Benjamin Croft: back to the future

Benjamin Croft on keyboards. Photo by Delphine Orliange

“I would call it prog rock / jazz fusion,” says keyboardist Benjamin Croft of his new album. Things far and far away. “There are so many genres of music that influence me: obviously jazz greats like Miles Davis and Chick Corea but also groups like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, singers like Kate Bush and classical composers like Shostakovich, Bartok and Bach. The album is all I’ve heard in my life, really. I don’t decide to write like that: that’s how it comes out.

The musicality of the album is wonderful with contributions from British players such as trumpeter Andy Davies and flautist Gareth Lockrane and Americans including trumpeter Randy Brecker, former Miles Davis guitarist Barry Finnerty and former Chick sidemen. Corea such as guitarist Mike Miller and trumpeter Allen Vizzutti.

How, I ask, did he manage to persuade such luminaries to work with him? «On the previous album [2019’s 10 Reasons To …] I said to people, ‘Can you play like…?’ This time I thought, ‘Why not just skip this step and have the people I asked the musicians on the first album to play?’

“I asked [ex-Chick Corea Elektric Band and Return To Forever guitarist] Frank Gambale first, and he said, ‘Yeah.’ So I thought, “Well, I’ll try my luck again.” I tried Randy and one by one all these people agreed to do it. It’s a three-part process: I sent them my first album – and they loved the music. Then they want to see the cards of the [new] music. Then they want to hear a demo of it, so it’s a little stressful and scary. But everything worked. I would send songs and they would send their parts back, then I would go back to the studio and re-record to match their parts. So it’s quite a long process.

Croft composed the music according to the styles of the musicians. “I was writing for them but the idea of ​​asking them was that they add their own personality and [when] I got the tracks back, it was exactly what I wanted.

It apparently isn’t hugely expensive to hire even such a famous jazz musician as Randy Brecker.

It apparently doesn’t cost a lot to hire even such a famous jazz musician as Randy Brecker. “There are always costs to pay for these people, but it was not millions of pounds! It was like paying a friend of mine in London. They really did it because they loved music.

A few tracks, including the opening overture, feature Helen Vollam, principal trombonist of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “The trail is almost classic in nature,” says Croft. “I wanted someone who sounded really good and didn’t need to improvise and classical with jazz and rock sets the tone for what’s to come on the album.”

Croft’s solos are improvised. “It never works if you try to fix these problems,” he says. “You have to stay spontaneous. “

Croft actually plays 17 different keyboards on the album, many of which are vintage synths like the Prophet-5 and the ARP Odyssey. “When you have a newer synth that’s fully tuned all the time, you take the weirdness out of it. [but] older synths are unpredictable, almost like real instruments, ”he says. “You have to stop and sort them out. [Or] you might play a chord and get an unexpected sound that gets you to create something new.

Oddly, in the liner notes, Croft states, “No melodica was used at any time in the recording of this album! So what’s her deal with melodicas? What have they ever done to him? “I hate the instrument! It looks like a toy. A cheap toy. Sorry to all melodica fans, but you will never hear melodica on any of my albums!

“A lot of people just go to the piano and wait for something, but not me. I always find a title [which] inspire a concept and then I go for a walk and write the song in my head ‘

The titles of several songs, like The War Against Loudness and How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize are funny. “A lot of people just go to the piano and wait for something, but not me,” Croft explains of his composition. “I always find a title [which] inspire a concept, then I go for a walk and write the song in my head and come back, then I sit at the piano and start writing.

Croft used the track title Far And Distant Things for the album title. “That’s what the album is about, geographically and metaphysically,” he says. “These are concepts that may or may not exist, that could occur in the future or could be in the distant past, about places very far away.”

Croft studied at Leeds College Of Music. Despite the current omnipresence of jazz education, some elders still deplore the passage of time when musicians learned on the bandstand. Croft, surprisingly, agrees with them. “I don’t think you can really learn jazz because it’s about finding your own voice and developing it by playing with other people. Music colleges are places for networking, but the best way to learn is by playing concerts. Absoutely.”

After graduating, Croft worked on cruise ships. “I played in the house group. You have to be a good sight reader and play a lot of different styles – you could play an Elvis Presley tribute one night or a Broadway style opera or musical – so maybe that influenced me with the different styles. of the album. But you can’t be doing this yourself, so it’s something you can only do for a short time or else you’ll start to pull your hair out! “

Later, Croft worked in America. “Because they were American cruise ships, all the musicians were American. I was the only Englishman. So just like the University of Music, it was a place for networking and I met some great people. And it seemed like a natural progression to go play with these people in the States. I thought ‘I’ll be there a few months’ and stayed there on and off for 10 years: the Chicago area, then the west coast, some time in New York, Tennessee – everywhere, mostly playing jazz but also many other styles: country, heavy rock, Broadway shows. . . and everything I have played comes out when I write. It all influenced me.

Croft returned to the UK and in 2019 released his debut album, 10 reasons for … Critics have enthusiastically compared his music to that of obscure and famous prog bands like Egg, Caravan and National Health. Was he himself aware of such groups? “They were before my time, but yes. My parents’ record collection led me to listen to them. Yes Near the edge sparked my interest in this genre and from there I listened to everything else.

Few genres have fallen as quickly and as far out of fashion as prog in the late 1970s. But one of the leads on 10 reasons for …, TTE (Time, Talent And Electricity), is dedicated to Keith Emerson, keyboardist of the often-criticized group Emerson, Lake & Palmer. “Although this group is labeled prog, there are elements of jazz, classical. . . everything, really. I have always been impressed with Keith Emerson. Anyone who can play Maple Leaf Rag or a piano concerto in front of 80,000 people, I have respect for!

Croft’s music has also been compared to that of Return To Forever. “Chick Corea has a huge influence and certainly Romantic warrior [1976], he admits. “And this album has been compared to Emerson, Lake & Palmer, so these things pollinate. In the 1970s, these groups were hand in hand.

Kate Bush is a more surprising influence on Croft. “She’s probably the only person who can make me cry, laugh, smile, anything, in the span of a song. I really respect her artistry and she is so musical. The lyrics aren’t your usual love songs, they’re unpredictable, and all she does is perfection. If I had to make a list of the people I would like to work with, I would put it in the head.

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