Saturday, June 30, 2012


Ben Powell is a self-assured jazz violin player. So much so, Powell believes if Stephane Grappelli--his musical hero, and  the co-founder of the Quintette de Hot Club de France with his homeboy gypsy jazz ace Django Reinhart--were still alive Grappelli would enjoy Powell's debut New Street. That’s not a wishful belief of a young and a cocky jazz musician. At 25, Powell has already built an bulletproof resume'. At Berklee College of Music, Powell studied jazz composition, and he took classes taught by the great saxophone player Joe Lovano. Professionally, Powell worked with some famous musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Gloria Estefan and Paul Simon. 

New Street was designed to be two albums in one. Of the 10 cuts, Powell performed on half of them with his quartet piano player Tadataka Unno, drummer Devin Drobka, and bass player Aaron Darrell. 

The trio has performed regularly for a few years. They’re tighter than a blues musician’s guitar strings. They hauled ass through Powell's up tempo numbers Judith, and Monk 4 Strings. On the rest of New Street, Powell performed with his Stephane Grappelli Tribute Trio. This is were the album shifted from freewheeling to a lovely nod to Grappelli.

The jazz vibraphone player Gary Burton and guitar player Julian Lage are in the trio. Nowadays Lage is popular as a profitable hedge fund. The trio co-exist nicely. Last Monday, Powell checked in with I Dig Jazz to chat about New Street  and how Grappelli's music liberated him.

 Stephane Grappelli had an impact on legions of violinists. How did his music impact you?

Stéphane was the first jazz violinist I ever heard, and really the first jazz album I had ever listened to as a young teenager. Having studied only classical violin up until that point, I was (and continue to be) inspired by Grappelli’s graceful sound and impeccable intonation. As a classical player I really resonated with these qualities in his playing.  Beyond that, the effortless nature of his swinging solos and lyrical interpretations of melodies was so liberating for me.  I couldn’t help but smile and feel overjoyed with inspiration every time I listened, which became daily as I gathered more and more of his material. 

Sounds as if you’re completely floored the first time you heard Grappelli.

Yes, floored is a great word for it. I had never heard the violin sound like that. It was so liberating to me, hearing someone just ‘make it up’ yet sound so in control and play with such great rhythm.

Was it a dream to form the Stephane Grappelli Tribute Trio?

Paying tribute to Stéphane was something I had wanted to do for a while, and this new record presented the perfect opportunity to do it.  I always knew I didn’t want to dedicate an entire album to the tribute, so how to do it in a concise and special way was certainly on my mind. In early 2010 I was corresponding with Gary Burton via email, and it was then I asked him if he would be interested in helping me pay tribute.  Most of our correspondence had been about Grappelli, and his memories of him and their recording of ‘Paris Encounter’.  I met Gary through Julian Lage, so having the three of us together was very fitting.  And so the tribute trio was formed.   

Julian Lage is sensational. He released an excellent disc last year Gladwell. How long have you  been running the streets with him?

The recording session in the Fall of 2011 was the first time we played as a trio.  I had performed on a few occasions with Julian at Berklee, but never before with Gary. 

How different would New Street be if Burton and Lage had not participated?

Good question. Well, the trio added a nice change in timbre to the quartet material, so immediately New Street would not have had the two in one feel it has with the two groups under one title.  I suppose I would have done the tribute anyhow in a different way. Most likely not including vibraphone, but possibly something with guitar and bass in a trio setting.  One will never know!  

Did you have to twist Burton's and Lage's arm to get them to sign on? Or were they receptive from the get-go?

 Gary was very receptive to the idea, but had a busy year with the release of his own record and touring with his Quartet (featuring Julian), and Gary had dates with Chick Corea. Gary informed Julian of the project, and all fell into place once we settled on a date.   

Half of New Street you record with your quartet, and the other half with your trio. Did you feel that listeners, particularly jazz critics would feel you couldn't make up your mind the kind of album you wanted to make? 

 No that never crossed my mind.  It was exactly what I wanted, in that it was almost like two albums in one.  I wanted the more traditional tribute material to complement my more contemporary material with my quartet, and vice versa.  I often felt if Grappelli heard New Street, he would enjoy hearing what I have done with the inspiration he has given me, while also presenting material in his style.    

 I'm going to put you on the spot. Which group do you enjoy performing with the most your quartet or your trio?

I don’t think I’m going to be able to give you a straight answer.  Both contexts were extremely different. Walking into the studio and recording and playing with Gary Burton for the first time was very exhilarating, especially on my own record.  Having the time to rehearse with my quartet and digest the material before entering the studio was also very enjoyable.  Both presented different challenges, but were equally enjoyable as I hope can be heard from the music on New Street.

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