|Ben Cox and Jamie Safir
Photo credit: William Ellis
Swiftly following up his 2015 debut with the release of a new album “Round and Round”, singer BEN COX returns this autumn growing in confidence and fizzing with new ideas as he prepares for a run of dates to launch the album. Interview by Stephen Graham:
Over the decade and more since Jamie Cullum first broke through, the UK jazz scene has seen the emergence of a new generation of fine new male jazz singers, each with their own particular slant on jazz vocals. Alexander Stewart, AJ Brown, Theo Jackson and, with his second album out this autumn, Ben Cox. All of them have contributed greatly to the health and artistic strength of the genre.
Cox debuted last year with This Waiting Game, a remarkable first departure by a singer who was still a student at the time, certainly in the way that he effortlessly conveyed the atmosphere and life of a well-worn standard for example like A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square, and in the confidence and sheer style he brought to his duetting with Claire Martin, one of the album’s highlights. Cox’s new album Round and Round is released on 14 October and continues his songwriting collaboration with co-writer, pianist Jamie Safir. Cox began this interview by explaining how he first became interested in jazz and what attracted him to the music.
“I’ve always loved the spontaneity of jazz. I learned to play piano and took the classical grades as I grew up, but I didn’t like the rules and regulations you must follow to pass the exams. I wanted to feel free when I performed and I loved the language and freedom of jazz. It’s a wonderful feeling that anything can happen during a gig. Jazz is never boring. Every gig is different.”
He pinpoints an early interest in Michael Bublé as an early inspiration. “I will confess that, as a youngster, the first person I listened to that made me realise I wanted to sing was Michael Bublé. Those early records, when he sang those great songs with his proper American big band, were amazing. That was real swing! What made me admire him most was that this music, jazz, the music that we all know and love, was also being played across the radio waves and he was filling arenas around the world. It gave me hope, as an aspiring jazz musician, that I could also make a living singing this music. I also love Tony Bennett, and as Jamie Safir is into Bill Evans, we have had a wonderful time doing live shows based around those two seminal albums they recorded.”
Home for him was full of music. “My grandma was a fantastic pianist and teacher who taught my mum to play, and my two older brothers also played piano. I shall always remember those long car journeys, when mum would put on Carole King’s Tapestry or a Frank Sinatra album.” He says that he was always going to pursue a musical career even if singing was more of a last minute discovery.
“I played piano and trumpet throughout secondary school and only started singing in my last year of school. I then took a fantastic full time music course, which gave me the necessary skills to audition and gain a place at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Just being there and being based in London really opened my eyes to the jazz world and inspired me even more than I thought it would. In my first year I used to go to Ronnie Scott’s late show every week, just on my own. I was totally amazed by the whole experience and the best part was the amount of different music you are introduced to. It’s so important, especially for a songwriter, to listen to everything and to always be thinking about new ideas.”
For Cox the archetypal jazz singer is definitely Frank Sinatra. “Without hesitation. His phrasing is impeccable, his technique flawless and his stage presence charming. He remains the consummate artist and performer that we all aspire to be. One of the most difficult exercises I do is to try and sing along to Sinatra accurately, to try and match exactly what he does. It’s really hard – much harder than you think.”
Cox has assembled a tight band around him. “The pianist, musical director, and the other songwriter in the band is Jamie Safir. Jamie and I have been working together for about four years now. We both met at the Guildhall and we quickly realised that we had very similar tastes in music, both in jazz and in songwriting. Will Glaser on drums is one of the most creative drummers I have ever worked with. A song is never finished until you bring it to rehearsals, when Will plays something that is so unique that it can change the whole concept of the song, for the good. Flo Moore is on bass and now backing vocals, and is also an amazing musician with very similar musical tastes. Come and see us live and you’ll hear her sing as well. Adam Chatterton and Matt Davies are the fantastic horns on the album. I’m so happy that Adam could record with us again this year, being so busy touring. I’m also happy to introduce Matt, also a fantastic songwriter with his own project that’s currently recording.”
