Pianist Ben Markley has quietly been making waves in the jazz world from his home base in Denver, Colorado. That was clear enough when he released Clockwise (OA2), his big band tribute to one of his musical idols, Cedar Walton, last year. The album netted Markley a healthy amount of critical praise, including a four-star review from DownBeat.
His latest release, Basic Economy (OA2), is a collection of original material written almost entirely by the bandleader as a way to continue his on-again, off-again musical relationship with saxophonist Greg Osby. The pair met and collaborated during the past decade, and briefly toured with a rhythm section comprised of bassist Evan Gregor and drummer Dru Heller.
Basic Economy doesn’t break any existing molds, but instead makes great use of post-bop fundamentals. There’s an obvious comfort level that these four men have with each other, as well as a connection that only was strengthened by the time they spent on the road.
Markley recently spoke with DownBeat about this new project, working with Osby and his moving into the spotlight as a bandleader.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
You say in the notes for this new album that you wrote this material with Osby in mind. How did that affect your writing?
For the past three or four years before this project, Greg would come to Denver, and I’d get to play with him. That was an opportunity for me to dive into his music. While I don’t think that what I wrote is necessarily what he writes, I did think in terms of trying to write stuff as a vehicle for the group as a whole.
The fun thing about that is we got to play that music for six or seven nights in a row. It was really fun to see it take shape. By the time we got to the studio, it was actually the fastest recording session I’ve ever done. I had eight hours booked, and I think we used about five of those hours. Most of the tracks are first takes and two are second takes. The tune that Greg wrote [“Half Dozen”], we didn’t even play on tour. We rehearsed it in the studio and did two takes of that.
Did the music change much over the course of the short tour you did?
We made a few small tweaks to things. One of the things that really made this work well is that we had a group of musicians that I didn’t need to give a lot of direction to. Everyone was really able to inject their own musical thoughts and ideas. It got to the point where we knew each other’s playing better, so we could take some more chances. To me, it was as fun to play on the first hit as it was during the session.
How did you decide on the rhythm section for this project?
I had played with Evan quite a bit when I was living in New York City. We had a bi-weekly gig at this place called The Garage, which now doesn’t exist. He’s so flexible and unselfish. That’s ultimately the common thread in this band: There’s no personal ego, but there’s also no musical ego.
Drew moved to Denver five or six years ago and we’ve played together on a bunch of different things. Through that I realized, “Man, I really want to do something with him.” This seemed like the project to do that.
How did you get to know Osby?
I met him through a mutual friend of ours, Josh Quinlan who lived and played in Denver. Both he and Greg are P. Mauriat artists. Josh would do a series of concerts with other P. Mauriat artists, and I got to know Greg through those concerts. Finally, at the University of Wyoming, where I teach, we had him out for a week-long residency. It was great to watch him work with our students and do some more playing. That’s really the moment when I talked to him and said, “It seems like we get along musically and personally. If I put something together, would you be interested?” He was really accommodating. Even though he’s a major artist and has played with everybody, he was completely easy to work with and seemed into what we were doing.
Are there plans to do more with this ensemble?
I hope so. As this CD comes out, we’ll kind of test the waters, and hopefully we can line up some more playing opportunities. It was so fun and so easy. It’s a group that I hope to continue making music with for a while.
You haven’t made that many recordings as a bandleader. What made you decide to transition into that role?
I was always writing, but I didn’t really start putting my own stuff out there until maybe 2009. I think it comes back to seeing people like Cedar Walton or Bill Evans and realizing, “Yeah, they’re playing other people’s music, but they’re also playing their own music.” I liked that. So, even though my work is clearly influenced by them, I think my writing now shows a little more of who I am. As well, one of the benefits of being in education is you get to work with a big band. That’s something I’ve taken advantage of with my writing and arranging.
And the last record you did was with that big band—your tribute to Cedar Walton. How was it to put together a project about an artist that was so important to you?
Internally, there was a lot of pressure. The worst thing you could do is make a bad tribute record. So, after I got out of my own way, the process was really fun. We recorded 10 tunes with a big band in two days. And to have it come out the way it did was something I’m really proud of.
What comes next for you?
In the summer of 2019, I’m going to try to put together another big band album, but this time of my own original compositions. And I’m still waiting to get the dates together, but it’s looking like I’m going to do a project that features the tenor saxophonist Joel Frahm, a quartet thing. DB