Ben Marston was born in Canberra and started playing the trumpet at age 9 in the primary school brass band. He studied at the ANU School of Music completing an honors degree in jazz performance and then a masters in jazz composition. His time studying composition helped him to write the music for his first album and the success of that encouraged him to pursue writing and performing original music. His playing career has led him to perform with some of Australia’s great jazz musicians including Bob Bertles, James Morrison and Emma Pask. Ben was shortlisted for the 2014 Freedman Fellowship Jazz awards and awarded a grant for travel to Norway to study with the world pioneer in live remix Jan Bang.
The Street talked to Ben, one of the six musicians in the ensemble selected for Flight Memory premiering on November 14th.
I was introduced to Miles Davis by my father when I was 13 and for the next few years that’s how I thought the trumpet should sound. Even though my concept of the sound has changed over the years Miles is never too far away.
WHAT ARE THE POSSIBILITIES OF TRUMPET AS AN INSTRUMENT?
For me personally the first thing I always jump to is a lyrical melody. Something not too far removed from the human voice. However particularly with the aid of technology it has many possibilities. I have even been using it to play bass parts in recent times. It has lots of textural applications when played softly and when combined with technology I have been finding some very synth like tones.
HOW DID YOU FIRST RESPOND TO THE MUSIC SCORE COMPOSED BY SANDRA FRANCE FOR FLIGHT MEMORY?
My first thoughts were that it had some real similarities to Maria Schneider and that excited me because Maria writes such wonderful music. I was also excited by Sandy’s ability to fuse genres, both jazz and classical. For me music is most exciting when it doesn’t stay predictable, when it moves to reflect the times and places it is in and Sandy has done a great job of creating music that is at once recognisable but at the same time fresh and innovative.
FLIGHT MEMORY IS A NEW SONG CYCLE MIXING A SONG CYCLE MIXING UP EVERYTHING FROM JAZZ TO CONTEMPORARY CLASSICAL VOICE TO TELL THE STORY OF THE BLACK BOX INVENTOR. WHAT SOUNDS CAN WE EXPECT?
As I mentioned before and as your question rightly points out a fusion of contemporary classical and jazz. To describe the music I would say that it has a feeling of weightlessness at times but then moments of groove. Not a groove that you might dance to but one that you would bop your head to.
WHAT IS IT LIKE WORKING WITH ANOTHER COMPOSER?
Great! Relaxing! Having worked on my own large projects before I am not envious at all at the moment. Right now Sandy is neck deep in charts, trying to convey her ideas to musicians still getting to grips with the music and having to stay calm. My job is easy. I get the privilege of hearing this great music unfold with the hardest job being counting bars rest.
THE PRODUCTION HAS BEEN COMPOSED FOR THREE VOICES AND AN ENSEMBLE OF SIX. HOW DOES IMPROVISATION FIT INTO THE CREATIVE MIX?
At the moment that is one of the elements still unfolding. Sandy has written in small sections for most players to blow over and the grooves are pretty open at times also. I get the feeling that once we get more comfortable with the overall work each of the musicians will start to stretch out a bit.
WHAT IS YOUR APPROACH TO COLLABORATION WITH OTHER ARTISTS?
At this early stage trying not to foul up my parts in a way that makes everyone else’s job harder. That often involves talking with Tom Fell on saxophone a fair bit as we have lots of things that are connected. It also involves being pretty humble when the rhythm section quite rightly point out just how out of place I just was.
HOW DO YOU COMBINE YOUR WORK AS A COMPOSER, MUSICIAN AND EDUCATOR?
To begin with I have always found that teaching informs my playing and composing so it will always be something that I want to do. I have also always found it quite natural to incorporate my current musical ideas into my teaching. Right now I am running a class for high school students that is combining electronic programmed music with live music. I also find it important to be connected with young students so that I can be hearing what they listen to. I wouldn’t otherwise think to listen to it and sometimes I wish I hadn’t but other times it opens some great doors. That’s how I found one of my recent favourite musicians Flying Lotus.
WHAT WAS THE IMPACT OF STUDYING AT THE ANU SCHOOL OF MUSIC ON YOUR MUSIC?
I feel profoundly lucky to have studied at the ANU when I did. The environment was one that really encouraged a high level of musical ability. It is those abilities that have enabled me to pursue my creative ideas and it cannot be underestimated how important it is to have a high level of musicianship when pursuing creativity. Creativity pushes you in directions that can be very challenging.
PLEASE SHARE YOUR PERSPECTIVES ON THE AUSTRALIAN MUSIC/JAZZ SCENE AND THE MUSICIANS COMING OUT OF ANU SCHOOL OF MUSIC MAKING THEIR MARK NATIONALLY AND INTERNATIONALLY.
I think it is a difficult time to be a jazz musician in Australia. The music is great but the audience is small. It is a double edged sword. I think that Australian audiences are very conservative however I don’t think that jazz musicians are particularly good at considering the audience’s perspective. It can be quite easy to get stuck in a bit of a bubble. It’s what is so great this music of Sandy’s. By fusing these elements it slides out of the bubble. It should connect with audiences whilst still being creative and innovative.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Musically I have many inspirations. Arve Henriksen and Jan Bang from Norway, Chet Baker, Don Cherry and a great trumpeter from Chicago Jaimie Branch. As I previously mentioned Flying Lotus and another electronic musician Aphex Twin. However my biggest influence is Jon Hassell. His music is strikingly original but beautiful.
WHAT ARE YOU READING AND WATCHING CURRENTLY?
I am unfortunately not reading as much as I used to. I used to read novels all the time but have found that I need the teaching break be able to consider it. Then the novels tend to be pretty light. I read Ready Player One this year (the movie was terrible) and some Le Carre. I also have to admit to being in the middle of reading all of the Wolverine comics. Pretty sure my English teaching wife shakes her head every time she sees me doing it. I’m a big fan of HBO and am currently watching Westworld (I’m a sci fi nerd) and Treme a great show about New Orleans.