“He says: When we choose to make art, we choose to build, and we choose to dig. There is no unmarked plot. In music, as in meteorology, a synopsis obscures what initial conditions illuminate.” — Adam Benjamin
It’s November of 2008. F. Boo Studios, which is connected to Robin and Keven Brennan’s home in Burbank, CA, is filled to capacity. Most of us sit on the floor surrounding a grand piano, the closest but an arms length from it. When all are settled, the artist enters to warm applause. He smiles gratefully—he knows everyone here personally—but he looks nervous, too, embarrassed.
He still looks a bit sheepish as he sits down and gathers himself. Only when his fingers push down the keys, and a sound totally unlike that of a piano jumps from the strings, do the listeners realize that they’ve been had.
Now, we’ve learned a thing or two about avant-garde composition in college. We are familiar with numerous methods of preparing piano strings to make different sounds—paper clips, putty, etc.—methods composers have used for over 50 years. But none of that knowledge shields us from this opening sucker punch, and by the time we pick ourselves up off the mat, he’s halfway through a raucous rendition of “Willow Weep For Me”.
For those who haven’t witnessed one of Adam Benjamin’s clandestine performances—the last one we attended took place in a narrow garden behind a flower shop—his forthcoming solo piano album, Alphabets And Consequences, is a handsome consolation. There’s an intimacy to this set of miniatures that draws the listener in; it’s as if you stopped by to say hello, and he sat you down by his piano and asked you to listen to something.
“I think this album pretty accurately represents me,” Adam wrote on his blog, “and because of this I am quite nervous about it actually being released. You know, the frailty of humanity, and all.” His ambivalence, unusual for a musician who has composed, performed, and recorded as much music as he has, is poignantly expressed in the sixth track, “Adam Benjamin”:
His right hand shuffles nervously onto the stage, haltingly intoning its strange song—as if it would be just as happy at home, rifling through Adam’s voluminous collection of baseball cards. After a minute or so, it finds its confidence and holds forth with clarity, but it isn’t long before it remembers itself. Awkwardness and poise dance and struggle, repelling and informing each other until, eventually, they wistfully agree to disagree.
Vikram: Why piano?
Adam: Well, why not piano? I don’t know; I was too young to know better when I started, and it seemed to be the funnest thing of all the other things that I liked or had any reasonable level of aptitude for. And even now it seems to be the funnest, coolest thing. It combines thinking on your feet, and creativity, and conceptual work, and all the things that I admire.
I started on my own. I had a toy piano, and I taught myself how to play some themes from TV and classical music. And so when I was five my parents were like, “we should probably get him a real piano.” My grandparents had this crusty old piano that my mom had grown up playing, and they had that shipped to where we lived. I was awestruck—it was so big compared to the toy piano.
I think the toy piano is gone, but the real piano is still at my parent’s house. It’s basically a toy.
Vikram: Do you remember making the transition from playing piano as a hobby to playing piano as a career?
Music college was definitely the turning point. It was my senior year of high school, and I was trying to decide between schools. I had some music schools, and some liberal arts schools, and others where I could do both. I don’t remember how I ended up choosing music school over the other options, but it didn’t feel like it was a big, weighty decision at that point.
It seemed like the music people were better at being smart at “other stuff” than the “other stuff” people were good at music, so music school seemed like the safest option. But I still didn’t have that much confidence in it. My parents thought I should go to Eastman, because Eastman gave me the most financial aid and it was a shorter drive. And I was like, “oh, ok, whatever…”
I remember getting this letter in the mail—this was the first year they had an undergraduate jazz program at Eastman, so there were only eight students—and it listed all of them: Adam Benjamin, Shane Endsley, Ben Wendel… And I was like, “I wonder who all these guys are?” It said they were bringing in two professors to start the program, Michael Cain and Ralph Alessi, but I had never heard of them.
I had no idea what I was in for, but within two or three weeks, I think I just knew. I was so impressed by my teachers and what they were able to do musically, and who they seemed to be personally. And right around that time, Dave Douglas was a guest artist at Eastman and played with the Tiny Bell Trio. Jim Black was the drummer in that band, and I had just never seen—I mean, my idea of a good drummer at that point was the dude from Phish. And I saw Jim Black play, and I was like, “oh my God, he’s got the windup toys on the snare drum, and he’s doing all this crazy shit!” I had no idea about any of that stuff until I got to Eastman.
Adam: My first year at Eastman, I was really buried in music stuff because I was so far behind when I got there. All the other dudes could totally play jazz, and I was really clueless. I could do cool free improvisations, and I knew music theory, but I couldn’t play jazz to save my life. So I was just putting that together. Then my second year I got really into typography.
I wanted to make a big change in my life, so I was going to move to California and go to CalArts and be a double major in jazz and typography. That lasted two weeks.
Matt: Tell us about your experience at CalArts.
Adam: By the time I got to CalArts, I knew I wanted to get really good at playing solo piano. I wanted to get some bands together that played unique, interesting music. It was a really weird experience, changing schools. They’re so different curriculum-wise, and it was so different culturally. It took me a really long time to adjust to living in the dorms with these free-spirited California kids, who were just hanging out and doing drugs.
I was really intimidated by all the girls—by everybody, really. But then, pretty quickly, I got my first gig with a touring band, Ear 2000. The lead singer of that band was David Arquette. He would wear these weird zebra-print suits with his underwear on the outside. It was a whole different world, really a weird thing for me to be thrown into. I didn’t fit in with those guys at all.
But it was really interesting, because it took me to Europe for the first few times. It was my first experience being a working musician: having shit go wrong, getting ripped off for some money, getting overworked, but learning and having some cool gigs along the way. That was my first experience with rock and roll. At this point, I don’t think I had ever felt “the jazz feeling”.
