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IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 104

INTERVIEW with Ben Dowling


I only caught Ben's music recently, but was so impressed with his soulful and energetic creativity that I felt I just had to get an interview with him... it took a few messages between us, but here's some great insight to a player you'll find totally interesting and highly talented!


Zzaj:  I've prowled your site ( ) & note some information about Vermont; is that where you're at now?  More or less your permanent residence?  Please give us a bio to tell where you came from originally, how you got to where you are now & why you live there now.
BD:  I spent some formative years in Vermont - because that was where I realized what I wanted to do in life.  With Bennington College in the neighborhood, I had great composers and musicians on tap at all times, and around that a creative community grew that was very compelling to me during these important developmental times.

But Vermont was a limited time.  I was born in the South in Fayetteville, Arkansas until we were thrown out of the state (for all intents and purposes) by Gov Orvell Faubus in 1959 (my dad didn't want to sign a loyalty oath and worked for the State University there).  From there, outside of New York City in Westchester County, then Vermont, then Boston, then California.
I live in the Los Angeles area now.  
Zzaj:  I've been in love with your "World Rising" CD ever since reviewing it... how long did that take to put together?  Who played on it & how did you come to choose them?

Ben:  Well, first of all, I'm really glad you liked it.  Though I've been a jazz player my entire life, it actually is my first release under my own name.  As to how it came together, it's a bit of a story.  That OK?

Zzaj:  Sure!
Ben:  I've been a fan of the Miles Davis experimental period since 1968 when it really hit its stride with In A Silent Way.  That record really changed my whole view of what was possible with music.  As you know, Miles was joined by Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and others - and the approach was totally unique with simple structures and a lot of improvisation to make this happen.

When all those players went on to their respective musical journeys, I tagged along.  Herbie, Chick, Joe, John McLaughlin all had a profound influence of where my musical sensibility resides.  In later years, I had the good fortune to help Joe (Zawinul) with programming sounds on his Korg keyboards (Wavestation, DW8000, M1, etc.) many of which he used until his passing in 2008.
When Joe passed, I was in the midst of a study of his contribution.  I happened to be in Vienna for his 75th Birthday a couple months before he left the physical.  I told him that I finally understood what he had contributed - that he was the legacy that Miles left behind.  He was still doing it - with an undivided focus on many of the musical lessons that Miles had forwarded:  invest in young players who challenge you and bring you to another level, insist upon being outside of your comfort zone so growth takes place.  He gave me that boxer stare.  "Miles used to say that.  That I was the one."
Egomaniac that he was, Joe was truly one of the great musical minds to grace the planet.  Can't argue with that one.  I was and am a believer.
So when I got the news of his passing, it hit me hard.  Yes, he told me he had "the big one."  But the reality hit hard.  I felt:  what a missed opportunity.  Something was incomplete.  What was I to do with this inspiration?
That was the genesis of the project.  As a touring musician over the past several years, I saw the opportunities for an "open arrangement" model - where the basic structures were simple, but codified, and where the players could change without destroying the integrity of the model - and in an affordable way. Remember, carrying players around the world is simply not affordable from a business point of view.  Not for someone "just starting off."  So the model had to hold together, yet be flexible.
I listened to everything that I loved within the contemporary jazz area.  I needed to find out what elements were important to me.  So I listened to the old Herbie sextet stuff in the early 70's, with the horn arrangements with muted trumpet, flute, bone and reeds.  It's a sound that infected me a long time ago.  I listened to Zawinul Syndicate stuff with the dance tempo, four on the floor kick drum and without the back beat.  I listened to Indian tabla music and other world influences.
I also wanted to consider remixing as a possible way to expand the form.  So the dance tempo thing was kind of important with tempi much faster than I was used to.
A model was being born.  I modeled everything in Logic so I could test different blendings of sounds into a cohesive whole.  This is how I experiment to determine the best instrumentation.
What I concluded was that I would model the instrumentation on a rather traditional fusion of the early 70's - very similar to Weather Report and Hancock with the integral element of tabla and acoustic piano.  So I contacted all the players that I know from that world:  Bennie Maupin, Alphonso Johnson, Munyungo Jackson, to see if they were interested.  They were very kind to consider, but the changes that took place in my own life finances intervened (the economic crash) and we weren't able to put it together this time.  I even tried to get ahold of Wayne Shorter through Anthony Zawinul (Joe's son), but that didn't pan out either.

Finally, I called in people that have been friends to get the project done.  These included Will Kennedy (drums), with whom I had programmed for Yellow Jackets; Mindi Abair (alto sax), who I had known since she was like 14; Satnam Ramgotra (tabla) with whom I share a harmonic sense of rhythm and many others. A wonderful surprise was the addition of Bob Sheppard (tenor, soprano sax) who just knocked me out.  I hadn't worked with him, and it was a little uncertain at first since we didn't know each other.  
Additionally, I called in help from the Al McKay Allstars band that I tour with.  Phoenix Horn captain Mike Harris (trumpet), Ed Wynne the astounding sax player, with trombonist Ryan Porter.  And the amazing David Leach (percussion) and Freddie Flewelen on electric bass.

