Latin Jazz Conversation: Ben Sher

by chipboaz on February 2, 2017

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The guitar is a key piece of Brazilian music, forming the backbone to the music’s rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic structure. There’s a fantastic history of wonderful guitarists spread throughout Brazilian music, with an inspiring collection of virtuosos to admire. Whether they are accompanying singers, serving as soloists, or providing the harmony in a rhythm section, guitarists are a consistent presence in Brazilian music. With the close connection between Brazilian music and jazz, it makes sense that a guitar player with an interest in jazz would find their way into the world of Brazilian music . . . and simply love being there.

That’s exactly what happened to guitarist Ben Sher, who walked a variety of musical paths until making a strong connection to Brazilian music. Originally steeped in rock and pop, Sher built upon his passion for the instrument with studies in classical guitar. With some solid skills on his instrument, Sher dug deeply into the jazz scene in Philadelphia before moving to Boston for further studies in jazz at New England Conservatory. He started to connect with a variety of Caribbean and South American styles once he moved to New York, but it was a tour of Brazil that sealed his connection to that music. Upon his return from Brazil, he formed his group TudoBem with some important names like Duduka Da Fonseca and Luciana Souza. This led to some fantastic recordings such as the 2001 release Please Take Me to Brasil. With the recent release of his latest album, Tempestade, I sent Sher some questions about his background and connection to Brazilian music. It’s a fascinating journey that has led to some outstanding music!

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: How did you first start playing jazz and then Brazilian music?

BEN SHER: I started playing jazz in high school. My parents were musicians so I was force-fed classical piano and cello lessons when I was very young. I finally rebelled and quit everything. In 9th grade, I picked up the guitar when everyone was getting into the Stones, Clapton, The Allman Brothers, and The Grateful Dead. I never really got that good at rock, but during that time, I heard George Benson’s recordings Body Talk and Bad Benson, and immediately wanted to play jazz guitar. I decided to major in classical guitar in college to become more well-rounded, and even though I was studying with Carlos Barbosa-Lima, really learning the Brazilian tradition didn’t come until much later.

LJC: You studied with Brazilian classical guitarist Carlos Barbosa-Lima while you getting your degree at Carnegie-Mellon University- how did you connect with him initially and what were some of the big lessons that you took away from your time with him?

BEN SHER: Carlos was the head of the Guitar Department the year before I entered. After that year, he wasn’t officially on the faculty, but he was there frequently as a visiting artist. He exposed me to the great South American guitar tradition: composers like Villa-Lobos, Isaias Savio, and Albeto Ginastera.

LJC: You got you Master’s Degree in music from New England Conservatory, where you studied with Mick Goodrich – how did this experience deepen your understanding of jazz and Brazilian music?

BEN SHER: After I graduated from Carnegie Mellon, the classical guitar immediately went in the closet, and I began focusing exclusively on jazz. Pittsburgh has a great jazz tradition and I was able to become a member of the “scene”. I sat in many nights at Gerry Betters jazz club, getting to play with Stanley Turrentine, Cecil Brooks, and even hanging late night with Billy Eckstine! I got to work in Gene Ludwig’s group for about a year. Gene was a great jazz organist. He spent many years playing with Pat Martino. After six years though it was time to move on, and that’s when I started studying with Mick at NEC. The scene there was much different than Pittsburgh, much more contemporary. Everyone was into Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, and compositionally the “ECM” sound. As great as the scene was in Pittsburgh, it was really focused on the Charles Earland/Jimmy McGriff soul organ jazz sound, and it never really got that progressive harmonically. So the Boston scene completely opened up my ears to new sounds. After graduating, I became a member of the Boston Jazz Composers Orchestra. I got to play with special guests including Sam Rivers, Dave Holland, Henry Threadgilll, and Julius Hemphill. This is where I met Donny McCaslin.

LJC: You toured Brazil twice, where you got to connect with several musicians from the country – how did playing music in this context shape your relationship with Brazilian music?

BEN SHER: I moved to New York in 1989. I started teaching at a school called the Drummer’s Collective. There I met many great drummers of many styles including Bobby Sanabria, the late great Frankie Malabe, and Duduka da Fonseca. On my first recording Handprints, I mirrored that experience composing tunes in a variety of Latin styles. In 1996 I had the opportunity to spend close to three months in Brazil performing of all things, the rock opera Tommy! While there I met many musicians from Brazil. I’m still in touch with a few: guitarist Carlos Tomati and bassist Zerros Santos, both from Sao Paulo. We would hang out and play all the time. I discovered a whole new musical tradition.