It’s January of 2010. When we enter Adam’s cozy Santa Monica flat, he’s looking out over the Pacific from his porch. “Look at this sunset,” he says reverently. And we do, silently. Its beauty inspires Vikram to take a picture, but the flash pierces the perfection of the moment—an intrusion that, judging by Adam’s quizzical glance, he does not appreciate.
He says he needs some caffeine before we start the interview in earnest, so we drive a short distance to a spot he likes. He may have caught us smiling at the upper-crustiness of the joint, because he asks if we like fancy coffee. Vikram replies that he does, though he doesn’t really ever seek it out. “Oh,” Adam says excitedly, his eyes growing large and his smile widening, “I seek it out.”
We sit down with our cappuccinos and cookies, and Adam asks if we know a place that can dry clean his suit in a hurry. His band, Kneebody, in conjunction with vocalist Theo Bleckmann, has been nominated for a Grammy for their album, Twelve Songs By Charles Ives, and Adam wants to look his best for the awards ceremony. We reflect for a moment on the irony of all this—a rock band composed of jazz musicians has received a Grammy nod for “Best Crossover Classical Album” for paying tribute to a man whose music the concert music elite broadly disdained when he was alive.
We consider asking him how he feels about all that. But then we remember hearing Kneebody play those Ives songs live, and how exciting it was to see little kids jumping out of their seats at the sound of it, and we know it really doesn’t matter what the snobs of a hundred years ago or the Grammy voters of today think. The bitterness of our cappuccino and the decadence of our cookies seem far more compelling right now.
Matt: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician? I ask because, when I met you at Banff, you asked all the students in your master class to question how they relate to the jazz tradition.
Adam: It’s complicated. One of the reasons I always try to bring that up somewhat quickly in a situation like that is, a lot of the people who are pursuing a jazz education aren’t necessarily doing it because they love jazz, but because there just aren’t that many options in music education. I went into a jazz major in college because I didn’t want to be a classical musician, and really, jazz and classical were the only choices at serious music schools.
I think for the people at Banff—the shining lights of the young musical generation, you know—a lot of their work and energy and thought is being focused through jazz. And some of them naturally gravitate to jazz, and some of them come from a jazz background. But a lot of others end up being in a circle that uses the word ‘jazz’ a lot, and uses the jazz history and the jazz lexicon a lot just because that’s an acceptable thing to do in a music education setting, even though that might not be the music they’re most interested in, or the music they’re most naturally connected with.
So I think it’s good to take stock of where you are, to make sure you’re not being suggested into a role. It took me a long time to find a place where I felt connected with jazz, and I felt like I had to earn that—not to disparage not getting to that point, because then you’re just connected with something else that is equally meritorious. But for me to get to that point, I felt like I had to have a certain amount of experiences that felt like jazz experiences.
I do consider myself a jazz musician, but I think the way that I approach the different music work I do, even the stuff that’s not jazz music, and even just the way I conceive of my career, of my musical community, and of my relationship with the history of the music—it’s an indulgence. I would like to indulge myself and say that I belong to this movement, even if it’s not in the most direct way. But I would like to think of myself that way, so I do.
I got “the jazz feeling” for the first time when I was 21, and I’ll never forget the day. I was in my bedroom, in my apartment in Newhall near CalArts. I had definitely listened to a lot of jazz, and I liked jazz, but it still wasn’t really coming naturally to me. So I felt like it was really a watershed moment for me when I put on Wayne Shorter’s JuJu one day, and that first track—I just kind of heard it for the first time. I sat in my room and listened to it fifteen or twenty times.
Adam: I was just ready for it at that moment. My lifestyle was starting to loosen up around that time. I was starting to get a little bit accustomed to living in California and being a little bit older, and just screwing around and experimenting more with—things in life. I mean, let’s face it: most of the time, “the jazz feeling” isn’t going to come that naturally to a kid like me, coming out of a small town and not having any connection with jazz.
I had no love for jazz beyond other types of music, and I had no real connection with the African-American experience, and I had no real experience with—I just had no real experience! I had a very rich internal world and was a creative person as a young man, I think, but I had no connection with things in history or culture really. I don’t know if that sounds grandiose.
Whether you can “feel” jazz—obviously, that’s a purely subjective thing. It’s just a matter of whether you feel like you’re feeling it. And just to get to the point where you can feel that—it’s like assessing yourself in a certain way, and saying, “I now think enough of myself to think I can truly feel something in this music.”
Adam: No, I haven’t. I think the only frustrations I had with jazz weren’t really with jazz music, but with what I perceived to be a backwards set of values that seemed to be embodied in a lot of jazz education. Just like, in order for me to be who I naturally felt I was, I would first have to do all these other things that I didn’t feel any connection with. And that, I think, made me bristle. But I didn’t have to deal with that once I got to CalArts. Also, by the time I was old enough to know who I was a little bit, and was making the music I wanted to make, then that just didn’t seem important. I definitely have a million moments of feeling like jazz is hard and I suck at it. But I don’t have any moments of being mad at it.
The first and biggest step was just—Mike [Cain] and Ralph [Alessi], my teachers at Eastman, those guys were players on the New York scene. So I got the sense that there was a scene, and most of it’s in New York, and it’s these dudes, and this is the kind of music they do. And that was a thing. I went to New York to see them play with each other in these places, and I was like, “ok, this is actually a movement of music.”
From then on, I just never really understood all the talk of “jazz is dead and there’s nothing happening.” I thought, “wow, there’s just so much happening!”
Join us next week for the second part of our conversation with Adam Benjamin, in which we discuss what’s happening—with particular focus on his membership in one of the most fascinating musical ensembles around, Kneebody. Our New York readers can catch Kneebody Feb. 17-20 at the Bleecker St. Theater; see their website for details.