Since moving to New York City in 1999, woodwind performer and saxophonist Ben Kono has been attracting attention as a singular emerging voice in cutting-edge groups like Darcy James Argue's Secret Society and the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble. Now, with the release of his debut recording CROSSING on Nineteen-Eight Records, he has come into his own light as a leader and composer of note. While growing up in bucolic southern Vermont, a deep love of classical music was fostered by his parent's strong advocacy of the arts and spurred on by a community rich in culture, live music, and arts awareness. Local jazz guitar legend and educator Atilla Zoller awakened in Ben an intense interest in jazz, emboldening him to continue studies at the Eastman School of Music and the University of North Texas. During this time he met future musical pioneers John Hollenbeck, Henry Hey, and Rudresh Mahanthappa, and studied with jazz greats David Liebman, Jerry Bergonzi, Bill Dobbins and Gary Cambell. Following a five year hitch with the U.S.Army's Jazz Ambassadors, Kono's broad musical training and experience naturally led him to the infinitely varied musical landscape of New York City. Equally skilled on oboe, english horn, flutes, clarinets and saxophones, his wide range of skills and prowess as an improviser quickly garnered high demand as a sideman. He has performed and recorded with, among many others, Michael Brecker, David Liebman, Bob Berg, Toots Thielmanns, Michel LeGrand, Tim Garland, Joe Locke, Andrew Rathbun, Manuel Valera and David Taylor; with superstars Patti Austin, Deborah Gibson, Hugh Jackman and Liza Minelli; and is a member of the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble, the Ed Palermo Big Band, Gotham Winds, Numinous, the BMI Jazz Composers Orchestra, the Jamie Begian Big Band, Newyorkestra, Sound Assembly, and the Jersey Boys Orchestra on Broadway. The eloquent sounds of his woodwinds have graced the stages of Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, and he can often be heard tearing up a solo at elite jazz venues like the Blue Note, the Jazz Standard, Birdland, and Le Poisson Rouge.
The broader a bandleader’s tonal palette, the richer the music becomes. Ben Kono proves this numerous times on the colorful Crossing, a sublime ensemble disc that finds lots of unique territory being investigated. The respected New York saxophonist is expert in an array of instruments that stretches from oboe to shakuhachi, and he’s put some deep composing and arranging skills into play on his debut. As Crossing’s varied interests present themselves, its sextet music speaks to both the power of scope and the art of integration. “I never wanted to record a straight-ahead small group thing,” explains the 43-year-old bandleader. “My tastes have strayed away from that, and more towards contemporary classical sounds. I’m absorbing music that’s been informed by jazz, the Bang On A Can composers, and what might be called post-classical work. It’s a different kind of sound.” What Kono’s describing can be heard in the buoyant bounce of “Rice,” the pensive elan of “Shadowdance,” and the dramatic reflections of “The Crossing.” Two decades ago, someone would have deemed this “third stream.” At various points, Kono’s flute, English horn, bass clarinet all help stir the group’s graceful maneuvers towards something quite singular. Working with some of the city’s most expressive jazz musicians gives the action an exceptional slant as well. Pianist Henry Hey, guitarist Pete McCann, bassist John Hébert, and drummer John Hollenbeck form the core team; Kono’s wife, singer and French horn player Heather Laws, appears on a few tracks, too. The saxophonist has had longstanding relationships with his work mates, and says that the notion of family is the thread that connects several of the disc’s pieces.