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Ben Sidran: Picture Him Happy
by George Graham
(Nardis Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/25/2016)
The jazz hipster is a kind of quirky subgenre that has been around since the late 40s or so, appearing about the time of the beboppers. They combine beat poetry with clever, often tongue-in-cheek lyrics accompanied by bop-oriented jazz. There have been a couple generations of them, going back to Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks, along with Bob Dorough, Mose Allison and Dave Frishberg. It’s a genre that has few, if any new significant performers coming up. But Ben Sidran carries on, through an interesting and varied career. Ben Sidran’s new release. about his 34th, is called Picture Him Happy.
Ben Sidran got into music early in his native Wisconsin, where he still lives, playing boogie woogie piano starting at age six. He attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where he met and formed a band with Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs. The latter two went to the West Coast to try their hand at music, while Sidran continued his academic pursuits, eventually receiving a Ph.D. at the University of Sussex in England. He returned and joined Miller and Scaggs in the Steve Miller Band, appearing on their early classic albums, and co-writing some of their hits, such as Space Cowboy. He returned to Madison, Wisconsin, to teach and also became a Public Radio host for the Peabody-Award winning Jazz Alive, and an interview program called Sidran on Record. All through this time, he has been putting out an album almost every year, as well as authoring at least three books on jazz, one of which was based on his doctoral thesis. He has also worked in a sideman capacity.
His new album is another hipster kind of record, with jaundiced, sometimes sardonic lyrics provided with a litttle smirk, and in the process making some keen observations. The album is also a bit of elegy to one of the icons of the jazz hipsters, Mose Allison, who died last year, with an original song about him and covers of two tunes by Allison, one of his earliest and of Allison’s last songs, with both conveying the clever, but vaguely snarky outlook of most Mose Allison songs.
Joining Sidran are his son Leo, who has played drums on his father’s last several albums, plus A-list bass player Will Lee, jazz and funk guitarist Will Bernard, John Ellis on sax, along with Moses Patrou on percussion. His last album, Blue Camus was a combination of recordings done in various studios and a live track recorded in Europe where Sidran does a lot of his performing. This new album was done in a home studio, but sounds as good as any studio recording. The sound is somewhat similar to Sidran’s other recent albums, with the composer-vocalist on mainly electric piano, with the band playing a beat that ran range from a laid back ballad to a couple of old-time boogaloos. Often the music has a funky tinge. It covers a range of subjects, with the recurring theme of something underhanded going on.
The album opens with a piece called College, with a tune large borrowed by the old novelty song Jada presenting a sightly jaundiced view of academe, which is a bit ironic given his academic pursuits. <<>>
The title track Picture Him Happy is based on the myth of Sisyphus, the man doomed to push a the same rock up the same hill every day, only to have it roll right back down. Sidran cites the philosopher Albert Camus suggesting that given the similarity between Sisyphus and our lives today, that the only reasonable response, in a world that often seems absurd, is to imagine him happy. The minor-key musical setting is a perfect fit. <<>>
The thing about aging hipsters is that they tend to think about past a lot. Sidran does that on a track called I Might Be Wrong, which has the texture of a lament. <<>>
As mentioned, fellow hipster and mentor Mose Allison was much on Sidran’s mind during the making of this album. A song that pays tribute to Allison is called Too Much Too Late, subtitled What Mose Said. It recounts some time they spent together. <<>>
A track called Shaboogie is a bit a surprise on this album. It seems like an old song for some kind of dance, but can come across as replete with double entendres. <<>>
More in keeping with the general theme of the album is Fakin’ It, a catchy tune full of witty cynicism. <<>>
A great topical song that fits well into the album’s milieu is Another Old Bull. Though it was obviously penned about Donald Trump, like other such well-written topical songs, it could have relevance to other past and future bulls in china shops. <<>>
Sidran pays tribute to Mose Allison by including two Allison songs. According to Sidran, one of the last songs that Allison wrote bears the title Was, which considers mortality in a kind of philosophical way. The album concludes with a nice laid-back version of the song. <<>>
Ben Sidran’s new album Picture Him Happy is another enjoyable, and clever album from the 73-year-old literate hipster, who carries on the tradition of ironic and irreverent lyrics in a jazzy setting. He’s still in fine form on this easy-going record that will keep you smiling with its sometimes whimsical, sometimes cutting lyrics. Sidran and his band are in very good form, and seem to be having a great time making the music, which definitely comes across. It’s not a strictly jazz record, with some rocky or funky tunes, and a few getting into an old-fashioned boogaloo beat.
Our grade for audio quality is pretty close to an A. The home-studio-made recording is nicely done with everything captured well and the sound unfettered by studio effects. The dynamic range is a somewhat better than the contemporary average with a nice punchy sound on the bass and drums on several of the tracks.
Songwriter, keyboard man, veteran rocker going back to the 1960s, author, academic and general hipster Ben Sidran remains prolific, with more than 30 albums to his name. His newest Picture Him Happy continues his stream of smart, enjoyable music.
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