"Sonic Architect" - Professional Creative Musician, Guitarist, Producer, Composer, Sound Designer..
A product of the diverse Washington, DC music scene, guitarist Ben Tyree is a performer and composer of virtuosic ability, infectious groove, and eclectic tastes. All of those elements are placed on stunning display on his latest release, Burn It! LIVE, a blistering live set from the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s prestigious BAMcafé Live series. That album follows his classically-influenced acoustic solo album Thoughtform Variations, ample evidence of his diversity and range.
The template for his genre-hopping agility was set by the pioneering Miscellaneous Flux, the band that Tyree co-founded in 1998 while still in DC. Refreshingly impossible to categorize, the group fused jazz, hip-hop and punk rock into a crowd-invigorating mix, releasing two EPs and a full-length album before disbanding in 2005 following its members’ move to New York. Its acclaimed 2002 full-length CD, Dead in Dreams, won a “Wammie” (Washington Area Music Association award) and garnered four other nominations for the band, including Best Urban Contemporary Instrumentalist for Tyree.
Tyree’s longstanding trio BT3 continues in that vein, grafting together jazz, funk and rock in often surprising but always vigorous fashion. The trio recorded their debut CD, re:Vision, in 2010 with special guests John Medeski and DJ Logic, no strangers to boundary-blurring groove. The album also featured tenor saxophonists Stacy Dillard and V. Jeffrey Smith, both of whom reprise their roles on Burn It! LIVE.
His solo debut, Thoughtform Variations, displays Tyree’s more introspective side even while retaining his recognizable stamp. The album consists of eight original pieces combining classical, jazz, pop and folk influences into a rich, harmonious sound. Evidencing influences as varied as John McLaughlin, Michael Hedges, and J.S. Bach, the pieces also reflect the indelible contributions made by family, friends and events in his life.
Tyree’s staggering versatility and creativity is spotlighted by the wide-ranging list of collaborators with whom he’s worked, including artists as varied as Vernon Reid, Kyp Malone (TV On The Radio), Nicholas Payton, Dr. Cornel West, Res, Nomi, The Family Stand, Clark Terry, Soul Understated (featuring Mavis “Swan” Poole) and Elliott Sharp’s SyndaKit, among others.
Which was the first and the last record you bought with your own money? What were other early records you bought?
I'm pretty sure the first record I bought was either The Rolling Stones: Tattoo You or Aerosmith: Toys In The Attic. And the most recent records I've bought were John Medeski: A Different Time and Manami Morita: When Skies Are Grey. I love listening to piano players!
A lot of the early records I bought were classic rock, pop and classical.
I was always buying a lot of Aerosmith because they were my favorite group as a kid. I also bought a lot of Led Zeppelin, Cream, Nirvana, Grateful Dead, INXS, Wagner, Handel, Beatles and then my interests continued to expand and diversify.
What’s the difference between a good and a bad guitar player?
Well that's all up to the listener and everyone's criteria are different. It all depends on a multitude of factors. Are they playing classical? Or are they playing original music? Do they obviously emulate others or are they so original that people hate them at first? It's a tough call. I would say a good guitar player is someone who is dedicated to whatever it is they are trying to communicate on the instrument and who sincerely works at it. You know it's so subjective.
I could list so many other criteria but they don't always apply. I could say a good guitar player makes sure they're in tune, but Hendrix (one of the best ever) was often out of tune in the traditional sense.
I don't think I can really say, to be honest. There are players I love and players I don't love so much. I would say of the guitar players I like, they are mostly very original and sincere about what they are doing. Also, a level of commitment and dedication comes through in their music. These are the things that inspire me.
There are so many great guitar players out there who are so different from each other. It's exciting!
What gear do you use?
Currently, there's a lot of different gear I am using but I keep it pretty simple.
My favorite amps are Fenders: either a Hot Rod DeVille 212 or a Fender Twin.
As far as electric guitars, I use a Strat (Mexican I bought on ebay and tricked it out with DiMarzio virtual vintage pickups among other things) and the Les Paul standard I've had forever.
I like the Line 6 VerbZilla reverb pedal because you can adjust so many parameters. I like a warm decay which you can't get with amp reverb.
Also, I use a Cry Baby, Pro Co Rat, Boss Blues Driver, Xotic EP Boost and SL Drive, MXR Carbon Copy, MXR, Phase 90, Boss T-Wah, Mooer Octave and a Mooger Fooger Ring Modulator. I also like to use two volume pedals: one at the beginning of the chain and one at the end. I use Pedal Train boards with Voodoo Lab Pedal Power.
Which work of your own are you most surprised by, and why?
Probably my live album that's coming out in September. It was recorded at a fairly large gig in Brooklyn with my trio BT3 plus a few guests. I remember I felt like I was struggling all night, fighting the instrument. I felt very inarticulate and was convinced what I was playing was terrible.
