Guildhall graduate Ben Comeau is a pianist, organist, accordionist and composer, active in jazz, classical and contemporary music. He talks to us from lockdown about his varied music influences, favourite Mahler symphonies, and a new online service Encore Music that could help bring revenue to musicians in this new climate.
First album you purchased as a “jazz musician”?
I have no idea what album I first bought for myself, but I remember my parents giving me some CDs of Stéphane Grappelli and Oscar Peterson when I first decided I wanted jazz lessons. At that time my idea of jazz came from learning Gershwin preludes as part of my strict classical upbringing, so I really had no clue what I was letting myself in for! I quickly developed an affinity for Harlem stride, initially drawn in by the sheer virtuosity, which then seemed a logical extension of Liszt and Rachmaninoff. My musical values have since changed drastically, but I still love stride’s sense of joy and vitality. Other early attractions included Weather Report’s album Mr Gone, and the Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaborations.
What are you listening to right now?
I had a really cathartic experience a few weeks ago, listening to Don Cherry and Terry Riley’s Live Köln 1975 album, amidst some personal anxiety. It’s very trancy, minimalistic music, which I often don’t ‘get’ – I usually gravitate towards music with more direction – but in moments of crisis and uncertainty I now find myself experiencing comfort and release often in static, directionless music. Other artists I’ve particularly enjoyed recently include Ornette Coleman, Paul Bley, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Outside of jazz I’ve been enjoying discovering old country blues, and I always return to my favourite Mahler symphonies (5, 8 and 9, for the Mahler nerds).
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Have you done or watched any livestream gigs or events since lockdown?
I did a livestream gig a few weeks ago to replace a solo recital I would have performed in Bradford Cathedral. We’re craving direct interaction at the moment, so I’m looking for more ways for audience and performer to interact (without being gimmicky). Sam Leak’s LJN article suggested a post-gig Zoom hangout, and/or Q&A session, which I’d like to do next time. Sam’s discussion of fees and ticketing is also extremely important, though I’ve sometimes found it a huge morale boost to stumble across a free livestream on Facebook from a music idol! Either way, there’s no question we need to keep the music going – without pressuring ourselves. I’m optimistic we’ll find increasingly effective online techniques and approaches as the weeks roll on. One brilliant idea has come from Encore Music, who have a new quarantine-time service: clients pay musicians to create personalised music videos, for example to send to a loved one. The fee includes a donation to the NHS.
Most memorable incident or event in your career or education?
I occasionally indulge in pastiche classical composition, and I once composed a 45-minute piano sonata as if by Otto Rosenberg, an imaginary pupil of Franz Liszt in the 1880s who wrote highly chromatic, virtuosic piano repertoire, believing the augmented triad to hold mystical properties, before dying in his mid-20s. I performed it in 2015 at a French chamber music festival, presenting it as a genuine historical discovery from a forgotten composer. The audience included the formidable nonagenarian supervirtuoso pianist Abbey Simon, who remarked to me straight after that he thought that it was a “bloody awful piece, but you played it as well as anyone could have.”
Instrument you wish you had played?
Having been a harmony obsessive throughout most of my education, to the neglect of other musical dimensions, I would really like to learn drums properly. It would expose all my weaknesses, but I’d probably become a better musician rapidly. I also want to get back into singing during lockdown.
Has this time in isolation inspired any new creative ideas?
We should be happy to take things slow. Times of crisis definitely facilitate new forms of creativity, but the most important creativity won’t happen overnight, or without pain. My musical to-do list is incredibly long, but anxiety about the world results in a lot of physical tiredness, and I’m prioritising sleep! I trust this will ferment into more valuable artistic creations at some point. I’m lucky enough to be sharing a house with an exceptional baroque and experimental violinist, and we look forward to making and releasing music when we’re both in the right headspace. It’s worth remembering we can *sometimes* turn limitations into opportunities. My piano is out of tune and a few of the dampers don’t work properly, but this enables me to play about with unusual kinds of string reverberation.
What are you most looking forward to once this is over?
Lots of hugs. Free jazz jam sessions. Probably a few days of heavy drinking and partying. Hopefully having more wisdom and resilience, and a better understanding of where and how music has value. Stumbling out of Cafe OTO with double vision. I genuinely miss the rush-hour tube at this stage. I’m not so looking forward to having to wake up before noon though…
A chance to plug a friend’s music right now…
I’ve been fortunate to collaborate for a few years with Alice McCarthy, a singer who has just released a couple of singles including “Colours”, for which I provided the arrangement. She’s grounded in gospel and neo-soul, but her songs are very individual, with influence from her classical training as well as from jazz, indie and folk. I think her voice is one to watch.