Blue notes

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 November, 2009, 12:00am

Singer and keyboardist Ben Sidran has divided most of his working life between gigs as a musician cum TV presenter, and stints in academia. He holds degrees from British and American universities, but says 'I really went to the University of Mose Allison and Bob Dylan'.

Sidran, who played in Hong Kong at the old Jazz Club in the late 1990s, paid tribute to Allison in Tell Me Something, a 1996 collection of the Sage of Tippo's songs on Verve, for which he shared vocal duties with Van Morrison, Georgie Fame and Allison himself. Now he has paid Dylan the same compliment.

'It's not possible to understand how important Bob Dylan was to us in the years between 1961 and 1967 if you weren't there,' Sidran says.

'He came out of nowhere, spoke in a real voice about magical things; the fact that he said it and did it made it OK for the rest of us to try to do it. He was single-handedly responsible for thousands of people starting to write songs, which, if you added up all the people who were influenced by all those people, you would have to say Bob Dylan today is like a virus that exists everywhere in popular music.'

Dylan Different acknowledges Sidran's debt with a selection of his personal favourites: about half are taken from Dylan's 60s heyday and the rest from later albums stretching up to 1989's Oh Mercy, the source of the opening track, a swampy Everything is Broken.

Surprisingly, given Sidran's blues and jazz background, few of the considerable number of songs Dylan has written in a straight-ahead 12-bar blues format are represented here, although we do get a shuffle reading of Highway 61.

The album does have a bluesy feel, created in part by prominent use of Rodolph Berger's slide guitar. Other musicians include Sidran's multi-instrumentalist son Leo, saxophonist Bob Malach, horn player Michael Leonhart and bassist Marcello Giuliani.

'Just a few years ago I started performing some of his [Dylan's] songs live,' says Sidran. 'I found they were fun to sing, that people loved hearing the lyrics in a new way, and that I could reframe the songs to make them my own.'

The Allison influence is also apparent: Sidran sings Dylan much as Mose might, with a wry, drawling style of delivery.

Considerable licence is taken with the changes and the melodies of Dylan classics such as Gotta Serve Somebody, Tangled Up in Blue and Knockin' On Heaven's Door, but one can hardly object to that given the liberties Dylan himself takes with his back pages.

Certainly Sidran offers a fresh, jazz-influenced perspective to the songs, and brings the lyrics to life in a new way. His almost spoken vocals are high in the mix.

Sidran avoided imitating Dylan's signature rough and ready harmonica parts in his reinterpretations, but Henry Cheng, a rather more capable exponent of the blues harp, appears at Grappa's Cellar this Saturday, renewing his partnership with guitarist Eugene Pao. Chung meets Pao Round 111 - A Night of Chicago Blues, also features Gigi Marentette, Charles Huntley, Jezrael Lucero, Tsang Tak-hong and Melchior Sarreal. Show time is 9pm and admission is HK$188 or HK$88 for students.

Tonight at Ned Kelly's Last Stand from 6pm to 9pm is the November Big Band session, and special guests of the resident musicians will be Japanese Dixieland exponents the Hot Chopsuey Jazz Band.

Allen Youngblood, whose stay in hospital was reported in last week's column, is now out and, although recovering from surgery, is already back at work.