Ben Neill: Starting a Dub War


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To say that Ben Neill plays the trumpet—the instrument of such jazz legends as Miles Davis and Clifford Brown—is an epic understatement. "I think electronica is like a new form of jazz—it's an instrumental form of music that plays out in popular culture but has musical ideas that go beyond the expectations of pop music," says Neill, a student of the electro-acoustic innovations of Robert Moog and minimalist aesthetic of LaMonte Young. Neill specifically plays the mutantrumpet, a self-designed instrument that he's been slowly perfecting since the mid 1980s. His latest album, Night Science (Thirsty Ear, 2009), is a heady, dark alchemy of improv and electronica. No surprise, then, that the record is the latest release on Thirsty Ear Records' Blue Series.

The brainchild of Thirsty Ear head Peter Gordon, The Blue Series has long sought to find a point where the electronic manipulation of sound (both in post-production and on the spot) and the live interaction of seasoned jazz musicians become blurred, all but insignificant. Night Science, in many ways, is the pinnacle of the Blue Series' raison d'etre. Sans turntables, Neill is DJ-cum-jazz artist. Or perhaps vice versa.

Neill began work on Night Science in late 2007. "The process of the recording happened on several levels simultaneously," Neill explains. "The first layer was developing beats and bass lines in Logic Pro, then exporting those elements to Ableton Live so I could improvise with them from the mutantrumpet.

"Then I spent a lot of time programming the live performance setup, including the live sampling and processing of the acoustic trumpet sound, which is another improvised element, and all of the MIDI controller routings from the mutantrumpet. Finally, I would record my performances back into Logic and then tweak the results. These things were all happening together. It was a process of building up the set, and as I made the recordings I was also playing out, trying things to see how they felt live. Toward the end of the process, my long time production partner, Eric Calvi, came in to help engineer some of the final production and mixing."

Once recording was complete, Neill looked to the label he had long been a fan of, understanding how Night Science would fit with Thirsty Ear's groundbreaking back catalog. Neill's mutantrumpet has appeared on records from a number of Thirsty Ear artists like DJ Spooky, on Riddim Warfare (Outpost, 1998), and live with Nils Petter Molvaer, Vernon Reid and others. Those artists' shapeshifting combinations of electronica and jazz drew him to want to be a part their "tribe." So he approached the label with his latest, Night Science.

Beyond the Thirsty Ear sound, Neill says Night Science was largely inspired by New York's Dub War scene and the rich textures of DJ music internationally. "After Automotive, my last release on Six Degrees in 2002 [compiling music Neill recorded for a series of Volkswagen commercials], it felt like the whole electronic music scene really plummeted. I think there were a lot of reasons for that ... but when I walked into Dub War I felt the energy of electronic music in New York in a way that seemed to have disappeared—it was amazing, and I immersed myself in dubstep from that time forward."

Since discovering the scene in 2007, Neill has been asked to perform with Dub War DJs and repent in close contact and cahoots with other illbient veterans like Badawi and the aforementioned Spooky. "Dubstep is very much related to other styles of electronic music that I'd been doing for years: drum and bass, breakbeat, trip hop, and dub. ... It was a very natural progression," Neill says. Indeed, Neill's older records, like the breakbeat-heavy Triptycal (Polygram, 1996), reflect the electronic music scene of the time. Like the genre itself, Neill's music has evolved to include the grimier "riddims" of UK dubstep. Crank up the bass to nose-twitching levels and you've got some of the finest dubstep this side of the UK—speaker wobbling, pulsating, shake-your-insides dubstep—just toned down and dressed up for a mad classy night at a basement lounge where the drinks are pricey and the women out of your league.

"I'm very happy that progressive electronic music has come back with a vengeance," Neill says, "[but] I'm also inspired by Miles Davis, particularly his later records. He embraced electronic music and fused it with his instrumental voice. I tried to make the mutantrumpet more present on this record than some of my past albums."

The mutantrumpet, like its name would suggest, is a freak of sound—a work of heretofore unseen electro-acoustic brilliance. In Neill's words, the mutantrumpet is "an expanded acoustic instrument with three bells—two B Flat trumpet bells and a piccolo trumpet bell—instead of the normal one."

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