Saxophonist and composer Ben van Gelder is no stranger to The Jazz Gallery’s stage: he performed here as a leader for the first time in 2007 and last performed on our stage in June with the Sam Harris Group. He’ll be performing here this Friday, October 25th, alongside vibist Peter Schlamb, bassist Matt Brewer, and drummer Craig Weinrib. Ben’s first album Frame of Reference (2011) was released to wide acclaim, and his sophomore effort Reprise (Pirouet Records) was released earlier this year. Ben was also one of 13 saxophonists who competed as a semifinalist at the 2013 Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition last month. We caught up with Ben over the phone to talk about his musical upbringing and the influences that inform his playing.
The Jazz Gallery: Can you say a bit about your musical education?
Ben van Gelder: I moved to New York when I was 17 and started studying at The New School. I was super-young, but it was good to spend my most formative years in the city, and I got to study with a lot of great people like Mark Turner and Lee Konitz and Nasheet Waits during that time. The program at The New School’s cool because it allows you to get in touch with these people on an informal level, like you can go to their houses. If there’s opportunity for further musical ventures together then that becomes apparent, so it’s cool like that. It was awesome to spend time with my heroes.
TJG: What was it like studying with Lee Konitz and Mark Turner?
BVG: They’re both very different. Lee’s gone through a lot of changes through the years, playing-wise, and at this point he’s is in a stage where he’s just trying to work from note to note and play as honestly as he can, which usually entails playing music a little slower. We spoke about that at length: playing what you hear and making melodies.
And with Mark, we just worked on applying a system of counterpoint that he’s devised for saxophone, essentially like contrapuntal exercises. We practiced those things together and he’d show them to me and we’d do them. We talked about triads and upper structures and all that, but the most important part of studying with Lee was studying melodies and the major thing I took away from studying with Mark was his deliberateness and precision and execution and focus.
TJG: Did you complete your degree at The New School?
BVG: I did three years at The New School in the dual degree program, and I ended up finishing up my degrees at Amsterdam Conservatory and the University of Amsterdam.
TJG: Any particular reason why you transferred?
BVG: No particular reason; I wanted a change of scene and to spend time in my native country as a young adult. That was really fun: Amsterdam conservatory gave me time to work on the things I wanted to work on, so it was a productive few years.
TJG: You mentioned that you completed a dual degree program. What did you study aside from music?
BVG: Art history. I liked modern art, and I like fairly contemporary stuff. I wrote a thesis on Impressionism, but that’s not necessarily my favorite school of painting or anything like that.
TJG: Does your training in art history inform your approach to music?
BVG: I think everything influences the way you play music, from the little things you do day to day to bigger things like pursuing a degree. I think it all influences the music because, ultimately, you’re just trying to play who you are on the instrument. At least, that’s what I’m trying to do. I definitely think it plays a part in it.
TJG: Who’s influenced you compositionally?
BVG: That’s a hard one. The way I listen to music, if I really like something, I try to figure out what it is about it that I like so much. On a compositional level that applies as well. Whether it’s jazz or classical or rock ‘n’ roll, genre isn’t really what matters. I just try to figure out what the underlying principle is and I take that as a framework and try to make my own songs, and they’ll inevitably be something that sounds like your own because you’re filling in the blanks. Sometimes that’s really it.
The idea can be really simple: orchestrational ideas, for instance. I heard Mark Turner’s band at the Vanguard and it was a chordless quartet. There was a song where the bass was blowing, and the two horns up front were sustaining long notes to form the melody, and the drums were doing something specific. That’s something that inspires me, these clear conceptual frameworks, so I really enjoy the way Craig Taborn writes or improvises, for instance.
TJG: Can you comment on the recent resurgence of interest in players like Warne Marsh, Lee Konitz, and other Lennie Tristano-influenced musicians?
BVG: My interest in that school’s playing has kind of waned a little bit. I’m feeling that I’m kind of turning away from that. The way Lee plays now and the way he played then is really different. I wouldn’t call his playing now Tristano-oriented at all—it’s stretched out and rubato, and the way he used to play was more akin to how Warne Marsh or Mark plays: more notes, more linear. Right now, I’m just trying to focus on being involved with the rhythm section and playing together as a group. That’s something that’s a priority now and I’m trying to work hard on that: playing with other people at all times, not just soloists playing over other people, and just trying to delve into some more extreme sounds on the saxophone—what you can get out of it. I’m less focused on the notes, per se, and on lines and all that.
TJG: What’s your ideal sound on saxophone? Do you imagine a particular sound in your head before you play?
BVG: Yeah, I guess I do. It’s a visceral thing. Sound changes for me, from my perspective. It’s never completely the same, in the same ballpark, but the reed or how I’m feeling changes. I definitely have a concept; I know when it sounds right and when it feels the way I want to feel.
TJG: If you could have a dream collaboration with musicians, dead or living, who would you call?
BVG: Wow, that’s a hard one. I don’t know. I’ve always wanted to play with Miles Davis; I think he’s one of my all-time favorites, whereas Coltrane, I don’t know if I’d have an idea. It’d just be the experience of playing with someone like that. I’d really love to work more with—I’ve been working a bit with Ambrose [Akinmusire] and Mark [Turner], and Thomas Morgan…I’m just naming some of the musicians that I really love and would love to play with, but I don’t know in what shape or form yet.
TJG: There’s been a lot of anxiety about the term “jazz” lately. Are you concerned with whether you’re perceived as a jazz musician?
BVG: Not really. I’m definitely jazz-influenced, but I wouldn’t necessarily call my music “jazz,” per se. I’m not so worried about it. I think it’s problematic because every music that has an improvisatory element is called jazz or some weird hybrid, but that’s of no interest to me—the actual label and what niche it’s placed into. I guess it is limiting in a sense. Jazz music usually means that it caters towards a small audience, but I know a lot of people are open and receptive to creative music, you know, if they’re exposed to it in the right circumstances, but I don’t give it a lot of thought what genre my music subscribes to.
The Ben van Gelder Group, featuring Ben van Gelder on saxophone, Peter Schlamb on vibraphone, Matt Brewer on bass, and Craig Weinrib on drums, performs this Friday, October 25th, at The Jazz Gallery. Sets are at 9 and 10:30 p.m., $20 general admission and $10 for Members. Purchase tickets here.