Ben Paterson on Keys: Style and Tenderness

Ben Paterson 2

There is spark, spirit and affirmation in the music of Ben Paterson, whose command of piano and organ is an amazing treat for the ears. Jauntily upbeat, “I’m Old Fashioned” and the glissando-laced “Isn’t She Lovely” showcase Paterson’s sense of design and adornment. He extracts gut-wrenching emotion through his fingertips on “Cry Me A River” while possessing the versatility to be thoughtful and wistful on “Here, There and Everywhere,” proving his mettle as a fully-formed artist who leaves no human emotion unexplored.

What was the most difficult part of learning piano?

I think the hardest part is learning the basics at the beginning.  It can seem daunting when you’re first starting out, and feel like you have so much to learn, but the best approach is really to take one element at a time, and really learn it thoroughly before moving on, that avoids holes and pitfalls that might show up later. 

I was lucky to start early on at the age of 6, and had parents who made me practice for those first few years, then it really started to become enjoyable.  I teach many adults however who are picking up piano later in life, though and they can do it too of course. It just requires patience.

What was the first jazz song you heard that made you fall in love with it?

I remember listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald sing “Stompin’ at the Savoy” when I was around 12 or 13. They performed with such beauty and subtlety but also with a lot of freedom and joy at the same time.  I was hooked.  

Why does Oscar Peterson capture you?

Another strong early memory of jazz for me was listening to Oscar’s version of “Sometimes I’m Happy at around age 14 or so, and dancing along to the entire 11-minute version.  His feeling of swing is like none other!  The way he drives the band and has this infectious bounce to his playing immediately grabbed me.  

Talk about your upcoming performance at Lincoln Center: will you be solo or collaborate with other musicians? Is it your first time playing there? And how excited are you?

I’m very excited to be playing at Lincoln Center, and in particular to be paying homage to Oscar Peterson.  I’ve played in the same building before in other rooms, but never in the Appel Room at Lincoln Center.  The line-up is incredible, with pianists like Benny Green and Kenny Barron also on the bill.  The rhythm section is amazing as well. With John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums, it’s gonna be a blast.

How did you decide on a set list for that event, and how do you actually decide the order of songs?

 We’re still figuring out the set list for that show, actually.  John Clayton will be the musical director, so we’re figuring out now how best to approach the set, featuring the strengths of all the pianists involved.

Between piano and organ, how does a song dictate which one to play?

Many songs I do work just as well on both instruments, actually, but I think I end up bringing out different aspects of it depending on which instrument I’m on.

Piano is one of the great instruments of all time, and can play anything really, but the tone and richness of the organ does lend itself well to more a blues, soul, and gospel type of repertoire.  

Looking from “Breathing Space” in 2007 to today, how would you say your playing has developed or changed?

Hard to believe that record was 12 years ago!  I’d say since then I’ve expanded my harmonic and melodic vocabulary, improvising with wider range of textures.  But just as importantly I’ve developed a greater awareness and stronger ability to stay in the moment, listening closely to the other musicians I’m performing with while also stating what I have to say with more strength and conviction. 

What instrumentation do you most love when performing?

My favorite ensemble to perform with these days is the classic piano trio, i.e. piano, acoustic bass, and drums. It allows me the most flexibility to lead the way, while also having plenty of interaction and support from my sidemen.  Of course I’m always happy to add a great horn player, and I also love accompanying hip vocalists. 

What is the most challenging aspect of recording/producing a CD?

Coming up with a concept and repertoire for a recording project is always a challenge, but it’s also quite fun.

What’s also difficult, however, is the financial aspect.  Not many people buy CD’s anymore, especially in the US, so figuring out how to finance a new record takes creativity.  Touring overseas helps, as more people tend to buy the music after the show, but other sources of funding like Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have become increasingly common.

Where in the world do you most want to play that you have not yet?

I’ve never been to Brazil, which is a country with a very deeply embedded appreciation for music, so I’d love to perform there.

South Africa sounds amazing as well. 

Favorite festival or large event?

I’ve performed in Marciac, France, which was an absolutely beautiful, intimate festival.  San Sebastian in Spain is another great one.  I also got to spend a whole summer in 2014 with guitarist Bobby Broom opening for Steely Dan. That was pretty amazing.

We played at The Forum in LA to a crowd of about 12,500 people, I’ll never forget that. 

Favorite small club?

I lead my own trio at a beautiful club in the West Village called Mezzrow.  Great acoustics, beautiful piano, very intimate setting. 

Best way to connect with an audience is _______________________ …and why?

Play with soul and honesty, and let them know that they’re part of what’s happening.  As musicians we feed off the energy we get from the audience, and then we hopefully can take that energy, do something with it, and send it back out to them in ways they didn’t expect.  That’s one of the best feelings you can have as a musician. 

What do you most want to tell people about yourself as a musician?

I play music that I love, and that I would want to listen to as an audience member.  I try to present my music with joy and honesty, and I hope people can connect with that.  As a jazz musician, I’m also dedicated to swing! 

A lot of jazz these days feels that it has to leave swing behind to be modern, but to me that beautiful feeling of swing is essential. 

Other comments?

Thanks for the interest and support!  For more of my music and to see where I’m performing head to, or follow me on Facebook or Instagram at Ben Paterson Music.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Ben Paterson.
© Debbie Burke 2019

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