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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: You mention in the liner notes to "Bagdad Theater" that most of the pieces on that record started off at the piano.

BW: I do all my composing at the piano. The majority, anyway. I'd say, like, 99%. They're all little solo piano pieces, and I arrange them for the band—whatever kind of band we're gonna have. I don't always do it that way. I think that if I were doing film music, I would respond well to doing it that way.

AAJ: It's ironic that you compose that way, because on your records, your arrangements hardly ever use piano.

BW: That's right. That's because I'm so particular about how I want things when I record. I'm really particular. Especially with the piano, I want things so exact, that I just didn't get a pianist. The first record has Eric Reed on one tune. On the second record, Benny Green plays on two tunes. But now I'm using piano much more. I love the piano.

AAJ: There is more piano on "Murray's Cadillac"; but still, it's used very...deliberately.

BW: I like the piano to be a third of the rhythm section—not running the show, but part of the rhythm section. I love a pianist who just listens to the music, and plays it—not a whole lot, necessarily, just part of it. Piano's a powerful instrument, and there are many different ways of playing it. I love Red Garland. I love Bill Evans. I love it when Miles played piano—like on "Milestones," there's one tune where he's playing piano. I love it. It's real soft in the mix, with these tight voicings. And the way Bill Evans played; I love that kind of piano playing, for my music. There are other styles that are great, but wouldn't fit the way I think.

AAJ: While you're composing, are you thinking about aspects of arrangement, like orchestration?

BW: Much more now than I used to. I'm really into writing for cello. I'm doing a concert in Oregon, around Christmastime, and I'm putting together a band. It's a sextet like on the record, but I'm going to add cello, tuba, and a soprano opera singer. So I'm going to write almost like three different characters. They're classical musicians. They won't be playing swing. I'll write themes for them, so I'll have to think in terms of the instruments for that. And Ned, he'll be like a character. So there'll be like four characters. That gives me something to think about when I write. So now in my mind, I'm seeing the band, and the people playing. I really consider who's playing, and how they sound. And I sort of start preparing in my head, and I go to the piano and find little things. Once I get into it, it sort of takes on its own life, but I use little things to get me started. It might just be a chord voicing. I'll explore it in different ways, and it'll end up being a tune. It's different every time.

AAJ: How much do your tunes change, from their original ideas as 'piano pieces,' when they get in front of the band?

BW: The way they change is that, when I'm writing them, I'm playing the piano, so my bass personality isn't present yet. And I have a strong personality. When I play, it affects the music; because I'm playing bass on my composition, so it changes a lot from that point of view. I'm not a pianist, so I can just hear what it sounds like [when composing]; but when I'm playing, they come to life. I can hear what they really sound like when I hear the other musicians. I might hear them for a year on the computer, and I can imagine what they sound like; but when I hear the real instruments, it's inspiring.

AAJ: Do you ever compose on bass?

BW: Very little. For instance, there's a song on the record called "Elegy." That started off on the bass, and ended up on the piano. And another tune on there called "North," on which I play the melody with Ned; that was on the bass. But as a rule, it's pretty much always on the piano.

It's like I'm two people. I'm a composer—I write music, and arrange; and I'm a bassist, and I have a perception of how I think that should be. When I do my own thing, it's like I write this music, and then I play the bass as a bassist. I don't play the melodies; I play like a bassist, the way I would on any gig. They kind of go together. My writing inspires me as a bassist. For me, it just works together well. Mingus, I think, was probably like that. When he played in his band, he ran the show from the bass, but he didn't play the melodies. He was just a great bassist in his band. I really admire how he did that. I'm not trying to be Charles Mingus, but that way... Sometimes bassist/leaders play the melodies—which is great, but that's just not what I do. I like to write the music, and then when I'm playing it, be the bassist. It kind of leads from the bass, drives from the bass.

Duality. It's like a paradox, and I'm trying to stay right in the middle. But they go together. I like the way I play the bass, when I'm playing my music, on my records, and on Ned's; I like that version of my bass playing the best. It seems like the way I think, fits. I'm really into the psychological approach to music, like the way you think when you play. I'm not really concerned with what I play, or how fast I play. To me, that's the craft of music. But the whole artistic side, every note having a reason...that's what I'm into. It's an art. I want to be an artist more than I want to be a bassist or a composer. I want to try to create something. For better or for worse, that's what I'm trying to do.

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