Voltarol - related music

Friday, 31 July 2009

An Interview with Benjamin Taubkin

Last Tuesday night I was at The Vortex jazz club in London for the Benjamin Taubkin gig. He’s been something of a hero of mine for some time (see previous posting) so I was very pleased to be able to interview him after the performance. It goes without saying that I had a very enjoyable night. The first set was played solo but the second set featured two guest artists – both of whom I knew from promoting them in the past. First up was percussionist Adriano Adewale who I know from his involvement with the band Caratinga. Adriano played most of the second set and produced some very interesting duets with Benjamin, who has a great affinity with percussionists. They were joined for the last two numbers by singer Mônica Vasconcelos, who I met and interviewed in São Paulo about ten years ago, and whose band, Nóis, I subsequently put on in Cornwall.

Benjamin, a native of São Paulo, was extremely well received and was obviously fairly tired after his performance but nevertheless found time for the following interview

Voltarol: My understanding is that your music combines elements of jazz, classical music, choro, samba etc. Do you think about music in these different terms or as a whole thing?

Benjamin: As a whole. For me it’s a whole…for me music is one thing. I listen to Beethoven, to Schuman, to Schubert the same way I listen to traditional music or even good pop music. Music for me is one. Of course you have different kinds of things…if I go out it doesn’t make sense in a bar to listen to a symphony - or if you go to a party – and of course you need a different kind of attention to listen to more introspective music, but for me music is one and I digest all the language

V: So it’s like language in effect. It’s a constant conversation – you’re talking with people musically…

B: Yes. All the time! And it’s the same thing as words. You use the words for different meanings but it’s one language.

V: You obviously come from a very musical family. What was the first music that you listened to?

B: My mother. She used to sing and play the piano and when I was really young – about three years old – she used to sing and I used to sit and listen to her. And I loved it, because she told stories with this music. And I thank her…thank her. So since then I started to listen to a lot of music. And then my father – he wasn’t a musician at all. His passion was for books, for poetry, but when I was six years old he bought a tape recorder and he bought GershwinPorgy and Bess, he bought West Side Story by Leonard Bernstein…so I started to listen to a lot of music very young.

V: In amongst the classical influences am I right in detecting Debussy?

B: Um -Ye-es…but I listen much more to the Romantics – to Beethoven, to Brahms than to Debussy. I think that this influence of Debussy came more from Bill Evans or stuff like that…and from Tom Jobim maybe, more than listening directly to him.

V: What sort of age were you when you first started focusing on music?

B: Eighteen. I started very late. I started thinking I really wanted to play piano when I was eighteen years old. It was a funny thing because no one wanted to give me classes because the good teachers said I was too old to become a piano player, so I decided to go by myself…so I self taught in this sense but of course I learned from everybody.

V: Did go straight to the piano or did you start with other instruments.

Straight to the piano.

V: …and you never did any of that thing, of having a teenage band…

B: No. I loved music but I didn’t play with others.

V: Are their any particular musicians or composers that you would say had a particular influence on you?

B: Yes. In Brazil Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal, Tom Jobim – after Bossa Nova mostly – especially two records: ‘Urubu’ and ‘Matita Pere’, these were very important for me, these were the musicians from Brazil. And of course Bill Evans, Keith Jarret these two piano players…and then traditional music, choro music…a lot of music. I continue to listen to a lot of music. I’m very open.

V: Yes. My daughter just played me the latest Caetano album and he’s playing with a very pared down, very modern sound with a lot of electronics going on…but it’s still Caetano…it’s still good music happening there, and I find it very interesting that – here’s a guy that’s older than me and I’m 64 as near as dammit –

B: He’s 66 – no, 67.

V: …and he’s always up for something new…and it’s not just for the sake of it…

B: No. He’s alive!

V: You obviously enjoy musical collaborations.

B: Very much. I am doing this all the time. I just came from Morocco. I played with musicians from there – Moroccan musicians – and I already played in my life with musicians from India, from Africa. I have projects with South American musicians. I am part now of six different groups. I am all the time inviting musicians to play together…and now I have a concert in November and besides playing my own project in this concert I have invited a hip-hop group and also a traditional group from Pernambuco.

V: And do you have a list of people that you want to work with?

B: Some of them…there is one percussion player that I particularly want to work with…

V: You seem to have an affinity with percussionist as well, which is unusual because your piano style is a very lyrical one. But you work with them very well.

