Combining a joyful swing feel with a blues-heavy approach, Ben Paterson is a Steinway Artist, Hammond Organ Endorsee, and Winner of the 2018 Ellis Marsalis Jazz Piano Competition. He has opened for bands including Steely Dan and B.B. King, and leads his own piano and organ groups at festivals and clubs around the U.S. and abroad.
"Having these LCD-2 headphones has been a game changer for me in a number of ways... and gives me clarity and confidence that what I want to present is indeed coming through." - Ben Paterson
Here's our chat with Ben:
Can you pick out any favorites from your work that you're particularly proud of?
Probably my most popular recording is an arrangement I did of Stevie Wonder's 'Isn't She Lovely.' I'm proud of how it came out, in that I was able to add just enough Jazz re-harmony and improvisational complexity, without sacrificing the joy and beauty of the original.
I'm also quite proud of a recording project I did for Cellar Live called "Live At Van Gelder's." I was able to record with my organ trio at the famous Van Gelder studio, while also bringing a live audience into the space. To my knowledge that's the first and last time that's ever been done at that location, so as far as I know I've got the only Van Gelder 'Live' record in existence.
How would you define your main role on most of the projects you work on these days?
This past year during Covid I've more or less be forced to explore the world of solo piano. I'm lucky that as a pianist I can still perform solo in an effective way, and the challenge of trying to be a one man band is a never-ending one!
During normal times I would say I do about half my work as a band leader, booking the shows, picking the tunes, writing the arrangements, and about half my work as a sideman for someone else. I enjoy both settings, with the first giving me more control, but with more challenges, and the latter allowing me to focus on just the playing aspect, and making the bandleader sound as good as I can.
How did you get started in music? What kind of music did you listen to while growing up and how has that progressed?
I started playing classical piano as a kid, beginning around 6 years old and continuing up through the end of high school. I was lucky that my older brother hipped me to people like Stevie Wonder and B.B. King at an early age, and by the age of 14 or so I discovered pianists like Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson, both of whom blew my mind back then, and still do today! Classical music is beautiful, but when I heard the freedom, blues, and virtuosity of Tatum I never looked back.
Can you name any factors you feel majorly influenced the course of your musical life? Heroes, role models, moments, interactions, etc?
I lived in Chicago for about 12 years starting in 2000, and for 7 of those years I was fortunate to be in the band of NEA Jazz Master and tenor sax elder statesman Von Freeman. I never went to formal music school, but he was my on-the-bandstand education. We never used sheet music, and he often wouldn't tell me what the song was or what key it was in, so I either had to use my ears and figure it out or I was toast. It was sink or swim. But it was the best kind of education, you really had to use your ears. He played with incredible lyricism, his ballads were beautiful in a way that few can match, it was an honor to work with him.
As far as organ playing goes I was lucky in Chicago to have another mentor in the figure of Chris Foreman. He's not widely known, and doesn't leave Chicago too often, but he's got one of the best bass line feels I've ever heard, a total mastery of dynamics, and puts more blues into one phrase than many musicians put into an entire set. A phenomenal musician.
Can you briefly describe a moment of frustration from your past work, and what you may have done to overcome the obstacles? Would you approach it differently now?
The biggest frustration I can think of at the moment is Covid coming along and cancelling everything! I remember right as Covid started showing up in the U.S., in March 2020, I was scheduled to go on a 3 week tour of Asia, including stops at the Tokyo Blue Note, as well as shows in South Korea, China, and Hawaii. It's the kind of tour every Jazz musicians drools over. And then it all got shut down. Definitely frustrating, though I know many folks were affected in far worse ways.
The challenge this past year has been to figure out ways to move what I do to an online format, and I've managed to do quite a lot with Live Stream performances on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. It's a challenge in that I have to be sound engineer, tech support, promoter, and then also deliver the musical goods, but it's been a fun process, and it's allowed me to engage with fans from around the world in a very direct way. The only thing I'd change is that I would have started doing it much sooner! And I'll definitely continue live stream shows even when clubs open back up.
Is there any gear you find yourself turning to most when working on a project? What are some of your favorite tools/instruments recently?
My most useful piece of gear, especially this past year, has been the beautiful Steinway Model L that I'm lucky to have. Even before becoming a Steinway Artist, their pianos were always unquestionably my favorite, and to have that gorgeous instrument waiting for me at any time is a blessing. For live streams I've gotten some beautiful mics to match it with, specifically the Earthworks PM40. It's a great compact system that captures piano sound in an incredibly accurate way, and I love its easy setup and low profile. For live performances I've gotten a ton of use out of Nord products, in particular the Electro 5D and C1 organ board. If you pair those things with a real old school Leslie speaker the sound is about as close to the real Hammond B3 as you can get. Nothing, of course, beats the real Hammond though.
Do you have any words of wisdom for people who might aspire toward a similar path for their own careers?
I would say creating a path for yourself as an independent artist / musician is a work of love, and of patience and dedication. You have to love it, otherwise you simply won't make it through the years of hard work and study. I can remember many, many nights where I had to haul a crazy amount of gear to a crappy gig where no one paid any attention, and where we got so little dough it was laughable.
But the moment I got to start making music with the other members of the group, often some of the best musicians you could ever hope to share the stage with, I would have a smile on my face from ear to ear, and would have gladly done it all over again. If you can make it through those times, with love and true commitment to the music, then eventually the gigs get better, and you start to earn some true respect and better pay. It takes time.
How long have you been working with headphones, and how do you typically use them in your workflow?
I use headphones while traveling, while teaching online, and of course for critical listening in any sort of studio application. I love a great hifi speaker system for sharing music with others, and hearing the sound of a particular room / space. But when you want that intimacy and perfect detail, a great pair of headphones is hard to beat.
How have your Audeze headphones affected your work? Can you tell us what you've been working on with them so far?
Having these LCD-2 headphones has been a game changer for me in a number of ways.
- First, they've upped my levels of daily inspiration by seducing me into hours long listening sessions. Revisiting old favorites and exploring new albums are sources of pure joy. I've been checking out different audiophile music sources more and more over the past year, and the warmth and detail of the LDC-2s makes every nuance both clear and inviting.
- Second, I've been working on a new solo piano recording (there hasn't been much else to do during Covid!), and having these headphones as a reference helps tremendously with sorting out mic placement / EQ / etc. The stereo imaging lets me hear exactly how the piano is being captured, what kind of soundstage I'm able to create, and gives me clarity and confidence that what I want to present is indeed coming through.
Do you have any additional comments or stories you want to share?
I'm incredibly lucky to have been able to work with the musicians I have, including some of the elders of the Jazz world who are becoming more and more rare as time passes. This past year has been so tough for music venues in particular, and I personally can't wait to get back out and hear some amazing live music as soon as it's safe to do so. Hope to see some of you there!