Ben Sidran is trying "to make jazz more accessible--to demystify what's been made a real cult music."
"My feeling is that jazz is really simple," the 42-year-old pianist/singer/songwriter/radio show host said in a phone conversation from his home in Madison, Wis., recently. "You don't have to understand a lot of things about music to feel it. Jazz is really friendly music."
Sidran's unique brand of jazz certainly is. The man with the thin, squeaky voice and boogie-and-bop piano bent writes songs that have jazz harmonies and melodies but are pushed by a punchy back-beat, rather than the typical chang-tah-tah-tang jazz drive.
The artist's style evolved in the late '70s. "I had moved back to the Midwest after some time in Los Angeles," he recalled, "and I realized that in order to survive musically, I had to turn myself into an identifiable commodity. I had to invent myself."
Sidran wasn't interested in becoming a clone of past giants. "I didn't want to do something a tenth as good as (renowned bebop pianist) Bud Powell or half as good as (singer/pianist) Bob Dorough," he maintained. "I felt that I wanted to do jazz tunes that had an authentic feel but had a dance beat."
"Moose the Mooche," a Charlie Parker song from Sidran's "Little Kiss In The Night" Arista LP, had "that half-time shuffle feel with authentic bebop changes on top, and was literally like light bulbs going off in my head," he said. The tune was "played to death by jazz radio stations" and Sidran was on his way.
But after several LPs--culminating with 1983's "Bop City" (Antilles)--where he recorded jazz classics, outfitted with original lyrics and all underscored by the buoyant shuffle beat, Sidran--who plays at Concerts By the Sea Thursday through Sunday--decided he needed a new direction.
" 'Bop City' was an acoustic bebop quartet album with (alto saxophonist) Phil (Woods) and (bassist) Eddie (Gomez)," he said. "It covered that statement. I didn't want to make 'Son of Bop City,' and I kept finding myself intrigued with the new technology--particularly the Yamaha DX-7, which is a musical instrument that can make a lot of pretty sounds, whereas in the past synthesizers used to sound like a swarm of bees."
Sidran plugged in, and, in 1985, turned out "On The Cool Side" (Magenta), an LP that blends jazz and pop elements and features background vocals by Steve Miller and Dr. John. The new sound is right up Sidran's alley.
"I feel comfortable with it and it takes me down a road where I can develop aural pictures, which I wouldn't be able to do in bebop."
For example, "Mitsubishi Boy," written while Sidran was on the Bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka a few years back, "is a movie, a painting, a poem and the lyrics aren't trashy just because they're sitting on top of a synthesizer groove."
"On The Live Side," a just-released Magenta LP recorded earlier this year in Minneapolis, finds Sidran joining with Woods, Miller and others performing--acoustically and electronically--on originals from "A Good Travel Agent," a humorous, and swinging, history of the jazz life, to a new arrangement of "Space Cowboy," one of the tunes Sidran wrote for Miller's band in the late '60s.
Sidran met the rock singer/guitarist while both were University of Wisconsin students in 1962. The pair, along with bassist Boz Scaggs and others, made Miller's first LP, "Children of the Future" in England in 1967. The pianist stayed overseas, studying at the University of Sussex, where his doctoral dissertation was the critically acclaimed "Black Talk" (Da Capo). While a relatively established artist, Sidran may perhaps be best known as the record reviewer for National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" and the host of "Sidran On Record," a weekly show broadcast on NPR member stations (heard locally on KCRW-FM, Tuesdays at 2 p.m.).
"Sidran On Record," which has featured guests like Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, spotlights an artist's latest release, as well as older LPs, mixed in with interview material. The program first aired two years ago and is yet another way for Sidran to preach the jazz message.
"The premise of the show is to present these guys as full people instead of weirdos who spend their lives blowing air through a copper tube," he said. "When you discover that (saxophonist) Sonny Rollins is a sweet, regular guy who's working hard at his craft, you learn a lot about the music that way."