The Gospel of Winkelman

By Anna Riddel


When Melbourne-raised jazz pianist and composer Ben Winkelman moved to New York City four and a half years ago, he wasn’t expecting to stumble upon the journey that would be the biggest newfound influence on his own music. Replying to a job vacancy for a keys player in a church on Long Island, the man who answered Winkelman’s call immediately asked,  “You know we’re a black church, right?

So how did this self-professed Atheist jazz pianist of Jewish background from Melbourne end up playing keys in an all African-American gospel church on Long Island?

“I answered an ad off (online noticeboard) Craig’s List and played piano for them over the phone.”

Gospel music was largely an unknown entity to Winkelman before he later went down to the church to play for them live.

They opened up a book of hymns and I played them. Then they told me,

‘Play it again and put some blackness into it’, I guess they liked what they heard.

Earlier, Winkelman told me about the Cuban rhythms that have long been referenced in his work. I asked him about what he found to be the most surprising element learned through experiencing Gospel music.

That there is so much of it. There is a whole musical universe of gospel music. It varies between church denominations and the age of the denomination. The variations in gospel music are as vast as the difference between pop and funk, or swing.”

Winkelman describes the experience of learning to play during a service as a kind of an improvisation in itself.

Towards the end [of the service] the pastor gives a sermon. I learned about the Preacher Chord – the chord progression goes through a cycle as the pastor builds to a climax. You have to listen to the rhythm and anticipate when he will peak – which is all built up by the pastor. I try to sync up the rhythms with the drummer, finding the rhythm of the timing in the pastor’s words.”

This award-winning jazz pianist and composer is now touring Australia to celebrate the release of his new trio album, The Knife. Reuniting for the tour are some of Winkelman’s favourite jazz co-conspirators, Ben Vanderwal (drums) and Sam Anning (bass). Prior to now, Winkelman has released three critically acclaimed albums. His second album won the AIR Award for Best Independent Jazz Release, whilst his first and third were nominated for an Australian Jazz Bell Award and an AIR Award respectively.

Winkelman’s new album The Knife is quite simply joyous to listen to. Throughout the album he creates jazz melodies that shift in and out of familiar Cuban songs and rhythms, or cleverly reference his time working in the gospel scene. I mentioned that the album really held my attention and I could have listened to it all day. This was something that Winkelman told me he thought about whilst composing,

When I created each song I clearly had in mind the audience and what they would want to hear. In doing this I shifted away from basing tunes around different sections or motifs towards that of longer melodies.”

It is a clever album this way because he was spot on, I wanted to hear to more – the creative shifts in time signatures and melodies keep the music interesting, yet it is easy to listen to. Even for those that don’t know jazz, this is an album that can be enjoyed and the live concert will be a great place for an introduction to the world of jazz music.

The Ben Winkelman Trio touches down for one night only in Canberra at The Street Theatre on March 19. Tickets range from $25-$35.

I am told that if nothing else, the audience will have a lot of fun. Let’s face it, they will be witnessing a band straight out of jazz heaven.

Anna Riddel - headshot_resized

The Street Theatre commissioned writer and performer Anna Riddel to write this article as part of an ongoing project around writing inspired by jazz and improvised music.