Several months later, I listened back to a couple recordings from the show and I was astonished by my playing. It was great: edgy and exciting! I was flabbergasted. How could I have felt they way I felt while I was actually creating this music but then the result became the complete opposite?
This was a great lesson for me. Sometimes when we play we don't feel how we think we should feel when we're playing great. Sometimes we do. I think the important thing to do is to be sincere, obviously do the work (practice!), show up and go for it. As a result, I have an incredible live record beyond anything I could have planned. Life and music are full of surprises. Just keep at it!
What do you need from music?
I don't really know how to answer that. Music exists beyond anyone's needs or desires for what it should be. I guess if I could say one thing it would be that I need music to be honest. Everything else is negotiable after that. You know there's music that upon first listen I hated it. But it was so honest that I grew to love it.
Music is really about expressing what words cannot express. It is something primordial yet can be refined. Music needs to be free from our judgement and be what it's going to be. If we think about what we need from it beforehand why might miss the whole point.
That being said, as a musician you can gradually develop an intuition about what the music needs for you to manifest it. This is something that has developed and continues to develop in my own musicianship and, I can imagine in others' as well. If your goal is to serve music and really learn to listen to what it need first, magic happens.
What quality do you admire most in a musician?
The ability to listen and also to be a decent human being. So many musicians do not listen. They just play. And they have no ability to achieve a reciprocity with their fellow musicians or even an audience. Listening is the most important thing a musician can do. And to listen without judgement. This is a lifelong lesson.
We can all listen better but I would encourage younger musicians especially to start from this place. Open your ears and heart. Listen to what those who came before you have done. Listen to what the people you are playing with are playing. Then offer something to that conversation. Take your time. Be patient and do it for the love first. Music is a magical universe but it cannot be forced. It is a seduction. And don't forget that while you're busy trying to be the seducer, the music may require you to be seduced. Find that special balance for yourself.
Also, it's important to continue working on your humanity. All of my favorite musicians are also wonderful human beings. Practice patience and compassion.
Love your friends and family. Tell them and show them often. Try to live from love rather than fear and hate. This will come out in your music and it can help heal the world.
Do you prefer play alone or in a group? What is the difference for you?
I like both. Playing with people, especially musicians you have a good chemistry with is like the highest of highs. It can bring things out of you that you never knew you had.
Playing solo is a great way to refine your craft. It's so exposing which forces you to be well practiced but also to cultivate a good head space when performing. Ideally, one wants to be fluid and relaxed. When you perform solo, this is more of a challenge, but can be a wonderful and rewarding path.
What are the challenges and benefits of today's digital music scene?
Well I think the pros and cons are obvious:
Pro: Anyone can make a record and sell it digitally online.
Con: Anyone can make a record and sell it digitally online.
Think about that.
Depict the sound you're still looking for.
Something between a waterfall and a supernova: explosive, hyper-seductive fluidity...
Really everything, but mostly visual arts. I see music as having tangible colors. Sometimes I can taste them. I hear visual forms as sound. The two are, and always have been very interconnected to me.
Really all of the arts are frequencies and vibrations of expression. I see them as all interconnected and I think having more experiences across artistic disciples can only enrich your creative focus.
What is some valuable advice that someone has given to you in the past?
You can fail doing what you don't want to do, so you may as well do what you want.
Tell me one musical work which has provoked a change in your music.
Perhaps everything I hear provokes little and big changes in my work. I am still learning, hearing new things and growing. Some of my most profound growth occurred in my teens and early twenties. I was listening to a lot of jazz: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, et al. A Love Supreme had a huge impact on me and so did Bitches Brew. I was also greatly impacted by much of the music of Jimi Hendrix, Pat Martino, Frank Zappa, Bad Brains and many many others.
I have always had a wide palette of interest when it comes to music. You never know what is going to deeply resonate with you, so it's important to stay open and keep listening.
Ben Tyree - Guitar, Kevin Farrell - Bass, Lawrence Qualls - Drums, Recorded at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the BAMcafé Live series.
What projects are you working on now and what does the future hold?
Well, I'm getting ready to release the BT3: Burn It! LIVE album on my own label, Sonic Architectures in September so I'm pretty excited about that. I also have a few more long-distance projects coming together in my mind. I have several albums worth of demos of music that's very different from what I'm known to do. I have no idea what the future holds. I would like to do a trio record sometime in the next couple of years with Cindy Blackman and John Medeski. I have some potential material for that. It's all timing and I'm sure it will line up at some point.
Right now, I'm just focusing on the many side projects I am part of and the forthcoming live album. I suggest everyone check that out!
Photos © 2014, Deneka Peniston