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Ben Wolfe: The Freedom to Create

Stephen A. Smith By

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AAJ: I'd imagine it must have influenced you deeply, just because of the nature of that band. There were so many strong personalities.

BW: Yes, very strong personalities. Everyone plays with a lot of confidence. And Wynton told me that before I came out on the road. He said, "There's a certain kind of confidence that you're going to learn out here, that we play with." We did this amazing tour, for this record called "In This House, On This Morning." I did the tour, playing all of these Baptist churches. Obviously, that's not where I grew up. So here I am: The second half of the show starts off with a bass solo, which is like a sermon, and I was terrified every night! I wish I could do it again, because I could probably play a lot better now; but I learned so much by being terrified every night. It was a real positive pressure on that tour. It was scary. So now it takes a lot to scare me. I learned from Wynton. I played with him a couple of weeks ago. I always find it inspiring. Always.

AAJ: Who are some of your favorites, among your contemporaries?

BW: Well...bass players? I like Reginald Veal a lot, who played with Wynton Marsalis before me. He really has his own personality. I like that. There are a lot of guys. Peter Washington's great. There are things about a lot of people that I like. But to be honest with you, I don't think about it that much. I mean, I could list a bunch of my contemporaries. Christian McBride, obviously—he's a wizard on the bass. I could name a bunch of them. But I don't really think about it that much. I don't go out to hear people play that much.

AAJ: Do you spend a lot of time listening to records?

BW: I do and I don't. I've been listening to Jacqueline Du Pre playing the Elgar Cello Concerto. Man...I listen to that, and it just brings a tear to my eye. It's incredible. I find little things like that, listen to them one or two times, they knock me out, and then I just think about them. I listen when I'm on the road, more. I put the radio on once in awhile, just to see what's on. Recently, I've been listening to Wagner, the Ring... It knocks me out. Right now, I'm thinking about this piece I'm going to write. Since I'm writing for a cello player and an opera singer, I'm listening to some opera singers, just to hear it, and to get it into my head. Not to imitate what they're doing, but to hear what some of the possibilities are.

I listen sometimes for inspiration; but to be honest, I have a hard time finding stuff that knocks me out. I find stuff that I like, but I like the idea of putting something on and just being blown away, and just wanting to run to the piano. I have a hard time finding that. I think I've got to start exploring more. Maybe classical music. I grew up listening to jazz. I used to listen to it nonstop. I don't do that so much anymore. I probably should; who knows? I kind of do things my own way. Sometimes I practice a lot for a period, and then I won't practice that much. And I wish I would. When I practice, I play much better. Practicing works, no doubt about it. I go in spurts. I know people who just constantly practice. That's their life. I wish I was like that, but I'm not. So I'm always fighting it.

AAJ: Is that what it was like when you were a kid, that stuff would just blow you away?

BW: Yeah, it would. It was exciting. It was like going to a new world—like, "OK, now I get to go in there again." It was like an amusement park. Jazz, was like, "Wow." They were like people to me. Paul Chambers was a person. I still listen to him that way, and he knocks me out. Philly Joe Jones, Red Garland...all my heroes, it was like I got to see them, like people. Now, at 38, I listen to Paul Chambers, and he's still that same person. He's only like 21. He was a kid. And I had such an incredible impression of him. I still see him as like a character. It's amazing, that you can create that through records. It's not even real. There's no actual, real connection between me and those people, at all. Nothing actual. It's bizarre.

AAJ: However deeply Chambers or Mingus or whomever may have influenced you, you still have a very individual sound.

BW: I don't want to sound like anybody. I don't want to be an imitator. I think that's an easy way out. It's a good way to learn but an easy way out. I love writing music, I love playing the bass. I love playing the piano, and I love playing music. But it becomes harder. When you first start playing, just the sound of the instrument was enough. You were so excited to do it. "Wow, I'm playing. I'm making music." And then it becomes, "Wow. This sounds like shit." It's no fun. To me, if it doesn't sound good, it's not fun—which makes me think it's not even about fun. If the music's not really happening in a certain way, I don't enjoy it that much. But when I do enjoy it, it's a much grander enjoyment.

AAJ: So what's it about?

BW: I think if you're playing with other people, it's about connecting. Like when Wynton used to talk about swing, the term he used a lot was "coordination." When you get musicians together, and you really are playing together, it takes on a life of its own. It's very interesting to be part of it, and to witness it, at the same time. That sounds abstract, but music is very abstract. To me, that's very enjoyable. I love when it's right. I'd rather strive for that than just try to go up there and have a lot of laughs. ...Which I do, too. I'm not preaching. I'm guilty of all the crimes I accuse people of committing.


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