaldson to John Scofield and from Curtis Mayfield to Puff Daddy have used his beats. There isn't a drummer who hasn't copied his style in some way or another. This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get to the source.

And Angelo set it up in a matter of weeks. But not just with Idris.

He managed to get another of my favorites. Larry Goldings. on Hammond. With Europe's one-and-only Thelonious Monk Award winner Jesse van Ruller on guitar, it looked set to be a swinging album.

As for the material. I just closed my eyes and imagined what the band would sound like. Ten days later. I had about 20 tunes from which I made a selection on the plane to New York. I wanted the album to sound as rough as possible. We played the tunes a couple of times and then started the tape.

Idris and Larry were onto it from bar one, giving every take an awesome drive. Larry is today's leading young Hammond player. The way he comments on the melodies and solos and works with Idris is phenomenal, building up each solo without ever losing the groove.

Time flew by and we were soon back in traffic, heading towards Manhattan. Next day we flew home and three weeks on, it still seems out of this world.

It certainly changed my attitude about this kind of project.

Angelo can call me anytime.

Benjamin Herman
May 1999. Amsterdam

Benjamin’s attitude and approach come together in his music in such a way as to lend it an air of adroit arrogance.

Perhaps all of these affectations are just his way of being the 21st century version of a hep cat, or a hipster or a cool-and-crazy-kind-of guy?

Although the beret and to goatee are gone, Benjamin retains the horn-rimmed glasses of the Bebop ear in many of his photos and he’s brought back the slim ties and narrow lapelled, three-button suits which we in fashion half-a-century ago during the height of the Soul/Funk/Boogaloo era [think Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man or Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder].

As you can tell from some of the photographs contained in the video at the end of this piece, Benjamin is not camera shy and often affects exaggerated and, at times, startling poses, trying to broaden the appeal of what he does.

So what if he labels his CDs Pyschodixie for C-Melody Saxophone, or Lost Languages in Sad Serenades & Jocular Jazz or Blue Sky Blonde and writes songs with titles like Get Me Some Whiskey and A …., or The Itch or Inhale, Exhale, the guy swings like mad and is fun to listen.

Whatever his proclivities and affectations, Benjamin has an intense tone similar to that of Ernie Henry or Jackie McLean, a lingering power in his somewhat, off-center phrasing and an inventive style of soloing that leaves a lasting impression in the mind of the listener.

But it would appear that Benjamin’s first and lasting love is to lock into a groove and create melodies that are just brimming with “flavors” of blues and soulful funk.

All of the major characteristics of Benjamin’s music and his personal style are on display in the following video which was developed with the assistance of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD.

The tune is another of Benjamin’s off-the-wall titles – Joe’s Bar Mitzvah – from his Get In CD with Jesse van Ruller on guitar, Larry Goldings on Hammond B-3 organ [Larry’s solo on this one is stunningly “bar mitzvar-ish”] and Idris Muhammad [who issues forth one of his better renditions of a New Orleans syncopated marching band beat] on drums.

In addition to his trio and quartet work, Benjamin has played a major role along with keyboardist and composer Willem Friede in the development of the New Cool Collective.

Originally an octet, the New Cool Collective has expanded to become one of the hottest big bands in Europe and is particular favorite among the young Jazz fans on the continent because of its style of music and the almost party-like atmosphere the surrounds its in-person performances.

Many of the NCC’s big band charts are riff-based arrangements which allow for plenty of solo space and use heavy back beats, sometimes with Latin and Rock overtones, that  make it easy for younger audiences to relate to them.

Here’s an overview of the New Cool Collective as drawn from its website.

“Following its initial gigs at the Club Paradiso in Amsterdam, the New Cool Collective made several festival appearances, including an appearance at the prestigious North Sea Jazz Festival. In 1997 the band toured Germany and Benelux. More dates followed in 1998 leading to an appearance at Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and a tour of the UK, taking in Leeds, London and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. October 1999 saw the release of NCC's third CD, Big (Challenge, A-Records). In 2000 the album received an Edison Jazz Award [Dutch Grammy].

Invitations from abroad following the release of the album included concerts at Camden 'Mix' Festival (London) and Aberdeen Alternative Festival (Scotland). More recently, the band has toured South Africa, Russia, Germany and is a regular guest at the East London Jazz Café. New Cool Collective recently received the Heineken Crossover Award. New Cool Collective can currently be seen twice a month at Amsterdam's Panama nightclub. Their new CD, Bring it On, has just been released by Sony. The New Cool Collective is by far Holland's hottest big band.”

Many of Benjamin’s CDs as well as those of the New Cool Collective are available from several online retailers as Mp3 downloads which helps in offsetting the euro-dollar exchange rate.

If you have an interest in exploring Jazz in some of its current manifestations on the European continent, Benjamin’s and the NCC’s music provide an excellent starting point.

You can sample the New Cool Collective Big Band’s music in the following video. The audio track is Flootie and its features Benjamin Herman on flute.

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