Benjamin Croft: return to the future

    Croft is that rarity, a young musician happy to develop the forward-looking fusion style prematurely purged by establishment critics two or three decades ago

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    Benjamin Croft at the keyboards. Photo by Delphine Orliange

    “I would describe it as prog rock/jazz fusion,” asserts keyboard player Benjamin Croft of his new album Far And Distant Things. “There are so many kinds of music I’m influenced by: obviously jazz greats like Miles Davis and Chick Corea but also bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, singers like Kate Bush and classical composers like Shostakovich, Bartok and Bach. The album’s everything I’ve heard in my life, really. I don’t decide to write like that: that’s just how it comes out.”

    The musicianship on the album is wonderful with contributions from British players such as trumpeter Andy Davies and flautist Gareth Lockrane and Americans including trumpeter Randy Brecker, one-time Miles Davis guitarist Barry Finnerty and former Chick Corea sidemen such as guitarist Mike Miller and trumpeter Allen Vizzutti.

    How, I ask, did he manage to persuade such luminaries to work with him? “On the previous album [2019’s 10 Reasons To …] I said to people: ‘Can you play in the style of … ?’ This time I thought: ‘Why not just avoid that step and get the people I asked the musicians on the first album to play like?’

    “I asked [ex-Chick Corea Elektric Band and Return To Forever guitarist] Frank Gambale first, and he said: ‘Yeah.’ So I thought: ‘Well, I’ll try my luck again.’ I tried Randy and one by one all these people agreed to do it. It’s a three-part process: I sent them my first album – and they loved the music. Then they want to see the charts of the [new] music. Then they want to hear a demo of it so it’s a bit stressful and nerve-wracking. But it all worked out. I would send over tracks and they would send their parts back and then I’d go back in the studio and re-record to match their parts. So it’s quite a long process.”

    Croft composed the music to suit the styles of the musicians. “I was writing for them but the whole idea of asking them was that they add their own personality and [when] I got the tracks back it was exactly what I wanted.”

    It’s not, apparently, ruinously expensive to hire even a super-famous jazz musician like Randy Brecker

    It’s not, apparently, ruinously expensive to hire even a super-famous jazz musician like Randy Brecker. “There’s always a fee you have to pay these people but it wasn’t millions of pounds! It was just the same as paying one of my friends in London. They really did it because they loved the music.”

    A couple of tracks, including the opening Overture, feature Helen Vollam, principal trombonist with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. “The track is almost classical in nature,” explains Croft. “I wanted someone who had a really great sound and didn’t need to be improvising and the classical with the jazz and rock sets the tone for what’s to come on the album.”

    Croft’s own solos are improvised. “It never works if you try and work these things out,” he says. “You have to keep it spontaneous.”

    Croft actually plays 17 different keyboards on the album, many of them vintage synthesisers like the Prophet-5 and the ARP Odyssey. “When you have a newer synth that’s completely in tune all the time you remove the quirkiness [but] older synths are unpredictable, almost like real instruments,” he argues. “You have to stop and tune them. [Or] you might play a chord and get an unexpected sound which leads you to create something new.”

    Curiously, in the liner notes, Croft declares: “No melodicas were used at any point in the recording of this album!” So what’s his problem with melodicas? What did they ever do to him? “I hate the instrument! It sounds like a toy. A cheap toy. Sorry to all the melodica fans out there but you’ll never be hearing a melodica on any of my albums!”

    ‘A lot of people just go to the piano and wait for something but I don’t. I always come up with a title [which] inspires a concept and then I go for a walk and write the piece in my head’

    The titles of several tracks, like The War Against Loudness and How Not To Win The Nobel Peace Prize are amusing. “A lot of people just go to the piano and wait for something but I don’t,” Croft explains of his composing. “I always come up with a title [which] inspires a concept and then I go for a walk and write the piece in my head and come back and then sit at the piano and start writing.”

    Croft used the title of the track Far And Distant Things for the title of the album. “That’s what the album’s about, geographically and metaphysically,” he says. “It’s about concepts which may or may not exist, that could happen in the future or could be in the far past, about places that are far distant.”

    Croft studied at Leeds College Of Music. Despite the current ubiquity of jazz education some old-timers even now lament the passing of the days when musicians learnt on the bandstand. Croft, surprisingly, agrees with them. “I don’t think you can really be taught jazz because it’s all about finding your own voice and you develop that by playing with other people. Music colleges are places to network but the best way to learn is playing gigs. Definitely.”

    After graduating, Croft worked on cruise ships. “I played in the house band. You’ve got to be a good sight-reader and play lots of different styles – you might be playing an Elvis Presley tribute one night or some opera or a Broadway-style musical – so maybe that influenced me with the different styles on the album. But you can’t be yourself doing that so it’s something you can only do for a short time or you’ll start pulling your hair out!”

    Later Croft worked in America. “Because these were American cruise liners all the musicians were American. I was the only English person. So, just like music college, it was a place to network and I met great people. And it seemed a natural progression to go and play with those people in the States. I went thinking ‘I’ll be there a few months’ and ended up there on and off for 10 years: the Chicago area, then the West Coast, a bit of time in New York, Tennessee – all over the place, mainly playing jazz but many other styles as well: country, heavy rock, Broadway-style shows . . . and everything I’ve played comes out when I write. It’s all influenced me.”

    Croft returned to the UK and in 2019 released his first album, 10 Reasons To … Reviewers eagerly compared his music to that of prog bands, obscure and celebrated, like Egg, Caravan and National Health. Was he actually aware of such bands himself? “They were before my time, but yes. My parents’ record collection led me to listen to them. Yes’s Close To The Edge sparked my interest in that genre and from that I listened to everything else.”

    Few genres have ever fallen as quickly and as far out of fashion as prog did in the late 70s. But one of the tracks on 10 Reasons To …, T.T.E. (Time, Talent And Electricity), is dedicated to Keith Emerson, keyboard player of the often critically reviled Emerson, Lake & Palmer. “Although that band is labelled prog there are elements of jazz, classical . . . everything, really. I’ve always been in awe of Keith Emerson. Anyone that can play Maple Leaf Rag or a piano concerto in front of 80,000 people, I have respect for!”

    Croft’s music has also been compared to that of Return To Forever. “Chick Corea’s a huge influence and certainly Romantic Warrior [1976],” he acknowledges. “And that album was compared to Emerson, Lake & Palmer so these things cross-pollinate. Through the 70s those bands were hand-in-hand.”

    Kate Bush is a more surprising influence on Croft. “She’s probably the only person who can make me cry, laugh, smile, everything, in the space of a song. I really respect her artistry and she’s so musical. The lyrics are not the usual love songs, they’re unpredictable, and everything she does is perfection. If I had to make a list of who I’d want to work with, I would put her at the top.”

    Benjamin Croft plays from Far And Distant Things with Carter Arrington (guitar), Flo Moore (bass) and Tristan Mailliot (drums) at Pizza Express, Dean St, London on 2 October: pizzaexpresslive.com/whats-on/benjamin-crofts-far-and-distant-things