B: You know, I have the time all the time. Inside me all the time is (he mimics the sound of a pandeiro) so the time is always running…so it’s very easy for me to play with percussion. As you know, the Orquestra – the Popular Chamber Orchestra – we had four percussionists.

V: Yes. Four very good percussionists! Will we be seeing any more of Orquestra Popular de Câmara or is that a finished project?

B: No. It’s not finished but we gave a time because it was ten years doing it and we felt we began to be a cover of ourselves, because the group became quite popular in São Paulo so we had a lot of invitations and a lot of gigs but I sensed that we were copying ourselves and I didn’t like that…So I am doing a new project orchestra which has some musicians from the first one… but we will be back some time.

V: I know you’ve worked a lot with Teco Cardoso

B: …yes, a great musician…

V: …and Mônica Salmaso, whose voice you used a lot. That was really interesting, the way that you used it…but also you have another side to you which is that you are a very sympathetic accompanist.

B: Yes, I love to accompany. I played with Mônica for nine years and I played with another singer - Zizi Possi - for five years.

V: Normally, when musicians start record labels it’s to promote themselves because they can’t get the big companies interested, but your label, Núcleo Contemporâneo, seems to have been created for a bigger purpose than that. It’s not just for you. You seem to see a much bigger musical picture.

B: Yes. When we started it was with the idea of producing a lot of things. Nowadays I’m more focussed on producing my own music but this is mostly because of the way that the market is. I realised that I had to be focussed on one thing so nowadays I am more focussed on my music and the projects that I’m doing – with a lot of musicians of course – but the initial Idea wasn’t that. It was to be the place for this kind of music and for a lot of people.

V: Well if it makes you feel better… I realised quite early on that anything I bought that was on your label was always good and because I’m always trying to learn about the music, whenever I saw a new release on Núcleo Contemporâneo I would buy it, and I have a big collection of your releases!

B: (laughs) Thank you! Thank you!

V: You have recorded at least two Hermeto tunes that I know of. Have you ever worked with him?

B: Yes, I have. He is an amazing musician and he is one of the big inspirations that I have.

V: Your musical styles are very different but your musical overview is very similar I think.

B: Yes, for me he is very important. You know those musicians that influenced me very much – it’s not always the music. It’s the way of thinking. It’s the process.

V: Yes. I identify with that completely, because it’s a much bigger thing than just playing some notes. It’s the whole philosophical thing behind it.

B: Yes.

V: Now - I play the guitar and I play percussion. I’m not very good but that’s what I do. But I have always had this secret fondness for the trombone…and I was wondering…is there an instrument that secretly attracts you?

B: Ha! You know, when I’m travelling I’m always buying instruments from the different places. I have in my house, I don’t know, maybe fifty, sixty instruments from different places. I try to play all of them. Of course, I am not playing them live but sometimes they invite me to compose sound tracks – mostly for documentaries – and then I play them, but I would love to play all of them really…

V: Do you see yourself primarily as a pianist or would you say that the orchestra is you instrument, like Duke Ellington, for instance?

B: Yes, I understand. I feel balanced between both of them. You know, I started to play solo a very short time ago. I started to really play solo three years ago – two years ago. I used to play solo in my house and I recorded it and I liked it very much, what I heard. But when I went out I couldn’t concentrate enough to really play solo. So I started not very long ago. But now I really like to do it, and in this sense I see myself very much as a piano player. But of course, all the time I am having ideas for ensembles - all the time. I find it very easy to compose for ensembles.

V: With you projects you are never right up there in the front…

B: No, no…

V: …but I always get the idea that you are always driving it along and making it all happen…

B: Yes, this is what I like.

V: All right. It’s been a long night for you so I will cut it short. In this country we have a Radio programme that has run for years and years called Desert Island Discs. And the idea is – if you were marooned on a desert island, which eight records would you choose to have with you. BUT... I’m meaner than that! I’m going to say that you can only take ONE record…

B: The Ninth Symphony from Beethoven.

V: You didn’t have to think about that at all!

B: No. This is probably the most incredible music I’ve heard in my life.

V: Thank you very much. I’ve really enjoyed tonight. Perhaps I’ll catch up with you again in São Paulo soon.

