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Ben Winkelman’s balancing act

By Arne Sjostedt

Jazz pianist, Ben Winkelman
Jazz pianist, Ben Winkelman

Ben Winkelman’s favourite days are when he gets to practice and play piano. Which is a lucky thing to enjoy if you’re a jazz pianist. Though it isn’t all about the black and white keys.

“I also enjoy making espresso, exercising and reading novels at the end of the day,” Winkelman says. “On Sunday mornings I play gospel music for an African-American church on Long Island.”

Based in New York, the Australian born musician is visiting Canberra to promote his latest album Balance. “I love playing at The Street,” Winkelman says. “Such a fantastic venue, one of my favourite places to play anywhere.”

Playing music from Balance, as well as some music from previous albums, Winkelman is bringing bass player Sam Anning and drummer Ben Vanderwal along for the journey.

“It’s always inspiring and a special treat to play with them,” he says. “For a number of years we were a regular band and played together a lot, so there’s still a special connection there. It’s a bit like a band reunion when we get back together to play.”

However, Anning and Vanderwal were not the musicians playing on Balance. Those duties went to Matt Pennman and Obed Calvaire.

“This was the first time I asked musicians I didn’t know well, whose playing I admired, to record with me,” Winkelman says.

“In the past, I’ve tried to cultivate a band dynamic by playing a lot with the same people. I thought I’d try something different this time.”

Discussing how Pennman (bass) and Calvaire (drums) worked into the creative mix, “An oversimplification that contains some truth might be, the drums bring the fire and excitement and the bass anchors everything,” says Winkelman. “If everything goes well the three of us have an interesting and hopefully coherent conversation. That’s one of my favourite things about jazz and especially the trio format, the interactive and conversational aspect of playing with sensitive musicians who like to play off each other.”

Joking that his tunes are often just accompaniments for drum solos, “Of course that’s an exaggeration, but they often feature rhythmic figures for the drummer to play around and most of them need a fairly active drummer to bring them to life,” Winkelman says.

“When I started playing with Ben Vanderwal, he pushed me to try things I couldn’t do. I think playing with him influenced the way I write a lot. Obed Calvaire and Matt Pennman also brought a lot of creativity and ideas to the material. I was very happy with how Balance turned out.”

Though he lists the likes of Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock as two of his all-time favourite jazz pianists, “Some of my current favourite pianists are Kevin Hays, Brad Meldau, Fred Hersch, Aaron Parks, and Danilo Perez,” Winkelman says.

“All of these pianists have made contrapuntal playing a part of their style to some extent, that’s something I’m thinking about and working on at the moment. I admire the way they all deal with complex concepts and material in a way that doesn’t obscure the lyricism and emotional expression in their playing.”

With DownBeat magazine praising the album, saying “the intellectual meets the intuitive by design throughout the entirety of Balance” - this is music with scope for self-expression and experimentation.

“This might be especially true of creative jazz,” Winkelman says. “I think the dilemma over how much weight to give these potentially competing tendencies is an interesting aspect of writing and playing music. For me, the ideal is both, music involving sophisticated ideas and a high level of craft that moves me. Also, jazz compositions double as vehicles for improvisation. Putting a lot of detail into a composition can be a way of stamping the composer’s personality on it, but if the composition becomes very detailed there can be less room for improvisation. That’s another interesting dilemma to wrestle with. The voice of the composer versus room to move for the improviser. Arranged versus open, complexity versus simplicity. It’s all about balance.”

The Ben Winkelman Trio plays The Street on 25 October. Details at


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