Thursday, April 14, 2016

Artist Spotlight #1: Interview with Ben Van Gelder

I'm proud to introduce the first installment in a series of interviews with some of my favorite, and some of the most innovative saxophonists on today's scene, with Mr. Ben Van Gelder.


I discovered Ben through a live video recording posted on YouTube, featuring him improvising over the changes of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are". Ben's fresh approach over one of the most popular standard tunes of all time instantly caught my attention at a rather confusing time for me. I was transitioning from tenor to alto as my main instrument, as well as becoming frustrated with the chord-scale approach to improvisation. Ben's harmonic concept, tone and aesthetics opened my ears to new possibilities at the right time. Thankfully, YouTube provided many hours of additional live material.

Ben is part of a multi-directional revival of the genre, lead by many creative individuals over the past 10 to 15 years. This new wave of musicians has successfully overcome the detrimental perspective to daring innovation encompassed in the Neo-Bop style of the "Young Lions", a movement that Miles Davis called "warmed over turkey".

Although undoubtedly rooted in tradition, Ben Van Gelder's style incorporates elaborate, complex harmonic approaches, while remaining spontaneously melodic. "Pushing the envelope" isn't synonym with gratuitous dissonance for Ben, whose masterful control over harmonic tension and release allows him to freely, but coherently navigate harmonic maps, by using chord superimposition and alterations.

Tonal color is also something which seems to be of great significance to Mr. Van Gelder. This is made obvious by his use of texture, false fingerings, multiphonics and his affinity with unaccompanied improvisation. In this particularly exposing context, it is made obvious that Ben splendidly sings through his horn. The tremendous control he displays over the instrument allows him to effortlessly transition between delicate, evocative undertones, proud proclamations, and even aggressive outcries at times.

These attributes of Ben Van Gelder's approach, are all reflected in his compositional style, and the two albums he recorded as a leader, Frame of Reference and Reprise, as well as through his collaboration with like-minded musicians such as Reinier Baas.

Do You Know Ben Van Gelder?

Ben was born in 1988, in Groningen, the largest city in the north of the Netherlands (2 hours from Amsterdam). He grew up in a music-loving family, with a father who owns a record store - which undoubtedly must have been a never-ending source of inspiration - and a mother who is a classically trained musician. Ben's older brother, pianist Gideon, was also a significant influence, as the two brothers naturally became musical companions in their childhood.

Ben started playing alto saxophone at age 12 after taking classical piano lessons from age 7 to 11. This classical education on the piano was a crucial part in his development as a young musician (to this day the piano is one of Ben's key instrument when it comes to writing and arranging). After studying privately with Simon Rigter for 3 years, Ben began his musical studies at the Conservatorium van Amsterdam in 2003. There, he was under the supervision of Ferdinand Povel and Dick Oatts, and studied with Jasper Blom when pursuing his Masters. Despite his young age at the time, he started making appearances at many prestigious venues such as Bimhuis and the North Sea Jazz Festival.

As a duo with his older brother, Ben won the Audience Award at the 2004 Princess Cristina Jazz Concours. In 2005 he received the Stan Getz / Clifford Brown Fellowship which allowed him to begin his studies in New York City at the The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in 2006. There, he benefited from the supervision of many jazz visionaries such as Lee Konitz, George Coleman and Mark Turner.

Along the way, Ben met David Binney in an informal session in NYC, who would take on a pivotal role in Ben's development and career. Not only did Binney recruit Ben in his big band project, but he also let him sit in at his regular show at the 55 bar, which allowed Ben to be introduced to many of the most talented musicians on the scene.

While performing at many of the most renowned jazz clubs in NYC, and abroad, Ben recorded his acclaimed debut album, Frame of Reference, with a quintet comprised of Aaron Parks on piano, Peter Schlamb on vibraphone, Rick Rosato on bass and Craig Weinrib on drums. The album also guest-featured some of today's most innovative musicians in the scene: Ambrose Akinmusire on trumpet, Kyle Wilson on tenor saxophone and many more.

An equally well received second album, Reprise, followed in 2013. The record featured guest performances by Mark Turner and Ben Street alongside his regular quintet. He also recorded and toured with The More Socially Relevant Jazz Music Ensemble of guitarist Reinier Baas, a collaboration which yielded several albums.

More recently, Ben made two appearances with the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands, alongside his long time friend Reinier Baas. The orchestra performed compositions from both of them, arranged for the large formation.

Ben continues to perform in New York City and all over Europe, while looking forward to new challenges.


Metropole Orkest 

You’ve just made two appearances with the Metropole Orkest in the Netherlands, alongside your long time friend and fellow musician Reinier Baas (note: you can watch excerpts of the concert at the end of the article. Click HERE to jump to it). How was the experience of working with the orchestra? 

