Award-winning jazz pianist and composer Ben Winkelman is touring Australia to celebrate the release of his new trio album, The Knife. Formerly of Melbourne, Ben has been living in New York since 2010, where he is active on the jazz, Latin and gospel music scenes. He has previously released three critically acclaimed albums on Jazzhead. His second album won the AIR Award for Best Independent Jazz Release, his first was nominated for an Australian Jazz Bell Award and his third was nominated for an AIR Award.
His Australian tour touches down in Canberra on March 19th.
WHAT WAS THE FIRST CONCERT YOU EVER WENT TO?
I went to see Wham at the Melbourne Tennis Centre when I was 11, but I don’t think that was the first one. My Dad took me to see some jazz bands in Perth before that, but I don’t remember who they were. I remember being awestruck the first time I saw Mark Fitzgibbon play in my teens.
DID YOU START YOUR TRAINING AS A CHILD? WEEKENDS SPENT AT THE PIANO PRACTICING SCALES? CLASSICAL FIRST OR JAZZ FROM THE OUTSET?
I took drum lessons from age 10 and piano from 11. I studied beginner classical pieces and scales, and my Dad started showing me some Bach on the piano before I started lessons. I think I was a pretty indifferent piano student. I started writing songs on guitar when I was 12. At 14 a new piano teacher started teaching me bit about jazz, after that I started working at it more and trying to improvise. Around that time I started collecting jazz records and trying to piece together the history of the music. I considered drums my main instrument until I was around 15. My first gigs were on drums at 14 and 15, playing in a punk band that played preachy anarchist/animal rights songs. In my late teens I studied with two great jazz pianists: Mickey Tucker and Paul Grabowsky, which was a transformative experience. I applied myself more seriously to classical music as an adult – Bach, Chopin etudes, Ravel.
My Dad had a pretty eclectic record collection – Oscar Peterson, John Coltrane, a lot of classical music, The Beatles, West African music. Apparently when I was a small child I listened obsessively to Fiddler On The Roof and Magical Mystery Tour.
WAS THERE A PERIOD IN YOUR CAREER WHEN IT WAS A STRUGGLE TO GET NOTICED? WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU’D KNOWN THEN?
At the moment I’m trying to get more of a jazz career going in the US, and it’s a struggle to get noticed! I’ve been lucky to be able to earn a living playing music in New York, but it is difficult to advance my band-leading career here, it’s a large and competitive music scene.
I was a working musician in Melbourne from about 18 on, playing in a variety of bands – salsa, jazz, electronica, klezmer, but it wasn’t until I was around 30 that it finally dawned on me that no one was going to start a jazz band-leading career for me, I would need to do it myself. At first I found it difficult, perhaps partly because I wasn’t used to putting myself forward, but eventually it got a little easier.
Sometimes I wish I’d known at an earlier age how much commitment, persistence and work is needed to make a career in music (or even to play an instrument well), but perhaps it’s just as well that I only found out later: maybe I needed the naive fearlessness of youth to be able to go down this path.
WHAT IS THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN?
A few jazz teachers along the way have told me some form of “only play the notes you really mean”. I’m still trying to apply this advice. What you leave out can be as important as what you include.
ARE YOU SUPERSTITIOUS? IS THERE A PROCESS THAT YOU ALWAYS LIKE TO GO THROUGH BEFORE STEPPING OUT ON STAGE?
I’m not superstitious and I don’t really have a process before going on stage. In an ideal world I would always take a few minutes to sit quietly, relax and slow my thoughts down before playing, but there isn’t always the opportunity, especially in a club or bar setting. I have been meaning to start meditating before concerts, maybe one of these years I will.
IF YOU HAD AN HOUR TO JAM WITH ANY MUSICIAN (ALIVE OR DEAD) WHO WOULD IT BE?
I have to say that Ben Vanderwal and Sam Anning are some of my favourite musicians to play with. Since I live in New York and they live in Perth and Melbourne it’s hard to round them up too often but it’s going to be such a treat to play a whole tour with them. I can hardly wait.
YOU’RE BASED IN NEW YORK NOW, CAN YOU DESCRIBE WHAT MAKES THAT SCENE UNIQUE?
As far as jazz goes, New York occupies a unique position in the world. Historically, it’s been the centre for jazz since the 1930s, so the culture of jazz in this city goes back a long way. Quite a few historical figures who have shaped the course of the music are still alive and active here. There are frequent opportunities to see many of my favourite pianists, such as Brad Mehldau, Danilo Perez, Kevin Hays and Fred Hersch. Keith Jarrett plays solo at Carnegie Hall once a year. There’s no other city with the same concentration of jazz musicians playing at such a high level. Jazz musicians from all over the world who aspire to play at a higher level move here to learn and try to participate. It’s a good place to come for a reality check. It can be difficult to live here and the competition is fierce, but there’s always lots of great music to see. I find it both daunting and inspiring.
Something unique about the US is the African-American church. I’ve been playing for a black church for four and a half years, it’s been a great opportunity to learn about gospel music.