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Oregon’s Ben Graves And His New Album, “Sunflower”



JGT contributor Joe Barth talks with Oregon’s Ben Graves about his new album and more.

If you are out and about listening to great jazz in the Portland, Oregon area you may be listening to Ben Graves.  Ben is a world-class guitarist who frequently plays in the Portland area and beyond. Ben has recently released his album Sunflower.  I asked him about the album and his approach to jazz guitar.

JB:  You were born in Tennessee then spent some time in Los Angeles and then graduated from Portland State University in Oregon.  Talk about when you started to play guitar and what inspired you to play jazz guitar.

BG:  I started playing guitar around age thirteen influenced by blues and rock musicians at the local level as well as guitar icons like Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, and Jimmy Page. A few years later I got into Eric Johnson and Steve Vai which led to my interest in improvisation, modes, and unique voicings. What ultimately inspired me to play jazz guitar was listening to my first Wes Montgomery album Smokin’ at the Half Note.  

JB:  Early on you immersed yourself in the music of Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, and John Coltrane.  Talk about the impact of each upon you.

BG:  I was mesmerized by Wes Montgomery’s lines and how melodic they were at any tempo. I spent numerous hours working on his chordal technique that incorporated bebop lines with drop 2 voicings. Also, I feel like the presence of blues lines in his playing has stuck with me, and I’ve always thought that’s such a crucial element for any jazz improviser. Grant Green’s solos on his album Solid was my first attempt at transcribing jazz guitar lines.  I loved his tone and hard-swinging rhythms in his playing. The music of John Coltrane was more about mood and emotion with me at an early age. I didn’t understand anything about the technical aspects of his playing, but the mood his compositions evoked transported me to many places. His Ballads album was a meditative resource for me, and I always felt the spirituality of his playing. 

Guitarist Ben Graves

JB:  To you, what are three of the most influential jazz guitar albums and why? 

Ben Graves:

Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ At The Half Note:

This album swings so hard and is a perfect example of not only his innovative approach to jazz guitar and melodic phrasing but also how powerful his playing was in a live setting. 

Joe Pass – Virtuoso:

As far as solo guitar playing goes, Joe’s approach on this phenomenal recording is still as awe-inspiring and fresh today as it was when it came out. With the presence of exceptional voicings, contrapuntal technique, and beautiful lines throughout, Virtuoso is an excellent example of solo jazz guitar mastery.   

Kurt Rosenwinkel’s The Next Step

To me, I feel like this is an important album in the jazz guitar world because of how groundbreaking and innovative his playing, unique tone, and compositions are. I had not heard anything quite like The Next Step before, and I felt the energy and mood in just about every cut on the album. 

JB:  Tell us about your goals in making your new album Sunflower.

BG:  First and foremost, I wanted to share this music with a wider audience. Over the past several years I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about my original compositions and I felt like it was the right time to put these tunes out there. I’ve wanted to record several of my compositions for over a decade. The title track “Sunflower” as well as the opening track “Fortune” are over 15 years old. Also, to have John Stowell and Kerry Politzer on this project has been an absolute pleasure and one of my goals in making this album.

Listen to Ben play the title track “Sunflower”…

JB:  Talk about your relationship with guitarist John Stowell and the two songs he recorded with you on the album.

BG:  Around 2005 when I was living in Los Angeles, I met John Stowell at one of John Pisano’s Guitar Nights. Shortly after that, we reconnected when I moved to Portland, OR. I took a couple of lessons with John around that time and now we have frequent guitar sessions as well as perform together when he’s in town. I feel very fortunate that I’ve had all these amazing opportunities with John over the years. I also feel fortunate that John joined me on my new album Sunflower. On my tune “Dirty Dishes” John had a last-minute arrangement idea that involved the bass dropping out while John, Tim, and I have two choruses of improv interplay and then bringing it all back together for the head out. It turned out quite nice, I feel like it was a very unique idea that gave the tune some extra dynamics. The other tune John joined us on was “Fortune,” which harmonically is not the easiest to solo over, but John floated beautifully over these changes. It was such a pleasure to hear him on my tunes.

JB:  Bassist Brian Healey and drummer Tim Rap are a solid rhythm section.  What do you appreciate most about working with those guys?

BG:  Tim and Brian are all-around great guys and I appreciate them so much for their excellent musicianship as well as friendship. My experience working with them has been wonderful both on stage and in the studio. Without the recommendations, some constructive criticism, performances, and many sessions with these two this album wouldn’t have been possible.  

JB:  Pianist Kerry Politzer plays on four songs on the album.  In your composing and arranging what adjustments do you make so the guitar and piano work well together?

BG:  Honestly, I didn’t have to do much at all as far as arranging goes. Kerry and I have worked together in her band Bossa Pdx for several years and there’s always been good communication and close listening in finding that balance with the guitar and piano. On most of the tunes Kerry played on, I focused more on the melody with very sparse comping and even dropped out completely during her solo on “Sept 2.” For the more rhythmic compositions like “Samba de Mundanca” and “Iris,” it worked well for the guitar to be more present and supportive with comping throughout the tunes. I did write specific voicings though on “Sept 2” and “Iris” which worked out well for a tighter sound between the guitar and piano.

Hear Ben play “Iris”…

JB:  Pete Petersen is a fine tenor player. In your arranging, why is he featured only on one song on the album?

BG:  I agree, Pete is a wonderful player, I’ve always enjoyed playing with him over the years.  Sunflower was recorded at the Jazz Dungeon which happens to be Pete’s studio here in Portland. He was the sound engineer on this project and did the mixing as well. After discussing logistics, a tight budget, and time constraints – Pete and I agreed his focus should be on the audio engineering of this album. Hopefully, I can add more of Pete’s wonderful playing on a future recording project.

JB:  What do you appreciate most about the Guild guitar you play?  

BG:  Besides being a beautifully crafted archtop, the big tone of my Guild X-150D Savoy has always been my favorite feature.  

JB:  Tell us about the amp that you use.

BG:  For the album I used my Fender 65 Deluxe Reverb because of the classic tube sound and big tone.  When I play live I love to run my Acoustic Image Corus+ along with my Deluxe Reverb for a bigger and much rounder sound. 

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?

BG: I feel like the caliber of musicians I started playing with around 2015 pushed me quite a bit and inspired me to get serious about not only certain technical skills but self-promotion as well.  Also, around this time I was getting called on gigs more frequently and started to get noticed more in the local jazz scene. Most importantly, I have a very supportive partner who has always encouraged me throughout my career, and to me, that is a very important factor in my success. 

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