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(Nardis Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/3/2013)
The music world has its share of interesting and durable figures who are not exactly household names but have been influential in one way or another over the years. There are studio musicians, producers, songwriters, arrangers and so on who have been contributors to familiar music, and there are artists who have maintained their own careers which have attracted almost as much attention among fellow musicians as from the general public.
Ben Sidran certainly qualifies for that role. He's a keyboard player, composer, vocalist, producer, author and former host on Public Radio, navigating between rock and jazz. He has just released what by one count is his 31st album called Don't Cry for No Hipster.
The Chicago native grew up in Wisconsin and has called the state his home for much of his life. He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison starting in 1961 where he became a member of band on campus called the Ardells, two of whose other members were Boz Scaggs and Steve Miller. Miller and Scaggs headed for the West Coast to try their hand at the music world, but Sidran stayed on and got his degree in English literature in 1966, and then went to graduate school in England, obtaining his Ph.D. from the University of Sussex. His doctoral thesis on African American studies formed the basis of his first published book Black Talk. Sidran remained in touch with Steve Miller and co-wrote Miller's hit Space Cowboy, and when Miller, Scaggs and band went to England to record, Sidran re-joined them for the album Children of the Future, and has periodically performed with or produced Miller, including service as producer on Miller's jazz-influenced album Born 2B Blue in 1988.
Also during the 1980s, Sidran served as host of NPR's Jazz Alive series and also of his own Sidran on Record which featured extended interviews with significant jazz figures.
Throughout this time from about 1971 on, he has averaged about an album a year, from straight jazz to fusion to rock, including a good number of live albums. He has also maintained his academic career teaching in college. Sidran's last studio album in 2009 was called Dylan Different which featured altered jazzy arrangements of Bob Dylan tunes.
The new CD, Don't Cry for No Hipster has that indefinable quality of hipness as a theme for many of its original songs, from the aging of a hipster to moving from jazz to golf, to couple of ballads and laments, along with two cover tunes from polar opposite ends of the music world, Merle Travis and Thelonious Monk. Sidran performs them in the style that his fans know well -- a kind of hip jazzy syncopated delivery influenced by Mose Allison, Bob Dorough or Dave Frishberg, with lyrics to match.
In keeping with the theme of the album and Sidran's credentials as an academic, he includes a few paragraphs of his thoughts on being a hipster, including the observation that "anyone who self-identified as a hipster was, by definition, not one."
Sidran is joined by a band including his son Leo, on drums. Father and son have been musical collaborators for some years now. On guitar is Will Bernard, known for his funky style, Tim Luntzel and Orlando Le Fleming alternating on basses, electric and acoustic, plus guest appearances by Mark Shim and John Ellis on saxes.
Leading off the generous 14-song album is one of its more lighthearted songs, Back Nine, the premise of which is hipster jazz musician becomes golf enthusiast. It's typical of Sidran's clever, musically sophisticated style. <<>>
Somewhat similar in sound is a song called Brand New Music which shows a little hipster cynicism. <<>>
The title track Don't Cry for No Hipster is one of a few jazz-style ballads on the album. It's a bluesy look at what happens when the years creep up on the hipster. <<>>
While Sidran is an astute lyric writer, there are a couple of tunes that are most focused on the music. Can We Talk is a funky groove based on a few fragments of words. <<>>
Sidran plunges into the subject of people and religion on a laid-back soulful ballad called In the Beginning. <<>>
Another of the more clever songs on the album is Private Guy, and bluesy tune whose lyrics are a statement of the protagonist's aversion to publicity. <<>>
One of the two cover tunes is the Thelonious Monk ballad Reflections which Sidran performs as an instrumental duo with saxophonist Mark Shim. It's about the most straight-ahead jazz track on the album. <<>>
The other cover is the old Merle Travis song Sixteen Tons, made famous in the 1950s by Tennessee Ernie Ford. Sidran and company give it a hip, swingy approach which works quite well and interestingly, seems to enhance the lyrics. <<>>
Veteran multifaceted artist Ben Sidran's new CD Don't Cry for No Hipster is another enjoyable recording from a prolific musician who mixes jazz and rock more than most such singer-songwriters. After an album of clever rearrangement of Bob Dylan songs, he returns to original songwriting on this recording, in a way, writing about the kind of hipster style he brought to the Dylan songs last time around. As usual, the musicianship is top-notch, and the songs are both lyrically clever and intelligent as musical compositions. Sidran's got just the right kind of vocal style for this kind of music, meeting somewhere between jazz and rock -- for the uninitiated, it's rather like Mose Allison meets Van Morrison.
Our grade for sound quality is close to an "A." The vocals are clean and unfettered by studio effects, and the instrumentation has a nice intimate sound. The dynamic range -- how well the recording maintains the difference between loud and soft -- is a little better than average for a current CD but still not quite at an audiophile level.
Through a more than 30-year career with about as many albums under his name, Ben Sidran is still not exactly a familiar name to many -- maybe because he chooses to maintain his residence in Madison, Wisconsin, and perhaps that song about being a "private guy" is true, but at age 69, he continues to do great new original work, and this album could be a good vehicle for larger audiences to get to know this versatile artist.
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