It was amazing! One of the best times I had playing music. They are so incredibly professional and besides that, fun to work with.

Did hearing your compositions played with the orchestra change your perception of them?

Five of my compositions were arranged for the occasion. An additional five compositions of Reinier’s were also arranged. It is pretty powerful to hear your music magnified by about 50 people. In my writing, I draw from classical music and it turns out that the music lends itself really well to be played by an orchestra that has a big band component and a classical one as well. If anything, it made me think more creatively about colors and timbre. The orchestra has so many textures and the arrangers used all those sounds so effectively, with really great taste.

In what ways, if any, did you have to adapt your approach as a saxophonist compared to playing with smaller groups like you more often do?

I didn’t have to adapt very much at all. The solo space was pretty much the same as when I play the music with my quintet/ septet. There is more responsibility when there are fewer people and the music is more malleable because of the nature of the smaller formation. But all in all I would say that it was a lot easier because there is so much sound from the orchestra to lean on and be inspired by.


Band Sound & Writing Music

Let’s talk about your long-time collaboration with Reinier Baas. Some of the strongest and most unique music in the style came from working bands, like the various Miles Davis formations, the John Coltrane Quartet, the various Blakey bands and many more. Yet, the reality of the jazz business makes it hard for working bands to stay together and develop a sound over a long period of time. In this sense, how would you say your long time collaboration with Reinier Baas benefits the music?

I agree. To me a band sound is paramount. I really like being involved with long term projects. It requires an investment. In Reinier’s case this investment has paid off in ever growing musical ties between all members of the band. I find that the music we play - some of it we have been playing for over five years - changes as we all develop as musicians. The form stays the same but the content changes. That is something I have noticed with my group as well.

Is band cohesion and sound something you consider when writing music? Do you take into consideration the personality and personal sounds of the musicians you’ll be recording and performing your compositions with?

Absolutely. Personality is one the elements that gets my creative process flowing. It helps me tremendously to outline compositions when someone’s playing speaks to my imagination.

Do you have a process for writing music? Where does your inspiration come from?

There are many approaches I have to writing. Sometimes songs just develop under my fingers but those moments are rare. I’ve been spending time trying to get more control of the compositional process. Listening analytically and writing down concepts that grab my attention is one way to create a handle for future compositions. I have a lot of exercises that help me to get started and allow me to write music more easily. One example would be to write down rhythms first and fill in the pitches later.



Who are some of your main musical influences?

There are too many to list. My dad has a pretty incredible record collection. It is almost like a library. As a kid I would go through phases where I would check one person out for a while. Jackie Mclean, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Cannonball Adderley, Herbie Hancock, Miles, Duke... and many more. I would collect all the records my dad had of whichever musician I was checking out and listen to most of them. I was invested in Lennie Tristano and his acolytes for a while. At the time that was definitely a big influence on my way of practicing and musical conception as a whole. Most recently I have been listening to Duke, Mingus, Rollins, Coltrane, Stravinksy and Ravel. I listen to them for phrasing, articulation, orchestration and composition. But I don’t just draw inspiration from music. I studied art history in Amsterdam.Visual art is a big influence on my practice as a composer and improviser. 

In the biography on your website, you cite Mark Turner as one of your influences and instructor. How was the experience of recording and playing with one of your mentors?

It is really inspiring for me to work with Mark Turner. He operates on such a tremendous level. His focus is really admirable. It reminds me of what to work on and what my priorities should be.

Photo by Eddy Westveer (



You teach private lessons, and also give masterclasses. Has teaching influenced your development as a musician? Have you learned anything from teaching?

It is hard to articulate musical concepts. Every person is different and the way to approach improvised music is as diverse. Teaching made me think about the universals and ways to work on those in a concrete way.

What are some of the fundamentals of musicianship and improvising that are most often overlooked by students and developing musicians?

I do find that I often address the same topics with different students. Phrasing and note placement (i.e. timing) are definitely a recurring concern.


Saxophone, Improvising and Practicing

Do you play any other instrument than the saxophone, and how would you say it benefits your overall musicianship??

I play flute and some bass clarinet. It helps me imagine different sounds which helps me when I compose. It also allows me to play classical repertoire that I really like (Bach and Brahms for instance).

What's your setup, and is there any particular reason why you ended up with this particular combination of gear?

I’ve been playing a (24,xxx) Selmer Balanced Action and Lebayle 6* mouthpiece for the past 10 years. I’ve played different brands and strengths when it comes to reeds. I now play Vandoren Java 3.5. Before that I was playing Rico Jazz Select 3H.

Photo by Willem Schwertmann (Flickr)

Are you following a practice routine at the moment and/or are you working towards specific goals?