Additionally, I called in help from the Al McKay Allstars band that I tour with.  Phoenix Horn captain Mike Harris (trumpet), Ed Wynne the astounding sax player, with trombonist Ryan Porter.  And the amazingly funky Freddie Flewelen on electric bass.
The first tune that really came together was The Calling - which was to be the name of the project.
So...that's quite a bit.  Are we done now? (laughs)
Zzaj:  I've read (from your bio) that you were heavily involved with synths at Korg (& perhaps other places).  Tell us what that involvement was, please... did you "write" sounds, "create" them, or what?
Ben:  I first became involved with Korg by meeting a "product specialist" named Jack Hotop at a NAMM show.  At the time (1985-6?), Korg was kind of a joke among keyboardists with their rather cheezy sounding synths.  So I was surprised to hear some really nice sounds coming from a player who could REALLY play.  At first I was tempted to just keep walking, but something felt like it needed to be said. After all, I had just come from the Yamaha booth with presenters who didn't play well at all.  So I figured I should say something.
That started a friendship that ultimately had me presenting Korg synths at conventions, clinics, etc.  It fell to us to create the sounds that we needed for our presentations, and since I was a programmer by necessity (having owned and programmed a Prophet 5 for my gigs), I was well suited to do just that.
Over time, I moved from being a presenter to the product development area, ultimately being included in the Korg R&D group based out of San Jose, CA.  In the early days, we developed the M1 PCM (samples) from existing DSS-1 and DSM-1 sample libraries that I helped to build, as well as programmed the factory sounds, and later suggested the voicing model for the Wavestation, voicing PCM and programs for that as well.  Later I was involved in the early work for the OAsys open architecture synth that was capable of physical modeling synthesis.
So I was honored to participate in a piece of synthesizer history - from analog to digital sampling, to algorithmic synthesis and beyond.  In the process, I worked for Michael Jackson, Madonna, and a who's who of the keyboard world.  What a ride!
Zzaj:  In my ears, you seem to have a heavy infusion of "spirit", no matter what type of tune you're playing. Is there a religious element there, or is music just a celebration for you? 
Ben:  A number of years ago, I came to realize that music has been my "Spiritual Path."  I became involved with the Agape Church here in LA, whose director is Michael Beckwith - who is probably most famous for his appearance in "The Secret."  It's sort of a Universal Spiritual teaching that is very consistent with my experience as a creative channel.  Sort of a God-doesn't-care-what-we-call-it kind of an approach.  Through this teaching, I've come to realize that the Infinite finds its expression through our creativity.  So it works for me on a very practical level.  Besides, I like the people, and have been honored with playing with some very amazing musicians.  Carl Anderson was also a member, who along with Niki Haris (daughter of the amazing Barry Harris) sang on the Starting Over track, which was produced waaay back in 1999.  BTW, I included that track because it totally conformed with the instrumental model for World Rising. 
Zzaj:  I'm wondering if you have new projects/releases coming soon?  Can you give us a bit of "inside scoop" on what you'll be doing musically next? 
Ben:  Not real sure.  I can think of several models that interest me.  First of all, I have a calling to do a more traditional jazz vocal record.  I also have an R&B record with some pretty great songs, that might represent a healthy expansion for me.  Love to do a spiritual blues record.  Love to do a World Rising redux.  Love to do a disco project with cool harmony and experimental groove. 
Zzaj:  What's your level of "musical training"?  Was it very formal, or more "hip pocket" (like my own)? What's more important, training or player commitment?  
Ben:  I started classical piano when I was 7, but it didn't take right away.  I preferred to sit with popular music 45's and play along.  Then, when I was 11, I heard Bach organ music and flipped out.  Having been raised a Quaker, I didn't have a negative connotation of the pipe organ sound.  I just heard an exquisite transparency to the counterpoint that Bach organ music demonstrates.  So, at 12, I took up studying classical piano and organ under a wonderful teacher in Bennington, Vermont.  Later, I discovered the blues and Miles and my direction shifted dramatically.
So, I would characterize my study as a basic foundation of classical technique, then self study into blues and jazz.  Much later, I learned to play R&B and Gospel and other more groove oriented music.  In general, I consider myself to be self-studied - since during the early formative years there was little or no support for learning to be a jazz player.  I did have some wonderful teachers along the way, including Ran Blake of New England Conservatory and many mentors on the journey.
I do want to mention that I still play at Chopin piano music to keep my pianistic touch in condition.  I really love classical music, and do quite a bit of improvisation within the classical realm.  I recently did a wonderful improvisation with Georg Faust, the principal cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic which you can hear on the web site.
As to what is most important?  Not sure.  The successful musician integrates all the lessons that they can learn from - formal, informal, incidental, self generated, etc.  Clearly, all that study requires that we love what we do, and therefore the commitment is a natural, organic thing.
