For bassist and composer Ben Wolfe, the core of all music lies within his relationships to his fellow musicians. This family of musicians has led him to be prominently featured on projects with Harry Connick Jr., Wynton Marsalis, Orrin Evans, Diana Krall, Benny Green, and many more. With his latest record, ‘From Here I See,’ Wolfe and crew took it deep into the realm of ballads featuring the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Marcus Strickland, and Russell Malone accompanied by the core rhythm section of Orrin Evans and Donald Edwards. Ben Wolfe will also be at Dizzy’s 3/28-3/31 with Nicholas Payton, JD Allen, Orrin Evans, and Donald Edwards for the record release and a celebration of new music.
This Dizzy’s run is a platform for the release of your latest record, From Here I See.
We actually recorded this album a year and a half ago, but the label wanted to wait to put it out at the beginning of the year as opposed to the end of the year for press reasons. But the Dizzy’s gig came up, so we ended up wait for that to make it into a record release. I’ve been anxious for it to come out, but it makes more sense to release it in conjunction with the gig.
What was your initial concept when you brought together these incredible musicians to record with you?
Donald, Orrin, and I have been playing together for the last few years in several groups. Orrin has a trio with me and Donald — we’re like a family of musicians. There are a bunch of us and we have this group. It’s not even about one band or another. Eric Revis is a part of this group, Orrin’s band Tar Baby, we’re all a family of musicians. One way to show that is for instance on the Orrin Evans trio record we did, we recorded one of Eric Revis’ tunes. Then Orrin made another record with Eric Revis on bass and recorded one of my tunes. We’re all together in this. It really is a family of musicians.
This record that I did was recorded a few months before we did Orrin’s trio record. It’s my seventh CD of original music. For the most part this record is mostly all ballads. The concept in writing the music was to instead of just write as much as I could or demonstrate this skill or that, I had to feel every piece I wrote was pretty in some way. So I just tried to write a record of pretty music. It’s about 80-percent ballads. No one played in a way to display skill; everybody came together and played for the music. I’ve never in my life experienced such a coming together of musicians. There was so much love on this record right down to the engineers. Everybody was really playing for the music; nobody was playing for themselves. It was a pretty intense display of humility.
Did you have to explain the type of vibe you wanted in the studio or did it just happen that way?
With Donald and Orrin there’s really no need to discuss anything. It’s a very organic hookup we have. Actually of all the records I’ve made, on this one I probably said the least. It just wasn’t’ necessary because everyone there wanted to play what was needed. It was a great experience and it felt easy. It was very organic. I’m really proud of this one.
Take our readers into the actual recording process. What was the vibe like?
Well the record has strings on it, so we had some rehearsals both with and without the strings. Then we recorded for two days in the studio and the vibe was just great. We had special guests come in and play — Wynton Marsalis played on two songs, Russell Malone played on two songs, Marcus Strickland played on two songs. It didn’t take that long to record, we just went song by song and we did very few takes because it was so smooth. I don’t remember the order we recorded the songs in, but I do remember that when the guests came in, they were prepared. So we had this vibe of everyone playing for the music and then when the guests came in, they had that same kind of vibe. The feeling was the same no matter who was playing, which was really cool I thought.
As far as the compositions, what was your process?
I write probably 99% of my music at the piano. So I write it on piano and then arrange it for whatever the group may be. Most of this music was written for the record with the exception of a couple songs. I knew who would be playing them and that definitely influenced how I wrote. I never give too much instruction though, because I love the way these guys play. When I was first starting to make records, I would have this idea in my head how each person should play. I’ve learned that instead of trying to get them to play what I think I want to hear, I could just play with musicians I loved and let them do what they do. You’ve got to have trust. That’s the word — there’s a lot of trust on this record. Playing with Orrin and Donald is like having one brain. It’s weird, but it’s been a great experience playing with them.
It’s interesting that you kind of have this set rhythm section that you can apply to any group or special guest. For instance, you have Nicholas Payton on record release gig, but he wasn’t on the record.
Well that’s an interesting story. When I was booked for this gig, I was told by Todd Barkan that I needed to have a draw or an additional musician to bring in some extra people. Todd is not at Dizzy’s anymore, but that’s a common thing. A lot of clubs want to stay open so I understand. You’ll notice that a lot of these groups are billed with a gimmick or a special guest.
But what I didn’t want to do is just hire somebody who would be a draw, regardless of how well they play. These guys are my family. I need to have a real connection with the person musically and personally. I’ve never done a club this big as a leader for a week, so I’m not a proven commodity. I wanted to keep the gig, so I thought of who I could get. I thought about Russell Malone because he’s on the record, and I thought of Nicholas because I’ve known him for a long time and we’ve played together over the years. He’s a great musician, but we all also have a connection with him. So it worked out that Nicholas could do it.
I sent him the music and I told him that if he didn’t dig the music, I would take no offense but I didn’t want him to take the gig. But he did and he was into it, so that’s how that came about. I think it’ll be an interesting combination with Nicholas. Orrin and I were also on Nicholas’ BAM panel. So he’s not just some name, we have a history together both musically and personally.
Have you started rehearsing with Nicholas yet?
We’re going to rehearse the day before. I don’t want to rehearse too much. I want the music to happen on the bandstand. I’ve actually written a lot of new music, so we’re not going to be playing the same music from the record. We’ll play some of it, but we won’t reproduce the record at Dizzy’s. The music I have written is for this band specifically. I sent everybody the charts and we’ll get together the day before the gig to do it. We’ll explore the music on the bandstand. I trust these guys — they’re all great professional musicians.
Could this group be the workings of your next record?
I don’t know. All I can say about the next recording is that I can’t imagine not using Donald and Orrin. Other than that I’m not sure right now.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)