Blue Notes: Ben Sidran

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 February, 2013, 5:24pm

Is it possible to be 69 and still hip?

In a jazz sense, probably yes. The term would certainly have been apposite for Duke Ellington and Count Basie at that age.

Miles Davis only made it to 65, and his latter-day penchant for outlandish costumes from Japanese designers probably weakens his claim, but Ben Sidran, for one, reckons you can get old stylishly playing the music.

"A lot of people think of hipsters now as young cats with small hats, but the hipster is an image that goes back all the way to Prohibition, when people carried flasks in their hip pockets. Hipsters were basically people who dug jazz, dug the nightlife, and I consider myself one of them," Sidran says.

"It's funny to see some of my compatriots who were in the pop music field get older and struggle with being on the 'back nine', and who they are supposed to be, and what they are supposed to do. When you are in the jazz life, of course, you just get better and things get more interesting. The real payoff for the hipster comes way down the line."

The "back nine", for those unfamiliar with the phrase, refers to the second half of a game of golf, and Sidran describes his latest album, which opens with a song going by that title, as "12 original compositions kind of about what it's like to be on the 'back nine' of life now".

There are actually 14 tunes on Don't Cry for No Hipster, the others being an instrumental composed by Thelonious Monk, Reflections, and Merle Travis' classic saga of unremitting toil, 16 Tons, which has been covered by many artists and dates back to the 1940s.

Like his friend Georgie Fame, Sidran has learned a good deal as a lyricist, vocalist and pianist from Mose Allison - still definitively hip at 85 - and also plays blues-derived songs that relay a down-to-earth wisdom in a dry, laconic way.

The 12 originals are mostly meditations on growing older, delivered in a style full of wit and polish, ably performed by Sidran on keyboards and vocals, and his band, son Leo on drums, Will Bernard on guitar, Moses Patrou on percussion, and Tim Luntzel or Orlando Le Fleming on bass. They are augmented by John Ellis and Mark Shim on saxophone, and the improbably named Trixie Waterbed on backing vocals.

Sidran has enjoyed a full and varied career. A jazz and blues fan and musician from the start, he took a detour into rock with an early line-up of the Steve Miller Band, with whom he played from 1969 to 1972, co-writing the hit single Space Cowboy, among other songs. Some readers may recall him playing an early 1990s residency at the old Jazz Club in Lan Kwai Fong, performing his own songs and some of Allison's, but fending off requests for that particular hit.

Sidran has also lectured on popular music at universities, presented radio and television shows about jazz, promoted concerts and run record labels.

He is an astute interviewer of fellow musicians, and his chats with a long list of jazz greats have been published in books and released on CD. Sidran's most recent major project was the book There Was a Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream (2012), which analyses the Jewish contribution to American popular music "from Irving Berlin to the Beastie Boys", and in particular its connection to the blues.

Possibly Sidran manages to stay young - and hip - by staying busy. "One must approach the hip experience with a lifetime of preparation," he warns. "The true hipster is a warrior of the first order, a master of the chiselled cool, an outlier of the interior world, a cynic perhaps but an optimistic one, and, at all times, such as when stepping into an empty elevator shaft or jumping out an open window, prepared to go up rather than down."

Long may he so continue.

Take Three

Three Ben Sidran albums revealing different facets of hipness.

  • Tell Me Something (Verve, 1996): three Allison disciples - Sidran, Fame and Van Morrison - pay a cool tribute to their hero with the great man himself sitting in. A fine band that includes Guy Barker on trumpet and Pee Wee Ellis and Leo Green on saxophone
  • Bop City (Island, 1983): reissued on Go Jazz, the label Sidran founded before his current imprint Nardis - not only an anagram of his name but also a Miles Davis composition which became one of Bill Evans' signature tunes. This instrumental set includes Nardis and another Monk tune, Monk's Mood. Phil Woods plays the saxophone.
  • Dylan Different (Nardis, 2009): "You can see how Bob Dylan is the reincarnation of Irving Berlin in many ways," Sidran asserts, and here he tackles a mixed bag of Dylan's blues tunes - and his often surreal or free associative lyrics - from a jazzman's perspective. There are also surprising reinventions of Tangled Up in Blue, Knockin' On Heaven's Door, All I Really Want to Do and Blowin' in the Wind.