This writer has two impressions of rising saxophonist Ben Flocks. The visual impression is a barefoot, casually clad Flocks bouncing around the stage with his playful bandmates in Sammy Miller & the Congregation at the recent Newport Jazz Festival. The second is the music from this gorgeous concept album, Mask of the Muse. In fact, the only album that’s induced similar feelings is Charlie Parker with Strings from the ‘50s. That’s certainly lofty company but Flock is a tenor, not an alto saxophonist, and there are no strings on his album. It’s the lyricism, mystery, and romanticism in each that draws the comparison. And, both have their share of standards. Sure, there are more recent comparisons like Joe Lovano’s Sinatra album or some of Ben Webster’s work, but for me, it’s Bird. Yet, even though Flock is tapping largely into older standards, his sound is not dated. There’s just enough contemporaneity to keep one engaged.
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. Careful listens will reveal some familiar songs, some sadly overlooked. He covers “Dream of Life,” associated with Billie Holiday; “Street of Dreams” (Frank Sinatra), “Dream” (Roy Orbison), “Smoke Rings” (Sam Cooke), and “While a Cigarette is Burning”(Patti Page). Flock chose these twelve songs, none as long as five minutes, with producer Art Chersky primarily because of the melodies and with the intent of transporting his listeners to “A smoky ballroom where a stranger approaches you and just whispers in your ear…” Flocks is the principal soloist on every tune, as if his sax was handling the vocal parts.
Flocks, only 30, is already developing a reputation as one of today’s leading saxophonists. He’s a ten year veteran of the NYC scene. He is a storyteller with consummate phrasing as well as a keen sense of timing and dynamics. So, the story behind the concept goes like this. In 2018, Flocks attended an immersive performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in an old hotel in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It was a very sexy and racy performance with actors running from room to room. There was a smoky bar there that reminded him of the 1920s and 1930s with the design and costumes. But the music that was playing really struck him – old standards from crooners which he’s never heard before. It was then that he decided he wanted to put his own stamp on some of them.
He leaned on Chersky, an expert in this kind of material, and picked eight. He and Chersky each also penned two originals, comprising four that fit with the overall feel and theme of the others. With repertoire in hand, the quintet came together. Chersky is a guitarist capable of everything from Wes Montgomery to The Ventures. Together with keyboardists Frank LoCrasto’s work on snyths, the two of them create a different, yet similar background as strings (thus the reference to Parker’s album again). Flocks calls drummer Evan Hughes “the most musical and sensitive drummer that I know” and Hughes’ playing is subtle and indeed sensitive. Melodious bassist Martin Nevin fits in nicely as well. They are all highly creative players who had fun with the arrangements. For example. LoCrasto would have ideas like this – “Hey why don’t we connect the Mellotron to the Space Echo on “Shangri-La,” the old Jackie Gleason theme song.
The effortless flow of the performances is due not just to talent but the enduring chemistry between Flocks, Chersky, Hughes and Nevin who have known each other since they were teenagers in California. Flocks grew up near Santa Cruz and one of his favorite spots was West Cliff Drive, which runs atop the cliffs in Santa Cruz, overlooking the Pacific. Maybe the freshness and open nature of his sound still owes to the area. He is releasing on his own label, West Cliff Records. Another interesting note is that the album was recorded at Dreamland Recording Studios in a converted 19th-century church near Woodstock, New York. Jack DeJohnette ahs recorded there, as have the B-52s, Fleet Foxes, Joe Jackson and Yo-Yo Ma.
Turn off all the lights. Put on your headphones and fall into dreamland. Oh, set it on repeat. You may stay there for hours.