My routine varies.  I keep a practice log and notice that I’m working on different things throughout the week. Something that I do practice daily are long tones and scales. That helps me feel comfortable on the instrument. One day I might practice playing a standard in different keys, another day I might be more focused on transcribing. Another thing I’m working on consistently right now is my flute playing, on getting a fuller sound, projection, tuning and articulation. I’m also working on finalizing the repertoire for a new album so I have also been writing regularly. 

How do you stay spontaneous despite the need to have a musical vocabulary as a basis to build on, whether it is borrowed and appropriated, or original approaches built from the ground up?

Originality is not my main concern when I’m playing. I’m trying to be as communicative and expressive as possible. That is the priority. We are human and therefore different from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour.  Then there are external circumstances to take into account. The sound of the room, the energy of the audience, the time of the day etc. Being genuine and honest is tied to this realization. I am aware that not every situation is the same and that it might require a radically different approach.

I just discovered the 2008 album “Release”, where you sound very different than your current self. The difference is astounding, not only in terms of the language you use, your approach to harmony and melody, but also tone, articulation and time feel. How did you manage to transform your musical identity so drastically?

That album was actually recorded in 2005. I was 16 at the time of the recording. I am 27 now. That is a decade of practicing and experience on stage. So the change sounds drastic but it is actually more gradual than you might think. My priorities have shifted over the course of the years and so have my areas of focus. 


Wrapping It Up

Any of your contemporaries you’d recommend checking out?

I have a lot of amazingly talented friends that I love listening to. This is a non comprehensive list: Alon Albagli, Ross Gallagher, Martin Nevin, Richard Sears, Kyle Wilson, Rafiq Bhatia, Peter Schlamb, Rick Rosato, Sam Harris, Lucas Pino, Glenn Zaleski, Tony Tixier my brother Gideon, the list goes on and on.   

What’s happening for you at the moment? Any big project coming up in the future?

I’m working on a new album for my quintet (some songs will feature an extended ensemble) which is due for release this fall. I’m bringing my Quintet to Europe for a tour. That requires a lot of planning. In addition I’m working on repertoire for my chordless group featuring Mark Turner, Matt Brewer and Craig Weinrib. We have a show in New York in June.

I have also been performing as a trio with Han Bennink and Reinier Baas. That project will hopefully be recorded in the near future. Han has been a big influence on the way I look at music performance. He manages to break down the 4th wall, the imaginary division between audience and performer, within seconds.

The Ben Van Gelder Quintet live at Small's. Recorded on February 11th 2016


Links & Downloads

In this section, you'll find albums, videos and a few bootleg tracks to check out.


We'll be featuring the two albums lead by Ben Van Gelder, as well as a couple of the more recent LP's from Reinier Baas, featuring Ben. Although the focus of this article is on the saxophonist, Reinier Baas is a musician worth checking out. I particularly enjoy his clean, brighter, yet full sounding guitar tone. It is a very refreshing aesthetic choice compared to the more muted and processed popular alternative. Reinier is also a splendid composer who blends melodic content, harmonic complexity and a variety of musical influences, in a writing that challenges the listener without being mentally exhausting. The guitarist's tunes are formidable vehicles for Ben to express himself on the horn.

Direct | iTunes 

Direct (physical copy) | iTunes | Google Play Store | Amazon

Direct (physical copy) | iTunes | Google Play Store | Amazon | 
Reinier's BandCamp page (where you can preview the album for free). 

Feel free to listen to this Spotify playlist featuring a variety of albums featuring Ben as a leader or sideman.

Metropole Orkest

The YouTube playlist below contains a couple of tunes from the concert, and a behind-the-scene video featuring rehearsal excerpts and an interview with Reinier and Ben.

The full concert is available for viewing through the Metropole Orkest iOS and Android mobile apps.

If you feel like discovering more about the Metropole Orkest, you can browse their websites or follow @MetropoloOrkest on Twitter.

Bootlegs, live videos and more

Finally, there are also numerous live audio tracks and videos featuring Ben, like this incredibly hip version of "Airegin" on tenor saxophonist's Kyle Wilson's website, this track from Joachim Govin's record Elements on SoundCloud, a few unauthorized concert bootlegs that I won't be linking to here for obvious reasons, many videos on YouTube like the live version of  "Take the Coltrane" below, and more around the web.


This wraps up the first installment of our Artist Spotlight series. I'd like to thank Ben for his superb contribution, Eddy Westveer and Willem Schwertmann for letting me use their photography, as well as the Metropole Orkest for the generous advice and making these amazing videos available.

You can follow Ben through his website, Facebook page or Twitter.

Any request, remark or suggestion, please don't hesitate to take them to the comment section below.

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1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful interview! I particularly enjoyed the discussion of his writing process. Keep up the good work!


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