Three Discs of Previously Unissued Live Performances from Pianist/Vocalist Ben Sidran on ‘Ben There, Done That: Ben Sidran Live Around the World (1975-2015)’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

This three-CD Ben Sidran set is not only special but it’s a limited edition with only 3,000 sets manufactured.  We start there to head off any procrastination. Co-producer Zev Feldman has done it again, helping Ben Sidran to cull 27 tracks of previously unissued material from 40 years of live performances in six countries, complete with the requisite Feldman book of essays, photos, and interviews (24 pages). For fans of Mose Allison (for whom Ben Sidran produced his last six albums), Georgie Fame (with whom Sidran and Van Morrison collaborated in their tribute to Allison) and pianists like Thelonious Monk and other great jazz icons, these bristling, energetic performances from frenetic tempos to ballads and word play make Ben There, Done That a ‘must have.’

This also marks one of the first major projects from Sunset Blvd Records, a new label venture spearheaded by founder and producer Len Fico dedicated to preserving and releasing vital music from the ‘50s,’60s and ‘70s, plus new music spanning all genres of music. The genesis of this package came about with co-producer Feldman contacted Sidran about a Mose Allison project he was working on. He and Fico asked Sidran what he might have in his archives and the career-spanning multi-disc project was born. The timing was perfect as Sidran had just given his complete archives to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and had realized, after reviewing his personal recordings, that much of it had never been issued.

These 27 tracks are handpicked by Sidran featuring small combos that involve unheralded but brilliant saxophonist Bob Malach, Ben’s son Leo on drums, and Billy Peterson on bass, on most tracks with other players also featured. On Disc 2 David “Fathead” Newman guests on “Hard Times” and Phil Woods on “Minority.” The live sessions take place in New York, Paris, Madrid, Milan, Osaka, Tokyo, Minneapolis, Madison, and London.  

<P>Like his good friend, the late Mose Allison, Sidran is both a vocalist and pianist with a gift for clever and witty lyrics. Mark Ruffin, Program Director for Real Jazz on Sirius XM, who conducts a lengthy interview with Sidran in the booklet, sums it up this way, “And there was a lot of Mose Allison in that person too, a lot of philosophysin’. It wasn’t Mississippi philosophy, let’s call it Wisconsin philosophysin’, but you became like an everyman type of jazz guy. You laid down some philosophy for every man, for the common man with ideas like “the grove is going to get you through times with no money better than times with money are gonna get through times of no groove.”

Sidran is either the writer or co-writer on 15 of the 27 tracks, some rather easy to pick out, just judging from titles like “The Groove Is Gonna Get You,” “The Funkasaurus,” “Revenge of the Funky Duck” and “Song for a Sucker Like You.” Some familiar covers like “You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street” are transformed into brilliant, highly energetic boogie bop excursions. That last phrase is a convenient way and almost a self-described term that Sidran applies to his music. He comments to his close friend and fellow Wisconsinite, NPR’s Becca Pulliam in the booklet, by talking first about guitarist Curley Cook’s contribution, “Curley was a brilliant rhythm player who really influenced me on how I approached playing piano in a band. Up until the late ‘60s, I wanted to be a bebop player. Curley and (drummer) Clyde Stubblefield settled me down…{to} a shuffle groove with bebop on top.”

Aside from the sheer joy of hearing Sidran sing and play, is the sax from Bob Malach, originally recommended to Sidran by Michael Brecker. You can hear Malach’s funky squawking on “the Funkasaurus,” his tender ballad techniques on “That’s Life I Guess” and his swinging style in “On the Road Again” on Disc 1  alone. Sidran further comments, “He’s an unsung hero of the music, an inspiration, a singular voice, force of nature. He swings so hard he can swing the rhythm section…”(I hear that in “House of Blue Lights”) and ‘he’s the sweetest guy in the world.’” The interplay between Sidran and Malach is akin to that of Monk and Charlie Rouse. It’s that good and you have Sidran’s vocals, lyrics, and singular presence to boot.

Consider the breath of Sidran’s career. The same year Sidran wrote the pop classic “Space Cowboy” with Steve Miller (1969) he earned a PhD in American Studies from Sussex University in England; the following year, the year his first solo album (Feel Your Groove) was released on Capitol Records featuring Boz Scaggs, Peter Frampton, and Charlie Watts with jazz icons Blue Mitchell and Willie Ruff, his dissertation was published as Black Talk, a sociological study of black music in America. As a result, the Chicago Sun Times dubbed him  ‘a Renaissance man cast adrift in the modern world.’ Two decades later the Times of London called him ‘the first existential jazz rapper.’

Dive into this highly recommended set. You’ll swing, laugh, and at times drop your jaw.

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