In a ‘Swing State’ of mind

Madison jazz legend Ben Sidran's all-instrumental new album is the feel-good escape we all need after a trying couple of years.
On the left is Ben Sidran wearing glasses sitting with his dog and on the right is the cover of his new album 'swing state' which shows his face and big bold lettering.
Courtesy of Ben Sidran.
The Madison jazz legend, at home with his dog, Rocky, has a new album out in May called "Swing State."

You want an antidote to the tumult of the past few years? Ben Sidran did, and soon his can be yours, too.

Not long ago, Sidran, a septuagenarian Madison resident whose jazz piano playing and music producing skills (for artists including Van Morrison, Diana Ross, and Rickie Lee Jones) are appreciated worldwide, was thinking about making a record of swing tunes — easy, relaxed, feel-good instrumentals that connect first with the body, and not an overheated brain.

It was only after he had made the album — “Swing State,” to be officially released next month — that Sidran realized the repertoire of songs were the same ones that first sparked what became his lifelong passion.

“I was maybe 13,” Sidran was saying last week, by phone from the California desert, just a day or two before he and his wife, Judy, returned to Madison from their winter sojourn. “I was playing piano, and my father would take me to my Saturday piano lessons in Milwaukee.”

It was a 25-minute drive from their home in Racine. The young Sidran enjoyed learning to play, but away from the lessons, it didn’t consume him. He wasn’t practicing much on his own. Then one day his dad brought home a book that changed his life.

“It was a fake book from the late 1930s,” Sidran says.

It was given to Sidran’s dad by a professional piano player who was retiring and included lyrics and melodies of numerous piano trio tunes. The books were deemed “fake” because they didn’t include arrangements — you had to “fake it” — and due to the fact they were illegal, set to paper without regard to copyright.

“I knew what a fake book was, and it lit a fire under me,” Sidran says, and he soon learned songs like “Ain’t Misbehavin” and “Tuxedo Junction.” “Those were the songs I started playing when I got sort of halfway serious and began playing little dance band gigs and stuff. They were all out of that book.”

Sixty-plus year later, they are on “Swing State,” the new record.

“I didn’t realize it when we cut the record,” Sidran says, in a video describing the album’s genesis. “But obviously that’s why I went to this repertoire.”

To me, he added: “It felt like such a romantic thing to be able to go back and play that music, the music that spurred me on.”

The album is an homage as well to early jazz pianists like Horace Silver and Billy Taylor and their trios. Last August in Madison, Sidran, joined by his son Leo, an accomplished drummer, and Billy Peterson, a renowned bassist — having played a gig at Café CODA — went to DNA Music Labs on Winnebago Street and recorded “Swing State” in the space of a day.

The three have played together countless times across decades.

“Leo grew up around Billy,” Sidran says. “I started playing with Billy in 1978. Leo was born in 1976. When we were on the road, often Leo would come with.”

Sidran described the alchemy that can occur when close-knit musicians record.

“You develop this kind of group mindset where you’re literally able to play things you don’t know,” Sidran says. “It’s a strange thing to say. But all jazz is being played by ear. No matter how much theory you know, you’re playing by ear when you’re performing. Billy and Leo and I have been in that space for a long time. All the arrangements on [“Swing State”] came together when we sat down and said, ‘OK, let’s play ‘Tuxedo Junction.’ How are we going to do it?’ You quickly formulate it.”

The official release date for “Swing State” is May 20, and that night Sidran will perform at Mezzrow, a New York City jazz club. Gigs in Paris, Madrid and London will follow, and in August he’s back home in the Midwest, with shows in Minneapolis, Chicago and Madison. Sidran is billing his hometown Café CODA gig as his “Fifth Annual 75th Birthday Party.”

Decades in as a prolific musician, “Swing State” is Sidran’s first all-instrumental record.

“I’ve never made an entire album without a vocal in it,” he says. “It takes some courage. You say to yourself, ‘With all these brilliant young piano players out there, why would anyone need to hear me play piano?’”

Perhaps that’s exactly why, as Sidran notes: “The way I play piano is so old school and so different.”

He laughs.

“It’s like if you stay sitting by a stream long enough, all of life flows by.”

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