A Few Minutes With… Ben Perowsky
Interview and story by J Hunter
“Woodstock Jazz Festival.” I look at those words and I think, “That seems right.” But they do bring one question to mind: Why have we not seen those words together before? I mean, think about it: We’re talking about an area where musicians off all stripes and genres have used as a haven for almost five decades. All the musicians that will be appearing at the festival’s maiden date – Saturday (October 4) at the Bearsville Theater – have been involved with that scene in one way or another, and Bearsville is just one of multiple possibilities for venues where next-level music can happen. So with all these resources to hand, the question beckons again: Why hasn’t this happened until now?
In cases like this, it usually takes one person to have an idea, decide it wasn’t crazy, and follow it to its logical conclusion. In this case, that one person was drummer Ben Perowsky, who’s been part of the Woodstock scene for more than 30 years. Perowsky’s got a résumé plenty of musicians would kill for: His past employers include James Moody, John Zorn, Lou Reed, Walter Becker and one member of the headliners at Saturday night’s show – the inimitable guitarist John Scofield, who’ll be teaming up with current and future legends Jack DeJohnette, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier to put a capper on what might be the first of many nights in the history of the newest jazz festival on the market. Perowsky and Medeski will also team up with reedman Chris Speed to show off the “new” jazz trio RedCred; and genre-busting pianist Uri Caine will open the show with a solo-piano set where anything just might happen… and probably will.
Perowsky’s no stranger to staging shows, but given the possibilities for creation and expansion, the Woodstock Jazz Festival is no ordinary show. That’s one of the reasons why he enlisted Liz Penta, another local who’s managed (among other people) a semi-well-known trio called Medeski Martin & Wood. Perowsky took a few minutes out of his preparation – both as promoter and performer – to talk about how this all came about:
Q: Given the plethora of jazz musicians that live in the area around Woodstock, why hasn’t a show/event like the Woodstock Jazz Festival happened before? Was it just not the right time, or do you think it was a case of, “Well, it’s easier just to jam at my house”?
A: (Laughs) Yeah, well, actually it’s not so easy putting on events like this, let alone launching a full-blown festival. We’re starting small to get things going forward – looking for funding et cetera. It’s true Woodstock has no shortage of artists tucked away in the woods – too long of a list to put here, even. But everyone is very busy these days, especially trying to live as an artist, and it’s more than enough work just managing one’s own career let alone producing a festival. Karl Berger of Creative Music Studio actually did a fest at his place some 33 years ago that had a great line-up, but it was not an annual event (that I know of), like we’re planning to do. The town has so many potential venues for a fest like this, not to mention the surrounding towns as well. It’s a very exciting prospect that I really hope takes.
Q: You came up with this concept, and then brought it to Liz Penta, who’s your co-curator. How/when did the idea come to you? Was it something that’s been brewing in your head for a while, or was it the legendary “Ah hah” moment?
A: I guess it was kind of an “Ah hah moment” … although I’ve been making music events happen since I was a teenager, so it wasn’t that far off from my normal activities. I did scratch my head for a while wondering if it was a crazy thing to take on and why it hadn’t happened sooner, but the more positive feedback I received from everyone, the more it seemed like it had to happen, and then having Liz come on board, I knew it would quickly become a reality. We could have waited and tried to do this next year but were anxious to get the ball rolling and build momentum. I have a lot of ideas that I’d like to see get realized with the fest concept and looking forward to making them happen.
Q: How easy was it to bring these amazing musicians on board? And (aside from RedCred) did you come up with the various musical configurations, or is that something that happened as the process went on?
A: Well, when I first got the idea, I immediately thought of Jack DeJohnette. Not only is he one of my all-time musical heroes, but he’s also been such an inspiration to so many musicians and has been a cornerstone and musical force in the area for decades. RedCred had just recorded at The Colony with Pete Caigan around the time that the fest concept was brewing, so having that band play was a natural choice. The rest of the night fell into place after Jack and Medeski became available. We’re also very lucky to have guitar hero, icon (and former boss) John Scofield come up to play, as well as Uri Caine, who is someone I’ve worked with for many years in his trio and ensembles. Occasionally, Uri would play a solo piece as an encore or part of a concert, and that has always been one of my favorite moments, so having him come play solo is a special treat for all of us.
