Jazz Guitar Today contributor Joe Barth interviews acclaimed jazz guitarist Ben Sher – discusses his new album, “Samba For Tarsila”.
Another great guitar player in the New York area is Ben Sher. Ben is a master in traditional classic jazz guitar styling. Early in his career, he toured Brazil with a production of the rock opera “Tommy” and fell in love with bossa-nova and excelled in this style of jazz as well. Ben divides his time between playing and teaching full-time as a Professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. He has just released a new album, Samba for Tarsila on the Zoho label.
JB: I know that you grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, studied Classical guitar with Carlos Barbosa-Lima, and started playing jazz there. What was most helpful for you in your personal development as a guitarist?
BS: I studied classical guitar in college, all the while playing jazz, but after college, the classical guitar went in the closet where it stayed for many years! After moving to Los Angeles briefly, I moved back to Pittsburgh and this is when I really learned how to play jazz. I spent many, many nights at The Crescendo Lounge, a club run by a great drummer/singer Jerry Betters. Jerry was a friend of Billy Eckstine (who I did get to meet late one evening). At first, I would patiently sit until the end of the night and then get to play one tune with the band! In time, I began to become more of a presence there. I was eventually hired by his brother Harold (Betters) who was a bit of a Pittsburgh celebrity. I also got to play with all of the Pittsburgh greats: Roger Humphries, Dwayne Dolphin, Ned Gould, Dave Budway, Stanley Turrentine, and most importantly Gene Ludwig. Gene was a legendary organist who toured and recorded with Pat Martino. I played in Gene’s group for six months before moving to Boston. Playing with Gene was really important, but really the whole process of ‘making the scene’ and little by little developing and then getting the opportunity to do a lot of gigs was probably still the most important thing in my development as a jazz musician.
JB: Did Joe Negri play a role in your development?
BS: I never actually studied with Joe. When I was very young I studied with one of his students John Maione. I didn’t meet Joe until later when I was working with Harold Betters. Joe was very nice and supportive. Once he hosted a masterclass with Tal Farlow at Duquesne University and I had the opportunity to play a tune with Tal, which was unforgettable!
JB: You moved to Boston to study at Berklee with Mick Goodrick. Tell us how working with Mick was most helpful to you.
Mick completely turned my head around! The jazz scene in Pittsburgh was really coming from the “organ-trio-bluesy-swing-thing.” I had heard Mick’s playing on the Gary Burton recordings Dreams So Real and Ring but had never really dealt with those kinds of harmonies before. Through Mick, I learned a completely new chord vocabulary. Mick used to play a lot of duo gigs with flutist Jamie Baum and also played a lot with singer Dominique Eade. The way Mick accompanies is in a completely different ‘language’ than most other jazz guitarists. Ironically the type of chord motion he uses can also be found in the Brazilian ‘choro’ tradition which I learned about years later. The bass motion of the chords is not always a ‘cycle of fourths’, it moves similar to the way figured bass moves in Bach’s music. This is something that influences my solo playing quite a lot. I hope to illustrate it more in my next recording.
JB: What are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why?
BS: The three that influenced me the most were first George Benson’s Body Talk. I was ‘jamming’ a lot in high school. There were a lot of rather annoying Telecasters being played! When I heard George Benson soloing on “Funk in E” with this unbelievably beautiful sound, that’s when I fell in love with jazz guitar. Secondly, Pat Martino Live. For me, this was huge! It had Jimi Hendrix-level intensity with a clean jazz guitar sound. Then third, John Abercrombie Straight Flight. This is a rare recording that only came out on vinyl. I had the opportunity to do a workshop with John in Woodstock, NY. After the class, I went home and bought that record and did my best to learn some of the solos note for note. John approached the guitar in a much different way than Pat Martino. He played more intervalllically moving up the neck of the guitar on one or two strings rather than in a horizontal direction. This approach is a big part of my playing.
JB: Practice and listening aside, can you pinpoint one or two ‘things’ that really boosted your profile and career toward where it’s at today?
BS: Yes, there are two keys and they are directly related: The first was going to Brazil! I had the opportunity to spend several months there performing in a production of the Broadway show “Tommy”. I had some interest in Latin music in general, but being in Brazil, I was exposed to and fell in love with that tradition. When I returned home the second and biggest career boost came from a family friend Bruce Goldsmith. Bruce took an interest in me and my music. We decide to do a recording, which organically evolved into a Brazilian Jazz Record Tudo Bem, which led to a steady engagement of Brazilian Brunch Sundays at the Blue Note in NY, three courses in the Brazilian Guitar Style at Berklee College of Music, numerous tours and Masterclasses and a second critically acclaimed recording Pleased Take Me to Brazil featuring Kenny Barron and Luciana Souza.
JB: You have several wonderful CDs out. Tell us about your goals in making your new CD Samba for Tarsila.
BS: I wanted to do a recording that would mirror what I sound like live. My critically acclaimed CD Please Take Me to Brasil was really a treat to record, but it was impossible to get that full band for a gig. Samba for Tarsilafeatures three musicians that I’ve been working with off and on for years. So far, we’ve played a few gigs and the music has picked up right where the recording left off…it just keeps getting better and better!
JB: On the album, I love your rendition of “Never Can Say Goodbye.” How did you come to choose that song?
BS: Well, I can’t claim total credit for introducing this to the jazz repertoire. Joey DeFrancesco released a version on his recording of the same name. But…his version was pretty faithful to the original tempo and harmony. My version I’d like to think is kind of a reimagining.
JB: As a gigging musician, how does the scene in other parts of the world compare with that in the United States? What advice would you give young American musicians who want to break into Europe, South America, and Asia?
BS: For me, the key was to play as much as I could in New York! When you play in New York it’s like you’re being observed by the whole world. I suppose you can accomplish more of a ‘presence’ these days with social media. I see musicians who I’ve never seen play anywhere who seem to be generating a lot of attention. It’s a brave new world I suppose.
JB: Tell us about the guitar and amp that you use.
BS: I’m proud to play a Benedetto Bravo that I purchased two years ago, and represent them as an ‘educator’. I’ve played with many hollow bodies through the years, solid tops, laminate, and 16′ and 17′ bodies. This guitar is perfect. It’s got all the best attributes of all of these different types of jazz guitars and none of the problems. I also play a beautiful “nylon fusion” acoustic electric that was made for me by Avalon Guitars. My amp is a Quilter MicroPro, a company that generously also made me an artist endorsee. It’s really great; portable and responsive. It can sound like a Fender or an acoustic guitar amp!
JB: As a professor at Berklee who works with many guitar students, what “traps” do young guitarists easily fall into?
BS: There’s such a plethora of instruction presented these days with all the social media platforms. And with everyone sequestered with COVID for several years, many have become somewhat conditioned and sadly addicted to this. And it’s not that the information is wrong, in many cases it’s good, but it’s indigestible! I have students coming to me saying I want to learn to play solo guitar like Joe Pass, also Brazilian Guitar, and gypsy jazz, all at the same time! And that’s what happens when they’re presented with all that information constantly. Everyone becomes a bit ADD. You have to learn music the way my old Tai Chi teacher taught: learn one thing at a time. Come back to the next class after you’ve practiced and then proceed to the next step.
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