As Jazz gets older and older, the common themes of the songs become “old-fashioned”. These days, you never see party-goers picking up a Dean Martin vinyl and listening to it (if they even know what vinyl is, haha). That might all change thanks to the group “Joe Benjamin and A Mighty Handful”. These guys are driven by the changes in the younger crowd and use that drive to innovate and improve what we thought was already mastered. This group is not your average jazz group. By using modern-day themes and modern pop implements, Joe Benjamin and A Mighty Handful are accomplishing the impossible: making Jazz apply to a younger audience again. I spoke with frontman, Joe Benjamin about his insight of the band.
I would like to start off by saying that you have a great voice! When did you start singing?
Well, I think if you ask any singer who is doing it professionally, they will all tell you that were always singing their whole entire life. I started really singing when I was 7 or 8 years old and I had no idea that I would be a musician someday. When I was eleven I was in a musician theatre production and had a good carrying role. I was working with all these professionals in music theatre who do work like this for a living and I was so inspired that I started taking voice lessons when I was 12.
Wow! That’s great! I heard that you were originally born in Germany and you just went back and did a tour out there. What is the Jazz scene like in Germany?
I wouldn’t be able to really tell you about the Jazz scene from when I was younger because I came out to the US after high school so I didn’t really do much in that area. What I can tell you is what it is like now because we just got back from our tour two weeks ago. It is definitely a very vivid scene. The gigs are better paid and there are more of them. Because Jazz started in America, the scene is so saturated. There is so many musicians playing Jazz all over. In Europe in general, the Jazz festivals are bigger and there is even more opportunities out there than here. Overall, it is there is a very big difference in the scenes from Europe to the US.
Being a musician myself, that is very interesting. Now lets talk about your music. Your song, “That Text” has very modern themes. Who would you say, musically, inspired you?
When I was in college, I realized that there is a lot of falling into old stereotypes and doing the old stuff. In college, I was never the type of guy you fit in with other Jazz musicians because I wanted to be different. I write my own songs and it has never been that traditional, standard, Jazz music. This sometimes made me clash with other students but I didn’t really care for opinions. I just went through with my ideas of music and met wonderful people that jumped on board with it. My inspirations include Ben Folds, Jamie Cullen, and of course Frank Sinatra. Also, a huge inspiration for me was Belle & Sebastian.
Now you also said that you write your own music. What is your process to writing your songs?
The most important thing to writing a song is being inspired. Living and going out and going on crazy trips or something is essential to becoming inspired. Without that element, I would have nothing to write about. I sit down and it always comes to me differently. I usually sit down and write down my lyrical ideas and then add the melody. In my ear I already hear the harmonies that I want to put below the melody to find them on the piano. And then it is different every time from there. Writing a song takes me anywhere between 3-8 months to write and I feel that anyone who says that it takes them a day to write a song is bluffing because music is an art and you can’t rush it.
So you guys just came back from tour in Germany. How long have you had your group?
This group now has been around for two years. It all started started in March or February 2013. But, I’ve been doing this for 6 years now and I’ve had an 18 piece big band from 2009-2012. It was like a traditional big band setting. Probably about 60% of the guys in this group today were actually a part of that project. Working with these guys for many, many years makes us sound that much better and that much tighter. We are a set band and everyone is extremely involved and committed. It is unbelievable because I almost never need subs because everyone always comes back.
What was the best gig that you guys played as a group together?
Haha. That is an easy one! The best gig that we ever played was in my hometown in Germany. It was the second show on the tour and it was unbelievable. The whole show was completely sold out! People were on the streets, filming with their phones; There were people standing on the walls of the doorways and taking pictures; There were people asking for autographs. There was a complete roaring in the room and it was amazing. A lot of people there already knew me from my parents and stuff because it was in my hometown. We were treated just like celebrities. Another great part was the stage. The stage was huge! I was actually able to walk and do me dance moves which I’m not used to in New York. We had this 16 bar rhythm section break and everyone in the audience started singing and knew the words. It was unbelievable! By far the best gig we ever had!
Your style is really interesting and different. How would you describe your style to someone who has never heard your music before?
I say it is a nice mix of different things. I have musical theatre implements in my lyrics. My lyrics are very anecdotal; They start in the beginning of the story and end at the end. They are usually satiric with an underlying political or social theme or moral spread throughout. That seems to be a very musical theatre type trait. My song structure draws a lot from pop. You know, you got the ABABCB type format. I also try to keep the song length from 3:30-4:00 minutes which is also very “poppy”. The drive is very rock implemented and the vocals and harmonies are almost like Freddie Mercury. Then of course our biggest tag that we have is rhythm which is swing. That’s what we are. We swing harder than any band you’ve heard before. That is our forte. There is really a lot in there. This is a take of swing and jazz that you have never heard before.
Do you have any shows or concerts out on the horizon?
Coming up, we have The International Festival of Arts & Ideas on 6/25th, we also have a music video release and show at Rockwood Music Hall on 6/26th. On 7/22 we are opening for the cherry Poppin’ Daddies at the Stamford Jazz up July festival. We are also playing the Zinc Bar on 8/6.
How can people view your work?
You can go to my website (http://www.joe-benjamin.com/) and my Soundcloud (shown below). Stay tuned for our album release in 2016 and our shows coming up!