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Been There, Done That : Ben Sidran’s New Retrospective Collection on CD, Tidal

Mark Smotroff connects musical dots back a modern jazz legend…

Have you ever come across a detail in life that has been staring you in the face for a long long time but somehow you never connected the dots enough to recognize it?  I don’t know about you, but I have. 

“Been there, done that,” as they say….

AR-BenSidranCDCover225.jpgThat sort of “ah ha” moment happened to me most recently with my “discovery” (if you will) of acclaimed composer, performer, producer, author and music educator Ben Sidran. This process of recognition and acknowledgement began shortly before I set out to review his fine new career quasi-retrospective live album called Been There Done That

My little story of Sidran-awareness is a curious tale-of-a-sort, underscoring the notion of how sometimes we can get an idea in our head which can lead to mis-judgment. Several months before I had even learned of this new three CD set, I picked up an LP by him  purely out of curiosity, as he was a musician I had certainly “heard of” but whose music I never really “heard.”

The album I bought was one of his late 70s offerings on the short-lived A&M Records subsidiary called Horizon Records. Known (at least to me) for their proto-smooth jazz leanings, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from Mr. Sidran’s music. While many records I have heard on the Horizon label have disappointed me (I am generally not a fan of the smooth jazz phenomenon), periodically I have found good gems there worth keeping. So, I grabbed Ben Sidran’s 1979 album The Cat In The Hat from the bargain bin at Amoeba Music to check out (you can click here to hear it on Tidal, btw). And here is when I made my mistake. Unfortunately, I was rushed, and was not really listening closely. Putting on the record, I just heard that overall Horizon sound I negatively anticipated and I didn’t listen deeply to the music within… I just tasted “smooth”  jazz-lite, picked up the stylus and put the album away. 

My bad.  Mea culpa. 

While those production flavors are indeed present on that album, it was wrong to make a snap judgement based on the production whims of a period of time. Going back to listen to it again on Tidal I am hearing that record with fresh ears. There are some great players here including Steve Gadd, Michael Brecker, Luther Vandross, Abe Laborial, etc.  

AR-BenSidranCDPackage225.jpgAnd now as I am digging in to this review I am learning of Mr. Sidran’s rich jazz and pop heritage (he was in Steve Miller’s band in the 1960s and he co-wrote their early hit “Space Cowboy”!). And… I am learning about his dedication to music education as a Music Business teacher at The University of Wisconsin and through a wonderful show on NPR called Jazz Alive which he hosted for many years. Some highlights of the show seem to be up on Tidal where he interviews everyone from Art Blakey to Donald Fagen to Miles Davis (no doubt part of his Talking Jazz project). He was also the host of VH-1’s New Visions show. Mr. Sidran also produced records by Van Morrison, Diana Ross, Michael Franks, Rickie Lee Jones, and Mose Allison (hold onto that thought for a second)!  

(Some of these records I own… the penny drops again… more ah ha moments!)

Which leads us to the new three CD set Been There Done That which is co-produced by the artist and jazz’s 21st Century torch keeper, Zev Feldman. Right from the get go listening to Been There Done That I heard none of that lite jazz flavor that had momentarily tainted my first impression. Actually, much of the music reminded me of no less than a second coming of Mose Alison… only a whole bunch funkier!  We’ll get back to Mose in a moment…

AR-BenSidranLive225.jpgOver the course of Been There Done That — all recorded live and taken from Mr. Sidran’s personal archives — the artist takes you on fun jazz journeys, sometimes singing and near rapping out timely tales and poignant stories over the music. Among my favorites on this collection is the romp from Paris in 2015 called “The Groove Is Gonna Get You.”  “The Funkasaurus” (Tokyo 2009) is sort of like what might happen if Georgie Fame jammed with Bohannon backed by some of the JBs. (click here to listen it up on Tidal).  

Curiously enough, Georgie Fame wrote some of the liner notes in Been There Done That and it turns out they had worked together on the great Van Morrison tribute to Mose Alison, Tell Me Something! Once again, I totally overlooked Mr. Sidran’s contribution to that album which I have owned and enjoyed since the ’90s when it came out…  

Wow…. connecting many dots here!

A few tracks from Been There Done That are up on Tidal so do check out “The House of Blue Lights” (click here) and “Song For A Sucker” (click here) if you have a subscription to that streaming music service. The latter could be a lost theme for a TV sitcom that never was (and I mean that in the best possible way)! I got a chuckle out of his is song “Lip Service” (originally from his Cool Paradise album) which openly nicks a riff from Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side.” 

AR-BenSidranB&WPRShot225.jpgOverall the music on Been There Done That sounds fresh as it was all made in the moment before live audiences. Recorded at venues all over the world, the soundboard recordings probably come from cassette, DAT and other digital sources given that they were recorded on the road between 1975 and 2015. That said, there is remarkable consistency here as an end to end listening experience, Sidran’s bands all sounding super tight yet swinging, the recordings alive with a good sense of dynamics (clear lows, crisp highs and even some air of the rooms they were performing in).  

Been There Done That is a great introduction to Mr. Sidran’s rich musical universe. I’ll no doubt be exploring more of his studio catalog now. You should too.

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