February 19, 2009

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Two sides of the coin
Pianist finds fulfillment in the formal and the fun
By Dana Unger dunger@hippopress.com

Ben Geyer’s ambitious musical aspirations began at a friend’s house in Nashua at the tender age of eight.

“My mom came to pick me up,” Geyer said in a Feb. 9 interview. “She walked in and I was playing the piano. She asked if I wanted to learn how to play and I said yes. It’s probably the best thing [my parents] could have done for me. In a large way, it’s defined my life and who I am.”

Since then, Geyer, who is now based in New York, has been carefully crafting his career as a pianist, composer and bandleader. His jazz ensemble, The Ben Geyer Sextet, has played his original compositions at venues like The Cutting Room in New York City and The Lily Pad in Cambridge.

“A big part of what I do is composing,” Geyer said. “I had music that I’ve been building up for the past two years. I got a gig through a connection at The Cutting Room, and that was an opportunity to put a band together. We played for an hour and it went really well. The audience was packed, which is not something that happens with jazz in New York. It’s an amazing experience, and I’m trying to keep that going.”

Geyer has been able to find his own unique composing style, one that is centered around specific concepts or themes. Several of his compositions, including the “East of Eden Suite” and “Cain and Abel,” were based on aspects of the John Steinbeck book East of Eden. Geyer feels his approach to writing makes the music more accessible to listeners as well as to himself.

“When you’re dealing with specific human emotions, that gives you a specific feeling that you can expect in the music,” Geyer said. “That gives the listener something to grab onto, and it also gives me specific imagery that I can write to. I like that. It’s something that is present throughout the history of music. Take the Symphonie Fantastique or Peter and The Wolf, and even something like Star Wars — with ‘Vader’s Theme’ and ‘Leia’s Theme.’ The themes are connected to the characters, and are developed through the pieces in ways that show you how the characters are feeling in that moment.”

Continuing his interest in exploring themes with his music, Geyer has recently partnered with a New York-based dancer for a special performance piece that combines music and dance.

“We’re right at the beginning stages of it now, but we’ve outline the project,” Geyer said. “It’s about 20 minutes long, and it’s going to be my sextet backing her and her and two other dancers — she’s doing the choreography and I’m writing all the music, and it’s all based on the concept of ‘ice’ — it’s a really exciting project.”

Meanwhile, Geyer sought to tap into his rock and pop interests by forming the high-energy Nashua band The Gate in 2007. The group covers such artists as the Jackson 5, No Doubt, Journey, Amy Winehouse and Stevie Wonder. They’ve already played at Fody’s Tavern in Nashua and will play the Peddler’s Daughter in May.

“I’ve always been a fan of all music,” Geyer said. “I know people who are jazz musicians that don’t listen to anything else. I always listened to different music. I really wanted to play music that I liked and wanted to play, that people really connect to — and people have trouble connecting to jazz.”

Geyer finds that his jazz education has helped him in his pop and rock shows with The Gate and vice versa.

“Jazz playing has taught me the fundamentals of ensemble work,” Geyer said. “How to interact with a group, play with a group, and keep good time — all in the context of jazz, which means I can do it in pop as well. A lot of the same elements are there. In terms of rock and pop influencing my jazz, I only call it jazz for the purposes of marketing. People like to have a nice simple answer for what you play. Though it is jazz, I have certain songs that are so strongly influenced by rock and the power chords of rock.”

Through both groups, Geyer is able to find happiness.

“With the sextet, it’s a concert,” Geyer said. “People are sitting down and just enjoying the art that is going on. With The Gate, it’s a really loose time. We interact with the audience a lot — dancing along, singing along. Where the sextet is a formal concert, The Gate is a house party.”


Ben Geyer
See Ben Geyer in his different musical incarnations this spring:

• The Gate will play Saturday, May 30, at Peddler’s Daughter in Nashua. $3 cover.

• The Ben Geyer Sextet will play the Nashua Library, 2 Court St. in Nashua, on Monday, July 6. Free.

Hear Ben Geyer’s music now at his Web site, www.bengeyer.com, or at myspace.com/bengeyersextet and myspace.com/thegatecovers.