Zzaj:  Who (if anyone) are your musical heroes?  Who (if anyone) would you most enjoy playing with (that you haven't already)? 
Ben:  I'd love to work with Herbie and Wayne.  I'd love to work with some young experimental musicians like Imogen Heap who is talented as all get out.  I guess I'd love to work with anyone who is based out of a commitment to excellence, since that's what I'd like to believe I do. 
Zzaj:  One thing I've noticed in your music are strong "world" influences... I don't mean that to (in any way) denigrate the energy levels of your playing, it's just that it seems you've been influenced by different areas of the world.  Is that an accurate impression, or am I all wet?
Ben:  I had the wonderful gift of playing on a cruise ship in the late 70's, where there were Jamaican musicians, and Latin musicians and jazz musicians all living and playing together.  It was amazing, and I learned a lot from those experiments.  I occasionally listen to different music from different parts of the world, and certainly I did considerable listening when I was sampling instruments from around the world for Korg instruments.  So there's a piece of the truth there; the sounds have gotten into my head, and therefore into the music I generate.
But, I don't think I have a great level of depth in the "world" department.  Not in comparison to those who really know that game.  I've sort of played at the periphery of that world.  So I'd say I'm available to be inspired, but I live in more of a world of composition, songwriting, improvisation and sonic production. That's where my expertise lies.
I certainly did lock consciousness with (tabla-ist) Satnam Ramgotra, so I could definitely see a project where we explore that dimension further.  
Zzaj:  Tell us, please, what your favorite instrument to play is?  Do you play lots of instruments, or only one?  Lastly, I believe I've heard you do some vocal work... do you view the voice as an instrument, too?
Ben:  I'm really a piano player primarily.  That's where I resonate, and where my touch can really make a difference.  I love playing keyboards when the sounds respond well - like the Korg Oasys is the best on the planet.  But the piano is most special to me.
I haven't really taken any other instrument on.  Years ago, a mentor suggested  that I focus on something that I could do better than anyone else, and piano became that focus.  I'd love to play cello, and now that my daughter has stopped (hopefully temporarily since she's BRILLIANT at it), maybe I will take that on.  I think it is really important for people to play an instrument that doesn't depend on electricity.  One never knows...
As to vocals, it's a new thing for me.  From a developmental perspective, it's an important personal growth path for me.  I will be doing more of that in the near future. 
Zzaj:  Since you've been at this for a goodly amount of time now, please give us any "words of wisdom" you may have for those in our readership who are thinking about making music a career... is it a goal worth pursuing?  Is it (just) a pipedream?  If it's a worthwhile goal, what must be done to make it "happen"?
Ben:  This is a hard question for me.  Not sure what I can provide.  I do have some ideas though:
I think that music is bigger than making sound.  I think that the creative process of music making is unique in our world, and that it has lessons that far outstrip the confines of the form itself.  What I mean is that music wires our brains up in a unique way.  So I think that we could transform the planet by teaching music and creativity to our children.
The ability to take input swiftly, and output creative results is key to the economic future of the country and the world.  At a time when businesses depend upon fast, creative thinking - often reaching into the unknown for answers - music seems an obvious development ground for these skill sets.  Software engineering, financial management, presentation arts, communication skills.  All these are served by musical training and practice.  
But a career? What's that?
Consistent with the musical skill set, we are living through times of immense and profound change.  The industry that once existed for the sale of music is essentially gone.  My sense of it is, that the reason for its demise has less to do with technology than a lack of imagination and commitment on the part of the music business "leaders" and even the members of the musical community itself.  As a culture, we have become supremely lazy.  "Get the most you can for the least effort" seems to be the norm.  Well folks, you get what you're willing to stand for.
So, I would say, if you love music more than anything in the world, you should make music the central focus of your life.  Because your commitment follows what you love.  You will spend the time that makes you exceptional.  And exceptional matters - even now.  Maybe even, particularly now.
Certainly there is no certainty in following your heart.  But history is full of moments when things are tumbling down, and it is at those moments when extraordinary opportunities come.  We are at a moment of breakdown and re-calibration.  Stay aware.  Stay sensitive to what is happening.  Be true.  Be in integrity. Be flexible.  Be willing to try things others dismiss.
That is what this time is all about.  Great promise surrounds us all.  Let's rock.

Visit Ben's web site at for more information.  If you sign up for "The Muse," his bi-monthly newsletter, you get 3 free song downloads right away.




















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