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.