LJC: TudoBem has been your working Brazilian Jazz group since 1996 – tell us a little bit about the group and some of the things that you’ve accomplished.

BEN SHER: After returning from Brazil, an investor, Bruce Goldsmith, became interested in a followup recording to Handprints. I tried some of my compositions with a few different rhythm sections, but when I brought in Duduka, it immediately felt right. I guess I had been touched by the Brazilian soul! We brought in Fred Hersch, Dennis Irwin, Valtinho Anastacio, and a young singer who at the time was studying at NEC: Luciana Souza. Luciana wrote lyrics to the title tune “TudoBem” – a song and a name for the band was born! I found myself being booked for close to 4 months at the Blue Note in New York doing the Sunday Brazilian brunch. During that run, I met and got to play with many of the great Brazilian musicians in New York including Nilson Matta and the guys on Tempestade: Vanderlei Periera and Helio Alves. I had an extended run at the Blue Note in Fukuoka, did several European tours, and was a featured artist at “LeClub”, Igor Butman’s great jazz club in Moscow. I recorded Me Leva Pro Brasil (Please Take Me to Brasil) in 2001. It features Luciana Souza and Kenny Barron in addition to the TudoBem rhythm section.

LJC: You’ve got two groups on Tempestade – a more traditional Brazilian jazz group and an organ Trio. What do you think each group brings out in your musicianship?

BEN SHER: It’s been a while since I’ve had a chance to play with Vanderlei; hopefully we’ll be playing more now that his recording is out. I learned so much about how to phrase and the time feel of Brazilian music from him. Sylvia and Gary have a similar perspective to me – they both are coming from a jazz tradition, but have also spent time studying the Brazilian tradition. So playing with them, we have a little more common experience.

LJC: Your all-star Brazilian rhythm section contains some heavy names in the Brazilian Jazz world – how did you connect with these musicians and what did they bring to the project?

BEN SHER: I guess I meet all those guys during my run at the Blue Note. I did several gigs with Helio and the great Brazilian singer Maucha Adnet. Helio and I also have been playing together in Tommy Campbell’s group Vocal Eyes for the last five years. These guys just have the real Brazilian ginga (that’s the equivalent of the term ‘swing” ). It’s a whole cultural/musical learning experience playing this music with these guys.

LJC: You’ve also got saxophonist Donny McCaslin on the album, who is currently a jazz superstar – how did you get Donny involved in the album?

BEN SHER: After recording TudoBem, Bruce Goldsmith went on to form BGI Records. He was responsible for bringing in Kenny Barron on Me Leva Pro Brasil (Please Take Me to Brasil). For Tempestade, he wanted a saxophone special guest. As I mentioned Donny’s an old friend – I had met him in Boston years before.

LJC: How did you connect with the West Coast half of the album – your Organ Trio members, Gary Fisher on organ and Sylvia Cuenca on drums?

BEN SHER: Sylvia and Gary are actually living in New York currently. I had worked with them in a number of situations, not knowing that they were great friends from the Bay Area!

LJC: You’re also involved with education, teaching at The Berklee College Of Music and New England Conservatory – what have you learned about Brazilian music by teaching and do you see the younger generation embracing Brazilian music?

BEN SHER: They say you learn by teaching, and that’s really been the case for me. I’ve spent fifteen years developing curriculum for Brazilian Guitar styles classes and Brazilian Music ensembles. I have former students living in Japan, Kuala Lampour, Brooklyn, Queens, and Boston who are really quite good with samba rhythms. When I first started doing Brazilian Jazz, it was fairly uncommon, but it has really exploded into a very popular and fundamental component of Jazz. It used to be at most, some bossa-nova standards. Now there are bands playing forro, choro, and other styles.

LJC: With Tempestade released, what are your musical plans for the year and beyond?

BEN SHER: My career has taken a lot of turns and detours along the way! This is my first release in quite a while, so I’m hoping this catapults things forward like the last two did! Stay tuned, coming to a jazz festival or club near you soon!

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Check out recent Latin Jazz Corner articles:
Album Of The Week: TribuTango by Emilio Solla
Latin Jazz Corner Podcast 006: Brent Fischer Interview (Part 1), Emilio Solla, Supporting Latin Jazz In 2017
LJC Picks: Top Five Latin Jazz Videos: December 2016
Latin Jazz Corner Podcast 004: Little Johnny Rivero Interview (Part 2), Curtis Brothers, 2017 Latin Jazz Grammy Awards

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