Ben Britton on Time Feel, Tone Production, and Listening
Epitomizing what it means to be a modern tenor player, sax maven Ben Britton is a name you’re going to be hearing a lot more of. Unlike your average musician weary of being overshadowed, Ben choose to supercharge his 2010 debut release, Uncertain Living by including the mighty Chris Potter as a special guest.
With latest EP release, Children at Play, Ben’s group Unconventional Riot takes his brand of highly passionate and timely jazz into new heights of musical wizardry.
While his solo outings have garnered raves from sites like AllAboutJazz.com, and JazzReview.com among others, he’s no slouch in the sideman department either. It can be said that playing alongside jazz maestros such as John Clayton, Dick Oatts, Candido Camero, Bobby Sanabria, Walt Weiskopf, and Nina Beilina is enough to push any musician up, up, and away into the musical stratosphere, and Ben is no exception here.
Currently, he is an adjunct professor at Montgomery County Community College, and has given clinics at both the university and high school level coaching jazz bands and saxophone sections, and teaching and presenting to music classes. An innovative educator, Britton’s 2010 record release included play-along tracks of compositions from the record, transcriptions and analyses of Chris Potter’s solos from the album, and other instructional material.
Doron Orenstein: What was it that inspired you to make music your life?
Ben Britton: As a kid I had a lot of opportunities. I studied privately, had a great music program at school, and I got to be a part of Peabody Conservatory’s budding jazz preparatory program. I also had the chance to rub shoulders with pro performers and other professional musicians who provided a model for the direction I wanted to head in. On top of that I had peers who were deciding to pursue careers in music making the choice seem even more viable, and I had very supportive parents who helped me with my goals. That ideal environment and my hunger to play music helped me decide pretty early on I wanted to make music my life. I also decided early on I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to create. That started with improvisation and quickly extended into composition as well.
DO: What do you find yourself practicing the most these days?
BB: I’ve gone through various phases in my practice. My current focus is on sound and time feel. In the sound department I find myself experimenting a lot with embouchure, air support, a healthy dose of overtones, and developing my personal approach like inflections, vibrato, timbre, articulation, etc. As far as time feel goes, I’ve been working on playing in the pocket no matter what the context whether it be slow, fast, swung 8ths, straight 8ths, odd time signatures, double time, etc. Basically, I’m working towards greater flexibility and complete control over the time feel no matter what the rhythmic environment or content is.
DO: What have you been listening to lately?
BB: I’ve recently been rediscovering Trane. His sound, technique, and harmonic approach have me fairly rivetted right now. Specifically, I’ve been listening to his sheets of sound period, so stuff like Discovery at the 5 Spot, and Live with Monk at Carnegie Hall. I’ve also been listening to some things from his modal period which followed the sheets of sound stuff. Some of my favorite living players who I often come back to include Rich Perry, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Donny McCaslin and Chris Cheek.
DO: What would you say is the skill or attribute that’s helped you the most as a musician?
BB: To be honest, the one thing has gotten me the furthest is my focus and inability to give up. I don’t like quitting until something is done, and in music there is always something new to work on which translates into me constantly discovering new musical goals. Its also just really fun to play music, so the combination of drive and enjoying music really help keep me going.
DO: What’s the single best piece of advice you’ve been given over the course of your playing career?
BB: The best advice I’ve ever been given is to listen carefully. I couldn’t tell you a specific instance when someone said listen carefully, but various musicians and teachers have given me specific things to listen for. My biggest breakthroughs have come when I’ve learned to listen more carefully or learned to listen in a different way to my own playing or the musicians I’m playing with.
I’ve gone through a lot different stages in how I hear the saxophone’s sound. Each time I learn to hear it in more detail I’m able to refine it more. Its been the same thing for time feel. Recording myself and listening back has been the fastest way to improve my perception of sound, and listening very carefully to my favorite player’s time feels and how their time feel fits with with the drummer’s and bassist’s feel has been the fastest way to improve my perception of time. But basically, just listen!
DO: What’s the next musical frontier for Ben Britton?
BB: My next musical frontier, huh? Well, after some honest soul searching, I’ve decided I’d really like to get back to developing my personal musical vocabulary. I’ve spent a fair amount of time recently trying to get deeper into the jazz language and idiom, which has really filled in some holes in my playing. A few years back I was working on some more unique sounding intervallic vocabulary and not that I want to just return to working on that, but I want to get back to working on a personal approach to improvisation now that I’ve strengthened my foundations. I think I’d like to try and focus on that goal through rhythm. My favorite players are usually ones that make an impact rhythmically — Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Chris Potter are some prime examples. I’m going to see if I can’t dig deeper rhythmically and come up with something personal and creative but still swings or grooves and feels good.
DO: For those new to your music, which recording would you suggest they pick up?
BB: Well, I have a brand spanking new recording. It’s an EP entitled Children at Play. The compositions are all original and are in the spirit of having fun, which is what the title is hinting at. The writing features odd time signature and thicker harmonies at times, but at the same time I try to keep forward momentum and make the improvising fun for the musicians. So, the tunes have depth but hopefully stay listenable and enjoyable.
You can check out the release at http://www.benbrittonjazz.com or just go grab it at iTunes.
DO: What’s your saxophone equipment setup?
- Super Balanced Action tenor,
- Florida Era Otto Link Super Tone Master,
- Rico Jazz Select 3S unfiled reeds.
To learn more about Ben and his music, make your way over to www.BenBrittonJazz.com.
Check out Ben doing his thing recording his latest EP
July 7, 2011 @ 7:39 am
Good interview! Ben is a fantastic player and a nice guy, too. In addition to his website linked above, I suggest checking out his high-quality blog posts over at Everything Saxophone.
July 7, 2011 @ 8:34 pm
Yeah, big-time talent here. I’ve actually checked out his blog and really admire his work there.
Glad you dug the interview Bret!