B: Thank you.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Keeping tabs on Taubkin

I first encountered Benjamin Taubkin’s playing in 1994. In January of that year I was on my first visit to Brazil and Mrs Voltarol, my daughter, my grandson and I had been invited to dinner by a couple from São Paulo that we had previously met in London. It was - for various reasons that I won’t go into now - a very strange evening, but during the course of it the host played a CD by a singer called Zizi Possi which really grabbed our attention. I took down the details and in due course was able to buy a copy. The album was called Valsa Brasileira and the accompaniment was provided by two keyboard players and a percussionist. They were credited simply as Benjamin, Jether and Guello, although I now know the keyboard players to be Benjamin Taubkin and Jether Garotti Jnr.

Both Taubkin and Garotti played acoustic piano as well as Roland JV1000 keyboards, but I was particularly impressed by the piano playing, the lion’s share of which was by Benjamin Taubkin. As a consequence, when I came across an album by him on a subsequent visit to São Paulo I pounced on it and was not disappointed when I got it home and played it. A Terra E O Espaço Aberto (The World and the open space) was released in 1997, featured mostly original compositions by Taubkin and was performed with Lui Coimbra (cello, guitar and charango), Marcos Suzano (percussion) and Toninho Carrasqueira (flutes). There were also guest appearances from Teco Cardoso (baritone sax) and Caito Marcondes (percussion). The music was terrific but hard to define. It mixed elements of classical composition, jazz, traditional Brazilian musical forms and experimental music in a way that was both seamless and immensely satisfying, giving as it did a taste of what was to come with his next project.

You will no doubt have guessed by now that I spend an awful lot of my time in CD shops whenever I’m in Brazil and my next visit was no exception. Consequently I was in possession of Orquestra Popular De Câmara (The Popular Chamber Orchestra) quite soon after it was issued in 1998. For the most part, the composition was shared by other members of the group – and what a group this was! Lui Coimbra, Teco Cardoso and Caito Marcondes were joined by Mané Silveira (flute and saxophone), Mônica Salmaso (voice), Ronem Altman (bandolim), Paulo Freire (viola caipira), Toninho Ferragutti (accordion), Dimos Guadaroulis (cello), Silvinho Mazzuca Jr (bass), Zezinho Pitoco and Guello (percussion). There was even a guest appearance by Naná Vasconcelos. This album sounded better and better every time I listened to it and I was particularly taken with the fact that this really was an orchestra. Yes, there were some solos but for the most part the music was an ever-shifting mix of melodies, textures and intriguing rhythms that drew one right inside it.

By now I had realised that the Núcleo Contemporâneo label was a very interesting one, and that the Taubkin family had quite a lot to do with it, so I frequently bought CDs on the strength of the label alone and was never disappointed. I also began to investigate albums by the other band members. I had already been introduced to Mônica Salmaso’s work through an album of Baden Powell and Vinicius de MoriasAfro Sambas that she made with the guitarist Paulo Bellinati. As a consequence I was delighted to discover when I was in Brazil in 2000, that she had a new album – Voadeira - coming out and that Benjamin Taubkin was playing on several tracks, as were a number of her fellow ‘Orquestra’ musicians. Better still was the fact that she was to give a free 40 minute recital in a São Paulo record store to promote the album, and that Benjamin Taubkin was to accompany her. I came away from that afternoon with an autographed copy of Mônica’s new CD and increased admiration for Taubkin’s musicianship.

October 2002 found us back in Brazil again and we were delighted to discover that ‘Orquestra Popular De Câmara’ were due to perform in a small club in São Paulo. We managed to get tickets and travelled up to the city from the coastal town of Boiçucanga where we were staying, in a state of high excitement. The gig did not disappoint me, and it rates as one of the most enjoyable musical experiences of my life. The band seemed to be on particularly good form and we soon learnt that this was in fact a warm-up gig for the recording of their second CD, which they were due to start recording the next day but I had to wait until my next visit the following year before I could get my hands on the results of their efforts.

Danças, Jogos e Cançoes (Dances, games and songs) features some changes of personnel but the spirit of the music remains the same. Lulinha Alencar replaces Toninho Ferraguti, Ari Colares is added on percussion, Zezinho Pitoco plays some clarinet in addition to his percussion contribution, and João Taubkin (bass) guested on one track – a completely fresh reading of Lennon and McCartney’s ‘Blackbird’. Mané Silveira says in his notes for the album – “We feel that this music reflects and represents our land and the people who are here, dreaming in space, alive.” Pat Metheny says of it – “What I love about this music is that it sounds like now in Brazil to me, without being that traditional somehow, even though it is obvious that the players know all about the source of what they are playing.” That about sums it up!

