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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: You describe yourself and Ned as "musical partners." Is he a factor, present in your mind, when you're composing?

BW: He's a factor, in that I know that I'll have my favorite musician on the planet playing, who I know will play a melody a way that I will be glad it was played that way. I don't have to tell Ned anything. I love the way he plays. He's a complete artist, man. That's his thing. He's very dedicated to art. And he plays that way. He's a very rare musician, because he doesn't try to knock people out. He doesn't show off. He works on things, and he plays what he believes in, even if people don't notice it. I love the way he plays. And him being there, I know I can write, I can have a soloist play a certain way... We understand each other. We think differently, but the same. Our approaches to getting at something are different, but the result always works. We need each other in a certain kind of way.

AAJ: Have you always composed music?

BW: Always. When I first started playing music, I used to sit at the piano and play an F major-seventh going to an Eb major-seventh. That was all I could play, and I would try to write a song with that. Everything I learned, I would try to use to write music. The piano is always like an adventure, to find something on the piano. I always wanted to write songs. Even when I couldn't write tunes. When I was in high school, I used to try to write corny little pop tunes, little '70s pop tunes. I always wanted to write music. And the whole time I was playing music, I was trying to write music. Eventually, I started being able to really do it. I remember, I used to finish tunes, and I was like, "Man...I just wrote a song!" It's a great feeling when I finish a tune. I love the process of having an idea, an inspiration...coming up with something, following it through, and then looking at it and saying, "Wow. It's finished." I like that.

AAJ: How do you know when you're finished?

BW: It's over. Double-bar. [Laughs.] When I arrange it, things can change. There's a song on Murray's Cadillac called "Old Ballad." It's just cello, tenor saxophone, guitar, bass and drums. I have another version of it with strings, two flutes, two trombones, and rhythm section. It's basically just a piano piece, but I have many different arrangements of that one song.

AAJ: Who have been some of your influences as a composer?

BW: Monk. Charlie Parker. Billy Strayhorn. I love Billy Strayhorn. Duke Ellington. Wayne Shorter. Probably Bernard Herrmann, to some degree. Probably Jerry Goldsmith. Even though I don't know their musics, I just know they inspire me greatly. Especially that left-handed piano, like on "Planet of the Apes" [sings]... Who else? Little things, like Beethoven—certain voicings that I know he's used. Even though I'm not an expert on Beethoven, by any means—Wynton Marsalis is an expert on Beethoven; I'm not—but he's influenced me. Bartok, I think, has influenced me. And once again, I don't want to give the impression that I'm an expert on classical music, because I'm definitely not. But definitely, Bartok's influenced me. Red Garland. Anything I like in music has influenced me, and my approach to composing. I didn't study composition. My approach is very... I just put down on paper what I think sounds good. I don't edit myself. That's why I don't write lyrics. I've tried. I edit myself, and I worry what people think. I'm not free. When I write, I don't care. If it's right, wrong, people like it, don't like it... I really believe in it. When I play the bass, I think that way. I think that's a big part of music. If you just believe in it, it doesn't matter what people think.

AAJ: Whom have you studied with?

BW: I've studied with Ray Brown. I learned a lot from him. He would have me sing the melody of the tune, and play in two instead of walking, and just hear the relationship of the bass notes with the melody. His whole thing is, "Learn an instrument, and trust your ears." I was really young the first time I took a lesson with him, and it just changed my whole outlook on the jazz bass. I'm proud just to say I know him. And I had a few classical teachers. I had a great teacher in Portland named Larry Zgonc, when I first started on upright bass. I didn't start playing the bass for real until I was eighteen or nineteen years old. He was a great teacher. And I studied with Homer Mensch, who teaches at Julliard. A few lessons, but I wasn't practicing. I wasted it. I didn't give him what I could have. I had a great teacher—I studied for a short period of time with her, twice—her name is Orin O'Brien. She's in the New York Philharmonic. Amazing teacher. They both teach at Julliard. She's an incredible teacher. When I've had people teach me about jazz, like Ron Steen and Ray Brown, they were hard on me, like a mean coach. And I love that. I react well to it in a jazz setting. But when I have a bow in my hand I don't react that well to it. Orin O'Brien was really very nice about it, which helped me. She's a great teacher.

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