October 23, 2019
Ben Sidran is a quadruple threat. Many great musicians claim the trifecta of vocals, instrumental chops and songwriting. Sidran has all those. On top of all that, Sidran adds philosophizing. Or maybe it's storytelling. Or maybe both of those things. Wednesday night, Sidran worked all four (or five) of his talents into a single show.
He's currently touring with his long-time bassist Billy Peterson
and his son Ben and Leo Sidran
on the drums. Sidran held forth behind the grand piano for some great playing, his own brand of vocals and general pontificating on the state of the union, life in general and stories about his career and life in the music industry.
The trio started with an instrumental, "Anthropology" by Charlie Parker
. It was an opportunity for Sidran to prove his virtuosity on the piano. He tended to favor chords of a Monkish variety; i.e. dissonant and quirky with blue notes aplenty. As soon as the applause following the tune died down, someone in the front row announced, "Still got it!" An accurate and succinct summary, indeed.
He then launched into a monolog backed by a jazz groove. He observed that times are hard; people on the street, that sort of thing. He remarked on a radio interview he had given that day where he and the interviewer discussed the Vietnam War and how time had proved both of them right in their opposition to that war. He said they'd be proven right again about the current resistance and then used "gangster" as a euphemism for he-who-must-not-be-named.
The monolog gradually morphed into the song "Picture Him Happy" about Sisyphus forever pushing the rock up the hill only to see it crash to the bottom just as he approached the top of the hill. How could Sisyphus do that job for so long? Simple, he must have been happy. So the lament about tough times evolved into a cheerier, more optimistic view of life. Sort of like how his monologs almost imperceptibly evolve into song. And so it went throughout the evening with songs interspersed with social commentary, explanations of tunes and jokes.
Sidran has been around the block more than once. In fact, his recorded output totals over 30 albums to date. He's explored a broad spectrum of American music including a little rock and roll early in his career as a member of the Steve Miller Band and co-author of the Miller hit "Space Cowboy." He's sometimes dabbled in what could be considered smooth jazz with synthesizers outnumbering acoustic instruments by a wide margin. He's also been known to explore the funk on occasion. Wednesday night's set, especially given the complete dearth of synthesizers, was primarily bop oriented. A slight exception to that rule was his version of Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue" which was neither Dylanesque nor particularly boppish, but rather had a hard funk edge to it.
A big influence on Sidran was Mose Allison
, both stylistically and attitude-wise. Toward the end of his life, Allison released and album he called The Earth Wants You
(Blue Note, 2009). More than one song on the album, including the title track, contemplated aging and the end of life. Sidran's corollary could be another selection from Wednesday night "I Might Be Wrong" from his recent album Picture Him Happy
(Nardis Music, 2017) "Every time you take a look/There's another dead guy in your address book."
Another interesting choice was Billy Joel's "New York State of Mind." This one was an excuse for Sidran to tell the story of how he was the first one to record the song, back when Joel was simply an unknown songwriter. Joel had wanted (hoped) Frank Sinatra
to sing it, but he passed. Sidran, however, thought it was a pretty good song and went with it. Sidran explained how Joel was in the audience one night shortly after the song was released and was still mad Sinatra didn't record it. Apparently, however, things ended up working out OK for Billy Joel.
Billy Peterson, on bass, is a long-time Sidran collaborator having played with him since the 1980s. He provided the underpinning to Sidran's songs as well as his verbal excursions to many varied and interesting points. During his solos, he took on a wild-eyed, intense look of a man possessed. Son Leo on the drums accompanied his father like he's been hearing those songs all his life. He also engaged in a little banter with his old man, describing, for instance, how the elder Sidran had a habit of recording all his shows and how the recording media, analog tapes, DAT tapes and thumb drives had been piling up around the house for years. What to do with all that? Wait! Let's release a live album! It's a three CD set of recordings over the course of many, many years, and it will be for sale in the corner of the club right after we finish this set! Ben There, Done That: Ben Sidran Live Around the World (19752015)
(Sunset Blvd Records 2018).