Growing up in Bonny Doon, California, a picturesque hamlet near Santa Cruz where the land quickly transforms from open coastal terraces to thick, mountainside redwood forests, one can easily acquire a childlike wonderment of natural beauty. And the serenity that comes from being a part of that scenery can also instill a sense of patience and maturity.
That kind of upbringing informs the music of a newcomer in New York’s hustling, bustling jazz scene: saxophonist, composer, bandleader — and Bonny Doon native — Ben Flocks. At twenty-four years old, most guys think they have the wisdom and know-how of people twice their age, but Flocks’ impending debut album Battle Mountain (on sale February 11) is the product of a twenty-four year-old who performs like he really does. Strengthening his ties to home, Flocks made this album with buddies he’s played music with since high school: Ari Chersky (guitar), Garret Lang (bass), Sam Reider (piano and Rhodes) and Evan Hughes (drums).
Imbued with a touch of East Coast dynamism, Flocks’ concept of jazz is to see jazz, blues and folk as all part of the same purely American piece of fabric. That’s a lot of common ground with Bill Frisell, most apparent on his lovely, airy take on “Shenandoah,” where he sings lyrically and lovingly through his tenor sax. The New York side comes out more with Flocks’ own “Battle Mountain” tracks that opens and closes the album. A polyrhythmic shuffle, ringing guitar, and a modal form, it could be a homage to Coltrane. The head has a folk-like strain, and Flocks is concerned about playing notes all the way through and getting the most out of each of them, not rushing to get to the next note.
Those two tracks may be the most overtly jazz performances and elsewhere, his eclecticism becomes even more prominent. He injects a rural spirit into Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” and with Reider’s accordion and Hughes two-step tempo, Leadbelly’s “Silver City Bound” is turned into something that resembles a traditional Cajun tune.
In contrast to those countryside sounds, a Rhodes and an unhurried stomp gives “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good To You” an urban blues feel. “Boardwalk Boogaloo” with its strong backbeat grooves sixties style. Flocks’ saxophone is appropriately more Jr. Walker than Sonny Rollins in his sax and Chersky follows by delivering a gritty, rock ‘n’ roll guitar solo. A gentle snare roll on The Buena Vista Social Club’s “Murmullo” may be the only hint of this song’s Cuban roots, but Flocks plays such a lush, sultry tone, it hardly matters where the melody originated from. “Tennessee Waltz” favors classic Nashville over the styles of either coast thanks to Reider’s tinkling piano and Chersky’s undulating guitar.
Throughout the record, there’s a certain soft radiance, reminiscent of a vintage sound. The sessions were recorded in analog onto 2-inch tape, and it’s an old-style engineering approach that suits the music to a ‘T’. Ben Flocks has made a flawless folk-jazz fusion record at the beginning of his recording career that would likely take most other very talented jazz musicians many tries to get down so well.
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