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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: With your setup, technique must be really important, because you don't have the amp to hide behind.

BW: It's a funny issue. Like, Paul Chambers' sound with a bow? They might not want that in the bass section of the Chicago Symphony. But to me, it's the most beautiful thing in the world. It might be scratchy, it might be out of tune, it might be a whole lot of things, but I love it. Slam Stewart, I love. I like jazz bowing that sounds like jazz, that doesn't sound like classical music. I like classical bowing, too. I hear Edgar Meyer and I'm like, "Wow."

AAJ: Do you compose while you're on the road?

BW: [Nods.] I usually go through periods of composing. Sometimes I write a whole lot, and then I don't write for a while. Like right now, I've got this little thing [walks to piano, plays brief idea]... I'm playing with that sound, and trying to come up with something from that. I'll sit around and play with that one little thing, and eventually I'll have a whole tune based on that. So I do that at the sound checks when I play some piano. Or whenever I can get to it. Like right now, they have a piano in the dressing room, and I can play it, and I'll write. I write as often as I can, but it's not like I have a system for when I do it. I just do it when I can get to a piano. And then if I have something coming up—like this concert in Portland, I know that's coming up. I'm going to try to write a half-hour, forty-minute extended work for that. If I know I have something coming up, I get real obsessed with getting stuff together. If I have one gig in a club, I'll spend hours and hours and hours writing and arranging and getting it all perfect—which sometimes can be a pain for the people I hire, because I maybe get kind of tense. But that's just me. I think about the stuff I'm writing all the time, too—who can play this, have some strings over here, I think I might like a harp... I think about it all the time. I remember, I used to work the scoreboard at this baseball field when I was a little kid. And I used to sit there... You know the theme to "Bewitched"? [Sings.] I'd make up big band arrangements of it, and just sing them, and imagine them in my mind. I wasn't writing any arrangements then; I was just a tuba player in seventh grade. But even then, I was thinking in those terms. It's just something that I think I gravitate to naturally, making up things. 'Cause that's what jazz is all about, in a lot of ways: making up things.

When writing, I can really think about what it's going to be. It slows down. At the piano, it's not performance. I can think about how it's going to work. And it always sounds different when you get a band together. Because a lot of the times, at the piano, my song is one person, one concept, and that's it. All of a sudden you have six other people, and six other visions of music. They've got to come together somehow, and you never know what you're going to get. But the thing about playing together is, if everyone's a good musician, it turns into art; it's going to be good, or it's going to be interesting, at least.

AAJ: As a composer, do you try to provide material to incite that dynamic, or can you generally rely on the musicians' interpretive skills?

BW: It depends on the musicians. With Ned, I don't have to say much. It's a combination of both. I'm very specific about certain things, like rhythm, phrasing, volume, balance—I learned a lot about balance from Wynton—just about the conceptual aspects of the music. If people aren't thinking that way, I try to impart my way of thinking, for better or for worse. Writing my own music also enables me to have a little more freedom in imposing my view of how to play together, my ensemble concept. When you write the music, it gives you a little more room to say how it should be.

AAJ: Your records definitely come across as a composer's records. You don't have any eleven-minute jams on your albums. It's very unique, because most of the jazz records today follow the "head/chorus/head" format.

BW: I do that for a living. I've done that my whole life. If I were going to make a record playing that way, it would have to be of such a deep conceptual thing, around everybody, thinking the same...I would never do it. Because that's boring, unless it's really done right. That's what Charlie Parker did, and I love it. It's perfect. But that's part of why I started to write and arrange; I thought, "Well, I'll just write the stuff a certain way, and then I can hear it the way I imagined it being improvised." On these CDs, I write the music, and it's ensemble music. There are solos on there, too, but it's ensemble music. That's what jazz is. Even when someone's soloing, they're not really "soloing"; they're improvising the melody.

AAJ: Some people describe improvising as "composing, in the moment." It seems like you see more of a disparity.

BW: I think that's true, but that implies "composing" only means one thing. "Composing" is a million things. So you can say that. You can say that painting a picture is "composing," too. I think, a lot of times, the principles of great art are the same. I read a book, called "Picasso On Art," that talked about his views. It was great. It doesn't matter what art it's in. It's the principles of how you're thinking about it. Like I was saying before: how you think, not how you play. I don't think it's about the instrument.

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