It’s fair to say that Ben Sidran has had a career unlike any other. The author of five books, record label proprietor, radio and television host, singer, songwriter, pianist, teacher, and eternal hipster has played as part of The Steve Miller Band (and co-wrote “Space Cowboy”), produced records for Mose Allison, Rickie Lee Jones, and Diana Ross, and performed with Van Morrison and Georgie Fame. Along the way, he’s recorded for Capitol, Blue Thumb, Arista, A&M, and Windham Hill. Sidran turned 75 this past August, and Sunset Blvd. Records wasn’t keen to let the occasion go unnoticed. The label has just recently released Ben There, Done That, a new 3-CD anthology subtitled Ben Sidran Live Around the World (1975-2015). It presents the breadth of the artistry from the man who regularly melded jazz, blues, funk, blue-eyed soul, and even occasional flourishes of rock on his varied albums.
There’s an emphasis here on modern material; out of the 27 previously unreleased tracks heard on the new collection, just ten date before 2000 – of those, two are from the ’70s and the rest from the ’90s. It makes clear, though, that Sidran has continued growing as an artist. The tracks are remarkably fresh, and moreover, original – a word that describes Sidran himself. Culled from concerts in New York, Tokyo, Milan, Madrid, Paris, Minneapolis, London and Osaka, Ben There, Done That pulses with energy and sophistication. Personnel differs, but the lineups most frequently found Sidran on keys joined by saxophone, bass, and drums. Musical associates featured on the album include bassist Billy Peterson, saxophonists Bob Malach and Bob Rockwell, drummer (and son) Leo Sidran, drummer Gordy Knudtson, synthesizer player Ricky Peterson, and a handful of special guests including David “Fathead” Newman and Phil Woods, both on sax.
In Sidran’s case, “The Groove Is Gonna Get You” could be words to live by. The groove is omnipresent on these three discs, frequently accompanying the vocalist’s hip style of spoken philosophizing. (It’s no accident that he was once deemed “the first existential jazz rapper.”) Ben There, Done That features both original songs and reinventions of standards and lost gems, echoing Sidran’s famously eclectic albums.
Sidran has long excavated the most interesting songs with the best cats around. He gave his own spin to the late-night lament “That’s Life I Guess,” most closely associated with Billie Holiday, and was able to make blues titan Willie Dixon’s “You Can’t Judge a Book” sound like one of his own lean jazz swingers without compromising any of the classic’s integrity. Billy Joel’s now-standard “New York State of Mind” and Sidran’s own “Let’s Make a Deal” are both reprised from his Arista debut, 1976’s Free in America. Joel’s Big Apple anthem is extended to over 10 minutes as Sidran manages to avoid any sense of the song being overly familiar. He imbues it with his own state of mind – sly, alternately pensive and joyful, grooving to the rhythm of the big city. The brisk jam on the Nat “King” Cole-popularized “Straighten Up and Fly Right” showcases Sidran’s deft musicianship as does his fleet playing on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Birk’s Works.”
Original songs and covers sit comfortably alongside one another. Sidran’s singin’ and swingin’ and scattin’ on “The House of Blue Lights” (introduced by singer Ella Mae Morse in 1946 and subsequently covered by The Andrews Sisters) from his 1974 album Don’t Let Go, and swaggering on his own, sly “Song for a Sucker Like You” off 1977’s The Doctor Is In. His “Piano Players” happily lives up to its title by name-checking many of Sidran’s fellow ivory-ticklers ending, appropriately enough, with his friend and inspiration Mose Allison. A fine, loose interpretation of the Dorothy Fields/Jimmy McHugh standard “On the Sunny Side of the Street” from London in 2001 is only dated due to Sidran’s then-timely lyrical alteration that “I’d be as rich as Michael Jackson!”
The instrumental tracks peppered throughout the collection, including “Ballin’ on the Reservation,” “Blue Minor,” and the strutting “Hard Times” with guest David “Fathead” Newman, showcase Sidran’s intuitive interplay with his musicians. A variety of moods are conjured, too, whether the sleek fusion of “Mitsubishi Boy” (not so far removed from the sound of Steely Dan) or the ruminative “Walking with the Blues” which like “Language of the Blues” and “Lip Service,” was included on Sidran’s 1989 Cool Paradise, the inaugural release on his own Go Jazz label.
This cool paradise of its own is accompanied by a 24-page booklet featuring essays and appreciations by compilation co-producer Zev Feldman, NPR producer Becca Pulliam, Sirius XM Real Jazz program director Mark Ruffin, and Sidran’s longtime friends Janis Siegel of Manhattan Transfer and Georgie Fame. It’s handsomely packaged in a thick, eight-panel digipak. Sound as mastered by Ue Nastasi at Sterling Sound is uniformly good, from Sidran’s own original tapes.
Whether playing, speaking, singing straight or in vocalese, or rapping, Ben Sidran is an engaging, perpetually cool, and forever hip artist who’s steadfastly refused to be pigeonholed. Ben There, Done That is a treat for those familiar with his diverse and always thought-provoking body of work, but also a solid introduction that will leave new listeners wanting to dig into his considerable discography.