December 10, 2009

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Ben Geyer — down to a science
Sextet’s debut album The Narrative brings stories to jazz
By Michael Witthaus music@hippopress.com

The musical representation of visual ideas has been around since Beethoven, with modern examples as recent as John Williams’ Star Wars scores. But program music, as this discipline is known, is relatively uncommon in jazz.

So when Derry composer and pianist Ben Geyer created “East of Eden Suite,” a jazz interpretation of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel as filtered through the John Steinbeck novel, he found himself reaching across the ages. 

“I actually wrote this piece right after I took a music history course,” Geyer said recently from his home in Brooklyn, adding that he was focused on “testing out relationships between jazz and classical music.”

Geyer submitted the work as his senior thesis at the University of Miami; it’s now the centerpiece of The Narrative, the debut album by the Ben Geyer Sextet.

The four movements of “East of Eden Suite” are best listened to with the lights down and the shades drawn, to allow the sounds to evoke mental images. The opening notes of the first movement, “Sonata allegro: Cain and Abel,” are full of foreboding and help to establish Cain and the misery that lies ahead. These sinister elements are soon joined by Abel’s theme, a light, almost playful piano melody that to Geyer sounds heroic but that could be taken in a number of ways.

“It’s tough to translate very specifically to music because it is subjective,” he says. “What I hear could be different from what anyone else hears.”

The suite deftly uses the modern language of jazz to tell its ancient story of sibling rivalry. Geyer cites influences from Bach to Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis to death metal, Keith Jarrett to Michael Jackson.

Michael Jackson?

“This is a 40-minute album, and I’d say in any one moment … it could be directly influenced by somebody,” said Geyer, who has also said that he often describes his musical style as jazz because the alternative is too complicated to explain.

“Let me give you a specific example,” he said. “In ‘The Fight’ [the third and most climactic movement of “East of Eden Suite”], there’s a section that begins with a weird sort of counterpoint — there’s a line in the bass, there’s a line in the piano and a line in the horns. They’re all weaving in and out of each other. I grew up playing classical piano, and I sort of got that idea from Bach. But it doesn’t sound anything like Bach. Bach was not a jazz musician — yet I got that sort of idea from him.”

The rest of The Narrative is given over to a more abstract program music work called “The Slip,” a three-movement piece originally performed as an interpretive dance directed by choreographer Annie Now. 

“I really love the art form of dance,” Geyer says. “I think there are a lot of implications of combining jazz and dance. First of all, jazz was initially dance music in the big band era. That sort of went away with the emergence of bebop.”

There’s a classic SNL skit (circa 1976) with Gerald Ford, played by Chevy Chase, debating Dan Aykroyd’s Jimmy Carter. “It was my understanding that there would be no math,” Chase stammers at one point.

That’s not unlike the feeling one gets listening to Ben Geyer explain “The Slip,” which he says is based on Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg’s theory of serialism. “He basically assigned numbers to the notes,” Geyer explains. “C is zero, C sharp is one, B is two, and so forth. He used math in order to compose.”

Geyer says “The Slip” doesn’t strictly adhere to Schoenberg’s rules as much it draws inspiration from them. For example, “Hydrogen Theme,” which opens the piece, is based on the atomic weight of hydrogen. “The challenge is to take numbers and make them musical,” the composer said.

It’s a lot like haiku, Geyer said: “You have to make something beautiful that somehow fits. You take a structure that’s determined beforehand, and you have to fit in a way to make it musical.”

Fans will have to wait until Feb. 13 to see the Ben Geyer Sextet perform, at the Press Room in Portsmouth.  Geyer is planning a short tour to coincide with the full release of The Narrative and hopes to add more dates soon. The Narrative is currently available for PayPal purchase at www.bengeyer.com.


Ben Geyer
• Sunday, Dec. 27, at 8 p.m. with The Chris Burbank Quartet at the Barley Pub in Dover

• Saturday, Jan 2, at 7 p.m. in a “Homecoming Jazz Concert” featuring Geyer performing with fellow Derry musicians Robbyn Tongue and Chris Burbank at the Adams Memorial Opera House in Derry (tickets $12 adults; $10 students and seniors)

• Saturday, Jan. 23, at 9:30 p.m. with The Gate at the Sky Lounge in Nashua (tickets $5)