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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: You said you haven't had the chance to play a lot of your material on gigs yet. If you were playing them out, with a working group, how do you think the compositions might change?

BW: Not that much. Maybe I would be more conscious of the length of the songs, how long each soloist would play, who would solo... It would be a little bit more figured out, and arranged. But not that much. When I play gigs, it's not that much different from the records. Some songs are longer. I might play more solo bass pieces, like I might play a ballad alone, or a few tunes.

AAJ: Would you like to play your stuff out more often?

BW: More than anything. I'd love to. That's what I want to do.

AAJ: Why don't you?

BW: Well...[pauses.] That's a good question. Maybe I think, in my mind, that I can't work enough doing that. But I want to. And I'm heading that way. I'm not going to not do it. If it's possible for me to be a bandleader full-time, I'll be one. I'd like to sort of work my way into it. It would be nice to work with Diana, and in my time off do concerts or do gigs of my own thing, and on the road score film... You know, to have it all kind of come together, and then organically go to where I'm the bandleader. I'm still trying to figure it out. I figured out how to be a sideman; now I'm trying to figure out how to be a leader. It's not as simple as just saying, "Hey, I want to do it." Even though it might appear that way, because people are doing it. But I do all original music. I'm not willing to do anything, in order to do it. I'm not willing to sacrifice anything, musically.

That's probably how it started, with doing the records. Like, "I'm a sideman, with different people, and it's their thing. With mine, it's going to be as pure as I can make it." I love playing. When I play little clubs every now and then, I love it. I would do it every day. I have endless energy for that kind of stuff, I really do.

AAJ: Obviously you'd have Ned in your band...?

BW: If I could afford him. You know, who knows? If the time came when I couldn't have him, I'd have to figure something out, just like he would have to for his band. I'm his bassist, and he's my tenor player. We used to have a cooperative band, and we decided not to.

AAJ: Why?

BW: It just made more sense. There were two visions. It's easier to have one person, if they have a strong vision. Otherwise you're splitting, and then it becomes, like, half the set's his thing, half the set's mine. It just made more sense. We play every Thursday at Small's, and it's his band.

AAJ: It's a trio?

BW: Yeah. All Ned's records are pianoless trios. He has two that haven't come out yet. He has a live one that he hasn't put out yet, that's great. That's the next one, I think, that will come out.

AAJ: How'd you get involved with Amosaya Records?

BW: The baritone saxophonist on "Bagdad Theater," Dave Schumacher? He's the head of that label. It's kind of like a collective, an artist-run thing. They have really good US distribution. That's really what I needed, and what I had a problem with on my last record. It was great to be on Mons, and they've been great to me; but they were based in Germany, so it was a little trickier as far as the US is concerned. And I like the fact that it's artist-run. Everyone's sort of in it together.

AAJ: I want to ask you about some of the musicians you've worked with, because you've been in some pretty incredible situations. I saw you in Boston a few years back, with Diana Krall and Russell Malone. Russell strikes me as a very witty musician.

BW: I've played with Russell for years. Russell's hilarious. He's also very thorough. He's a guitar freak. He's studied every guitarist. You name a guitarist, he knows him intimately. He's amazing that way.

AAJ: Earlier in your career, you served as the musical director for Harry Connick, Jr.'s band. What was it like working with him?

BW: He did everything. He wrote, arranged, designed the stage set...he does everything. He's by far the most talented musician I've ever met in my life. Amazing. He could sit down with a piece of paper and a pen and write out a symphony. He's an amazing talent.

AAJ: You also worked with the Wynton Marsalis Septet. Being on the road with that crew must have been something.

BW: I love Wynton. I think about him all the time. I could say nothing bad about him. Never. He's someone who I think is an amazing composer. I love the way he writes. He writes long, extended works, ballets, symphonies... Being around him, his diligence... He would always work. It was all music with him. Ned's the same way. Wynton was always in the bunk on the bus, studying Bartok's string quartets or something like that. He was always thinking about music and working on music. I learned a lot being in that band. I learned a lot about playing with confidence, and not being afraid to play. That band was like a family. I loved being in that band. Like a family, we fought sometimes; but there was really a lot of loyalty in that group. It's hard to describe. You never know what it's going to be like. All of a sudden you're with the same people every day for a year, and that could be disastrous. But that was a really special experience for me. I'm very proud to have been part of that band.


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