Mask of the Muse
West Cliff Records
Street Date: August 16, 2019
Hailed as one of the leading young saxophonists in New York, Ben Flocks presents Mask of the Muse - a concept album that finds him stepping into a dreamworld. Unfolding across a dozen tracks, Mask of the Muse is a musical film noir, rich with melody, weaving moods of mystery and romance. With producer Ari Chersky, Flocks has curated a tour of some of the most luscious (as well as criminally overlooked) American songs, including ones associated with Billie Holiday (“Dream of Life”), Frank Sinatra (“Street of Dreams”), Roy Orbison (“Dream”), Sam Cooke (“Smoke Rings”) and Patti Page (“While a Cigarette Was Burning”). “I’m a sucker for a good melody,” explains Flocks, who imagines transporting his listeners to “a smoky ballroom where a stranger approaches you and just whispers in your ear…”
A near 10-year veteran of the New York scene, Flocks has been championed by some of the most illustrious players in jazz. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who performed on David Bowie’s final album, calls Flocks “one of the most gifted musicians of his generation. His playing is deeply lyrical, always creative, and he has an unending imagination.” Taken with the cinematic impact of Mask of the Muse, saxophonist Joshua Redman says he is “awed by Ben’s capacity for conjuring such an intimate, luxurious mood, and then committing to it, head and heart, from start to finish. Beautiful notes, not a one of them wasted.”
Indeed, Flocks, 30, is a remarkable saxophonist with a ripe sound, relaxed and soulful. On each track, his solos unspool with a natural sense of energy, pace and phrasing. He is a storyteller, and there is a story behind Mask of the Muse. In 2018, Flocks attended an immersive performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in an old hotel in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood: “There were all these actors running around through all these rooms and hallways,” he recalls. “It was a very modern and sexy and racy interpretation of the play – a crazy experience. I remember there was a smoky bar and it made you feel like you were back in the 1920s and ‘30s with the design and the costumes. But what really struck me was the music they were playing – these old, very old, recordings of crooners, old standards, some of which I’d never heard before. And at that moment, I thought, `Man, it would be great to find some of these songs and to try and do them in a new and different way.’”
He and Chersky went into research mode: “Ari knows all the old songs, every aspect of them, from the composers to the arrangers to the styles of the arrangers,” Flocks says, admiringly. “I mean, he knows the harmonies — a very musically informed person, and so we started to come up with possibilities and then to pick some of the tunes.” Flocks and Chersky also penned several originals, whose titles call up mythic images related to the creative process: muses and angels and the artist’s quest to harness the duende, that primal force that “burns the blood like powdered glass,” as the poet Federico Garcia Lorca once put it.
As the repertoire came together, so did the band, a quintet. Chersky is the guitarist, able to simultaneously conjure Wes Montgomery and the Ventures. His all-embracing concept is one of the keys to the album’s cool, retro-futuristic vibe. Another key is drummer Evan Hughes — “the most musical and sensitive drummer that I know,” Flocks says. “Evan’s a communicator. He’s got a great groove and he never overplays.” In regard to bassist Martin Nevin, the saxophonist pays this tribute: “His playing reminds me of Charlie Haden. I love the way he uses melodies in his bass solos; he plays things on the bass that I wish I could play on the saxophone.” Keyboardist Frank LoCrasto rounds out the band. Known for his acoustic piano stints with Greg Osby and Jeremy Pelt, LoCrasto has lately delved into synthesizers: “His new music, he calls it `exotica music,’” Flocks says. “It’s incredibly groovy, sexy, like jazzy-lounge-tropical vibes. Frank came up with all these great ideas in the studio. He’d say, `Hey, why don’t we connect the Mellotron to the Space Echo on `Shangri-La’” – yes, the band plays Jackie Gleason’s old theme song – “and Ari, as producer, would say, `Heck, yeah!’”
The 12 performances on Mask of the Muse feel fresh, creative — and comfortable. There’s a reason: Flocks has known Chersky, Hughes and Nevin since they were teenagers in California. The saxophonist grew up near Santa Cruz, amid “the redwoods and the waves,” as he puts it. One of his favorite spots was West Cliff Drive, which runs atop the cliffs in Santa Cruz, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Years later, one can still feel the openness, the fresh air, in Flock’s pure sound and flowing improvisations, as he imagines his world of mystery and romance. Coincidentally, the album was recorded at Dreamland Recording Studios in a converted 19th-century church in the town of Hurley, N.Y., at the edge of the Catskill Mountains. Jack DeJohnette has recorded there, as have the B-52s, Fleet Foxes, Joe Jackson and Yo-Yo Ma. Add Ben Flocks to the list. He’s created his very own dreamland with Mask of the Muse.
“Mask of the Muse sounds both classic and contemporary, a suite of American songs from another time fashioned for today. Romance and mystery ooze from the melody-rich selections, with Flocks' husky tenor and soprano deepening the night-time feel every step of the way.“ Read the full review here.
"For his sophomore release, the saxophonist shifts from Americana to the American Songbook, and shows that this change, depending on the context, is one that’s as nuanced as it is dramatic." Review here.
"This is a concept album where Flocks steps into a dreamworld. It’s almost like a film score with noir passages, rich melodies, and bright, lush cinematic elements too. It’s luxurious, intimate, and deceptively riveting. Flocks pours out plenty of passion too with his expressive, rich tone" Read the full review here.
"The arrangements are a little bit soul jazz, a little bit hard bop, and a little bit lounge-act, but there’s also an edge of weirdness to them, like something out of a David Lynch movie. The consistency of the mood is what makes the album really special; it’s like you’re hearing it in a dream." Review here.