New Zealand pianist Ben Wilcock has added a new ingredient to his music. His latest album, The River Tethys is inspired by science-fiction and includes standards and even an Irish slip jig as well as original music. He shares his story with Rob Adams.
Ben Wilcock wasn’t born when Thelonious Monk toured New Zealand in 1965. But he wishes he had been. Monk was a huge early influence on the Hamilton-born pianist and it feels quite surreal to imagine that he might be walking on streets where his hero walked or following a similar itinerary to Monk’s when he’s touring with his own group.
“I love Monk’s angular melodies and his humour,” says Wilcock, who releases his latest album, The River Tethys, on 13 August. “Everything he plays is so unique, but to me it makes perfect sense. I remember listening to my parents’ LPs as a kid and discovering Oscar Peterson, which was probably when I decided that this was my path. Later came Monk, of course, Ahmad Jamal and Erroll Garner, and more recently Bill Evans, George Shearing and Benny Green. They all played a part in steering me into this career.”
Wilcock grew up in a musical family and was exposed to all sorts of music throughout his childhood. Both of his parents were – and still are – active on the Hamilton music scene. His mother is a chorister and his father plays in a jazz band. His Brother, Sam has been a session guitarist in London for the past twenty years, and Ben followed him over, playing solo piano in hotels, which built both his technique and his repertoire, doing gigs in Montunos jazz club in Shoreditch and playing with various blues bands.
“I actually left New Zealand as part of a theatre show called The Pickle King,” he says. “The company, Indian Ink, was already well established at home and had previously won a Fringe First at the Edinburgh Fringe. So, after touring New Zealand with them, when they asked if I wanted to join them for their run at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003, I not only said ‘yes’, I also booked one-way tickets, for my wife and myself, with the goal of staying in the UK and pursuing my career in London.”
He returned to New Zealand in 2008 and was invited to join a local soul band, which turned out to be fronted by Bella Kalolo, one of New Zealand’s top vocalists. It was the beginning of a ten-years-plus association, during which Wilcock played alongside some of New Zealand’s best session musicians and toured nationally and internationally, including appearances at the Java Jazz Festival, in Jakarta, and at Glastonbury.
Through playing with Kalolo’s band, Wilcock met, and worked with, many of Australasia’s top vocalists and musicians. He learned a lot about the music industry and the process of recording albums and music videos, which has come in useful as the co-owner of the Thick Records label that issues his recordings. The Kalolo association also helped him to create lasting relationships with several blues musicians, including American singer-guitarist Chris Cain, with whom he still tours.
While working with Bella Kalolo, Wilcock was also teaching at the New Zealand School of Music. He was fortunate to be on hand in 2013 when both reeds master Bennie Maupin and drummer Bob Moses came over as guest artists.
“With Bob Moses, we spent a week workshopping and rehearsing followed by a concert,” says Wilcock. “He was so generous with his knowledge and experience. His compositions were very free and liberating. With Bennie it was a bit different. The original pianist couldn’t make the gig, so I got the call. Our one rehearsal involved Bennie and I having a chat over a bowl of soup about what colours and textures he was looking for in his music. He was so cool. I think the expectation was that he would play Headhunters-type funk material. But his music was similar to Bob Moses’ in that it was largely improvised and open.”
Wilcock’s own music, he says, is influenced by everything he’s worked on as a professional. The River Tethys, however, has an added ingredient, having been shaped by sci-fi writer Dan Simmons’ Hyperion novels. The track list features a variety of styles and approaches, including the traditional Irish slip jig The Butterfly alongside original material and jazz standards including Star Eyes and Groovin’ High.
“The original material was completely improvised, with a few parameters discussed beforehand,” he says. “All the tracks are ‘one takes’ so the recording really captures a true collaborative improvisation. We recorded the music and then each track was assigned to a character or scene from the Hyperion books. I knew that musically this was going to be a meeting of old and new worlds, and that’s where the connection to the books comes in; distant worlds connected by a commonality. As we compiled the tracks it became clear which track suited which character or world.”
Appearing with Wilcock on The River Tethys are bassist Dan Yeabsley, violinist Tristan Carter and Wilcock’s partner in Thick Records, Wellington-based Scottish drummer John Rae. It was Rae who taught Wilcock the Butterfly, which the pianist subsequently played in a session in the legendary Edinburgh folk pub, Sandy Bell’s – quite the rite of passage.
“John’s input is beyond price,” says Wilcock. “He brings so much experience to the band, not just in his playing but also in helping with arrangements. I’d like listeners to feel like they are hearing something fresh and innovative with this album. Conceptually it’s taken me in a new direction, and I hope the listeners can hear that too.”
The River Tethys is released on 13 August