An Interview With Leo Sidran

ben sidranYou could count on one hand the number of jazz writers who also happen to be great players, and you’d probably have several fingers left over. Let’s face it, it’s not an easy gig.

But a few months ago I came across a podcast called The Third Story that immediately intrigued me. For a start, many of the interviewees were among my favourite players from across the pond (Steve Khan, Will Lee, Rob Mounsey) but also the interviews themselves touched on the human aspect of playing jazz for a living in more depth than any standard print head-to-heads I’d come across. The podcast also features interesting interviews with non-musicians such as actor/writer/activist Peter Coyote, producer Tommy LiPuma and promoter George Wein.

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The Third Story turns out to be the work of New York City-based Leo Sidran, son of acclaimed singer/songwriter/pianist Ben Sidran, who of course is no stranger to quality jazz journalism having written the classic books ‘Black Talk’ and ‘Talking Jazz’. It turns out that Leo is an accomplished producer, composer and multi-instrumentalist, so the Sidrans are bona-fide jazz double-threats. We’re back to counting on one hand again.

I caught up with Leo to talk about The Third Story, his musical career and what it’s like playing in your dad’s band.

MP: You’re a real all-rounder, musician, producer, singer/songwriter and podcaster. First of all, the million-dollar question: which role is your favourite?

LS: I don’t really have a favourite role. I suppose my native habitat has always been in the studio, since I was a kid. So maybe songwriter/producer is the most natural for me, but I also love the feeling of settling into a groove with other musicians and connecting with an audience. I also have a tendency to get into long and somewhat deep conversations with the people I meet, and the podcast has been a real outlet for me to do that in a productive way. A couple of years ago, I asked myself: what do you most want to do now? And I came up with two answers: interview creative people and make a solo record. So I guess I’m a little bit all over the place.

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Your father Ben is well-known as a musician but has also published two really important jazz books, ‘Black Talk’ and ‘Talking Jazz’. Were you a fan of these growing up and were they an inspiration for The Third Story podcast?

‘Talking Jazz’ came from a series of radio interviews that Ben did in the 1980s for National Public Radio in the States called ‘Sidran On Record’. Those audio interviews were definitely influential. I don’t know if I would have had the idea to interview people – or that it was even a thing one could do – if I hadn’t seen it so close up. ‘Black Talk’ was kind of ever present in my life. Growing up with Ben was like having my own in-house sociologist, and he definitely showed me the value of placing popular music and culture in a greater context, and that the specific experience of people’s lives can be very universal.

Tell us about your new vocal album Mucho Leo.

After nearly a decade without making a proper solo album, I started to get antsy. But I was also feeling a little confused about how to get started – in the time since my previous album, a lot had happened to me. I moved from Wisconsin to New York, started working as composer for television, a songwriter/producer for other people, and I kind of forgot what my own ‘artistic voice’ was. I didn’t even know if I would find it again. But when I did eventually sit down to write songs for me to sing – not someone else – I found my voice right where I had left it: in my body. I spent about a year making Mucho Leo in fits and starts, generally recording the songs in a day or two, and then moving on to the next one. I decided I wanted to play all the instruments and record it all myself, and the result is a very personal statement both in terms of subject matter and musical content. On many of the songs, I sang the lead vocal into my iPhone, and then transferred it into the computer. I’m very proud of the work and I’m pleased that people are finding it, slowly but surely.

The Third Story has featured some incredibly candid interviews which seem to get to the heart of what being a musician is all about, and also say some important things about life too. I’m thinking particularly about the Will Lee, Sachal, Rob Mounsey and Steve Khan interviews. Which has been your favourite episode so far and why?

I don’t have a favourite because every time I do one I’m consumed by it for the next week. I really think about the things people say to me and their lives. I think almost everyone I’ve talked to has delivered at least one piece of real, transformative wisdom or philosophy. So for example, as I’m writing this, the Howard Levy interview which was posted last week is the one I’m thinking about, especially the idea that musical creation is actually the act of discovering what’s already present in nature. That’s an idea that Gil Goldstein, Rob Mounsey and Jacob Collier also spoke about, and for me right now, that’s what’s on my mind. When I think back on the episodes, the Jon Batiste, Madeleine Peyroux and Will Lee all stand out for different reasons as well. Jon Batiste really inspired me, he was so thoughtful, so positive, and such a joy to be around. Madeleine and I talked in a Paris cafe for hours and the experience was somewhat surreal, almost like entering another dimension. And Will Lee was the first one I did, he was really the one who let me know I could do this. As an interviewer I think part of my job is to make people feel comfortable but in his case he was the one putting me at ease.

Anyone on your wishlist for the podcast? I’m just throwing the names Anthony Jackson and Donald Fagen into the mix…

I have a huge list and Donald Fagen is at the top of it. We’ve actually had some contact about it and I think it can happen. Anthony Jackson is a great idea and I will take credit for it as my own if it happens, so thank you for that! One thing is that there are so many great players out there, and so many stories that haven’t been told. I just follow the signs that life seems to show me, and reach out to the people who have influenced or affected me personally or artistically, and it might not be limited only to music. The interviews with Emma Straub, Peter Coyote and Dan Levitin were all fantastic even though none of them is a specifically dedicated musician.

Did you make any contribution to your dad’s recent album Blue Camus and will you be coming over to Ronnie Scott’s with him in November?

Blue Camus emerged out of an idea that Ben and I had together to do a spoken word project for him. I organised a session in Madison, where Ben lives, to record some funky, unstructured jams that he could work with to build lyrical ideas. We basically just improvised for a day and then forgot about it for a few months. When we listened back to the sessions, it was clear that something was there for Ben to work with. Most of the initial groove ideas came from me and Billy Peterson, the bass player. Eventually it turned into Blue Camus, and I feel extremely proud of my contribution on it as both a drummer and producer. I generally tour as a drummer with Ben and this year is certainly no exception. I’ll be there at Ronnie’s, probably grinning from ear to ear! Sometimes I have to pinch myself because I feel so lucky to get to play music that I love with people I love in some of the greatest venues in the world. To me, playing at a club like Ronnie Scott’s is a privilege. And lately, when I travel, it gives me a chance to interview people for the podcast as well so it’s even better.

Cheers, Leo.

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