Photograph by Andrzej Pilarczyk
Q: What can you say about the headliner – John Scofield, Jack DeJohnette, John Medeski and Larry Grenadier? I mean, that’s a foursome that headline the Newport Jazz Festival, let alone Bearsville!
A: The quartet that is appearing has never played together, although they’ve all played together in many other configurations – not as a unit – until now! With Larry Grenadier anchoring the outing, one of the greatest living bassists of our time, I can’t wait to hear what happens. Each one of these musicians are giants in their own right, and I’m so excited and lucky to have them all available on this evening to share their talents and gifts. No matter what happens, it’s going to be an incredible not-to-be-missed event.
Q: Did you see DeJohnette when he was touring with Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison? They just headlined the Albany Riverfront Jazz Festival a few weeks ago, and (for me, anyway) it was a total revelation! Jack hasn’t lost a single step, and Ravi & Matt prove genius doesn’t always skip a generation.
A: Unfortunately, I had to miss both of their area performances recently, and that trio was part of the first spark in the line-up concept for the fest, but they were previously booked when we got going. Ravi and Matt and I go way back, so I know what an incredible and adventurous trio that must be. I hope they continue and we can afford to have them next year.
Q: Let’s talk about RedCred, which is you, Medeski and Chris Speed (who is a truly mind-blowing reeds player). You guys just went into the studio for the first time, but this band’s been popping up here and there for a while, right?
A: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, RedCred just got out of the studio, so we’re really looking forward to playing some of the new book in public, and I’m very excited for what the future holds for this project with my long-time musical cohorts. John, Chris and I have known each other and been playing together for more than 25 years, and as a band for the past eight or so. We finally got some stuff recorded and are hoping to get it out soon.
Q: Uri Caine is a player who straddles both the jazz and classical world, and is equally at home in both. He’s playing a solo piano set to begin the evening. Will we see Jazz Uri, Classical Uri or a mix of both?
A: Yes, Uri is able to play whatever he hears at any moment, which is an incredible feat in itself. But the vast scope of his musical vocabulary and knowledge comes out when he plays solo, and you never know where you might end up. He’ll open up the night at 7:30pm, so come early and don’t miss that. RedCred will play after him at 8:30pm, and the new Quartet at the end. We’ll keep the bar open after the live music, where I’ll be screening some jazz-related videos into the wee hours. It’s going to be a night to remember.
Q: Will Uri be sitting in with anyone? My favorite recording of his is a one-off disc he did with Questlove and Christian McBride called “The Philadelphia Experiment,” so I’d purely love to hear him on Fender Rhodes.
A: Uri will play solo to launch the fest. But you never know what might happen….
Q: Now, this is just one show in one club, but if things go well, you and Liz have bigger plans for the Woodstock Jazz Festival. Could you talk a little about that?
A: As I mentioned we’re starting small with the idea to build this into a real multi-stage, maybe even multi-town, multi-day event. We are looking for funding to see this all happen. We’d like to include an educational element during the days, as well as have school jazz ensembles perform. The list of potential venues around here and throughout the area is… kind of endless. One of the things in our mission is to make it an international event that sparks dialogue between generations of artists. There are quite a few icons living up here in the woods, and we’d also like to get the younger cutting-edge band leaders from NYC and abroad to come through to perform and also share some of their creative process with students. Another idea I have is to possibly team up with some clubs in the city that I like and have different stages represent those clubs and booking aesthetic. The same thing could work with record labels, as I’ve seen at other fests that I’ve played at. It would be great to have folks coming from all around, so maybe we’ll have to get the Jazz Bus rolling. (Smiles) We’re looking for experienced drivers. But seriously, we will need volunteers to make this all happen. I’ve played at many festivals over the years and the homegrown, volunteer-based ones are always the friendliest.
The Woodstock Jazz Festival takes place at the Bearsville Theater in Woodstock at 7:30pm on Saturday (October 4). Doors open at 6:30pm, and the schedule includes Uri Caine (solo piano) at 7:30pm; RedCred (featuring Ben Perowsky, John Medeski, Chris Speed) at 8:30pm; Jack DeJohnette, John Scofield, John Medeski, Larry Grenadier at 9:30pm; followed by jazz videos at the bar at 11:15pm. Tickets are $25-$75.