I kept searching eagerly for the next ‘Orquestra’ project and even made two aborted attempts to see them again on my next visit to Brazil, but on both occasions the gig was cancelled at the last minute and I missed out. On my last visit in November 2007 I found a CD of Benjamin’s new project Cantos Do Nosso Chão (Songs from our land), which shows yet another facet of his musicality. This is a collaboration with the percussion group Núcleo De Música Do Abaçaí, whose director, Ari Colares was a participant in the 2nd ‘Orquestra’ recording. There are guest appearances by other Orquestra members - João Taubkin plays fretless bass on all tracks, whilst Mônica Salmaso, Teco Cardoso, Lula Alencar, Paulo Freire and Lui Coimbra also contribute to varying degrees. The Guardian’s John L.Waters said of this CD – “For this project, pianist-arranger Benjamin Taubkin has taken traditional music from Brazil to make a charming, dreamlike hybrid. The basic lineup - mixed vocals, bass, piano, percussion - perform those lopsided, strutting rhythms we associate with north- eastern Brazil. From this Taubkin has made the most deliciously melodic album, which bears repeated listening.” He also described it as “…a stunning album” and I can’t disagree with this opinion.

So there I was thinking that I’d have to wait until my next trip to Brazil in January of next year to get my next fix of Benjamin Taubin’s music when I got a phone call from my daughter, telling me that he will be appearing in London in a few weeks’ time. So if you are able to buy, beg, borrow or steal a ticket then do so. This is a gig not to be missed. I’ll see you at The Vortex Jazz Club, London on July 28th at 8.30 pm, for a solo piano recital by one of my musical heroes. Don’t miss it!

Here's a clip of the 'Orquestra' playing a Teco Cardoso composition, just to whet your appetites for the kind of music I have been describing here.

Thursday, 9 July 2009


The Blue Five ponder the advisability of a reunion...

Greetings, dear readers. I have been conspicuously absent from the blogsosphere for rather longer than usual as a result of gallivanting around the country doing all manner of things, but I’m now back at the keyboard and raring to post.

Among other things, I spent a few days with my older brother – ‘alcohol’ – doing a little walking in the Malvern Hills, and incidentally getting a good sense of why Sir Edward Elgar found them so inspiring. Then Mrs Voltarol and I set off for Bournemouth, where we saw James Taylor and his band (great!) and stayed a night in The Queen’s Hotel (dreadful!).

I must admit to feeling a little uncomfortable with the rest of the audience at Bournemouth International Centre. This was the first time that I had been to what I would call a ‘mainstream’ gig in a long time, and I seemed to be surrounded by grey haired couples of a certain age. Granted, Mrs V and I also fall into that category, but we are used to seeing a much wider age range at the gigs we usually attend. Also, I got a distinct whiff of ‘Radio Two and Daily Mail’ from those immediately around me. If you were there and you don’t fall into that group then I apologise, but that was how it felt to me at the time.

Anyway, the music was excellent. James Taylor seems to get better as he gets older – both as a singer and as a guitarist – and his band and backing vocalists were superb. The line up was – Steve Gadd: drums (I can’t believe that this was the first time I’d seen him play ‘in the flesh’ as it were), Larry Goldings: piano, accordion, keyboards, Jimmy Johnson: bass, Mike Landau: guitar, Andrea Zonn: fiddle and vocals, Kate Markowitz and Arnold McCuller: vocals.

The material was a mix of back catalogue songs and tracks from the most recent CD – Covers, but despite the fact that they must have performed some of these songs a thousand times they still managed to make them seem fresh and alive. Indeed, Taylor said of ‘You’ve got a Friend’ that when he first learnt it and ‘worked up’ a version, he little thought that he would be singing it every single night for the rest of his life!

I’ll gloss over the hotel experience other than to say – if you’re ever in Bournemouth, don’t stay at the Queen’s Hotel in Meyrick Road. Mind you, I can’t think of any reason one would want to go to Bournemouth other than to hear a good band. It strikes me as a place that is good for passing through, or – better still – around.

We moved on to London to visit friends and family for a few days, and to see my granddaughter playing at The Barbican. I don’t know whether to be pleased as punch or pissed off. She’s nine years old and has already played the Barbican. Here’s me at 64 and I haven’t even made it to the foyer! Oh, and I caught up with my old mate Leigh Heggarty (see links) of Blue Five Fame. The picture at the top of the page shows us outside Pro Music in Ickenham. That's me in the shorts...

So that’s why the postings have been few and far between for the last month. Tomorrow I’ll be back with a vengeance!