Ben sees himself very much a songwriter as much as a singer. “I love writing songs as much as singing them. Anyone who’s seen the band will know that I’m a huge fan of James Taylor and Carole King and I hope that comes across in our music. But to be a really good songwriter you need to be inspired by a whole range of artists and styles of music. For example, we love Steely Dan, Earth Wind and Fire and Joni Mitchell, crossing over to Debussy and more classical styles of music.”
Singer Ian Shaw was very much a mentor to Ben in leading up to the first album which he produced. Ben says: “He’s a real inspiration to any musician. I’ve learned and am still learning so much from Ian. If I had to choose just one bit of advice he gave me, it is simply how to SING a song, meaning how to get into the song and to perform the story that you have chosen for your audience effectively.”
The transition from student of jazz at college to full time professional has not always been easy for Ben. “It is really hard to make the transition, and at first it did feel a bit as if I had just been dropped into a dark hole. I spent my first year writing songs, and I felt that I needed to put some distance between my student life and the future. But I’m now back on track and absolutely loving it. I love the fact that every day is completely different. One day I’m running a music workshop at a primary school, the next I’m conducting the jazz choir that I’m musical director with, and then I’m recording an album and doing a gig at Pizza Express. I am really looking forward to the future now, whatever it may bring.”
Cox is comfortable with both standards and more contemporary material. He thinks the Great American Songbook will always be important for jazz singers. “Why? Because it contains some of the best songs ever written. A lot of today’s contemporary songwriters still go back to the songbook for ideas and inspiration. It’s still very relevant due to the wonderful story telling nature of the lyrics, and the use of harmony and melody to draw the listener in.”
Singer Liane Carroll guests on the new album, the latest big name female vocals star Cox has worked with. This was the first time professionally that they had worked together. “Liane is an incredible force of nature, an unbelievable vocalist and one of the nicest people to walk this earth. I wrote ‘Way Of Life,’ not thinking that it would end up being a duet. But when I recorded it I felt it needed something else and Liane just took the song and made it into something special. Before we started recording she asked me ‘Shall I just do my thing?’ and I said ‘Yes’. That’s how great jazz is.”
Speaking of the musical rapport between himself and pianist Jamie Safir, Ben says: “Any good musical collaboration will get better and better the longer you work together. We have both helped each other’s songwriting throughout the years and I think that we’ve written for this album is the best work we have done so far. ”
Jazz and pop sit easily on the new album. Ben says it is a natural process deciding what fits. “You get that gut feeling that a track will either work on the album or that it won’t. This album is a lot more focused than the last one. We also had our astonishing producer Jonni Musgrave, who is Jamie Safir’s oldest friend and first ever piano teacher. He understood completely the sound that we wanted to create and he was such an impressive person to work with in the studio. The songs are a lot more personal this time, which make them more enjoyable to sing. Like I always say, I don’t really think about different genres and ‘categories’ of music, or whether something should be called ‘jazz’ or ‘pop’. Labels are not helpful and so much good music crosses over several genres. The only question should be whether it is good music.”
And looking to the future, in ten years from now he says he would really like to go on to make other albums with the band. “We were very lucky to be picked up by BBC Radio 2 and Jamie Cullum very early, and that gave us wonderful opportunities to perform around the country, including at Cheltenham Jazz Festival alongside Gregory Porter. I want more of those performing opportunities, definitely. In fact, we are out supporting 10CC very soon. Some of my friends are surprised that we’re already bringing out our second album. There’s a strange philosophy out there that people must wait to be ‘ready’ to record. But I don’t think anyone is ever 100 per cent ready. You learn so much being in the studio, and I feel that I have already learned so much about music, about my voice and about songwriting through making these two albums. The best singers and performers will constantly go on developing and improving throughout their careers, and I could not ask for more than that.” (pp)
Round and Round is released by Cinnamon Records. Upcoming dates by the Ben Cox Band include The Cinnamon Club, Altrincham on Friday 14 October, and the Pizza Express Jazz Club, London, on 17 October.
ARTIST WEBSITE http://www.bencoxband.com/