This last Tuesday, July 16th, I had the good fortune to meet up with my fellow musician and baker, Ben Syversen. Ben is a wonderful and versatile trumpet player. He leads Cracked Vessel, a kick ass instrumental band that straddles the labels of improvised music, jazz, and rock. Ben also plays Balkan brass music with Raya Brass Band, and wears many other hats as a freelance trumpet player.
Ben is also a great baker in his (limited) spare time. We met at Barbes, a bar and music venue in Park Slope, to drink some beer and talk about bread making and band leading. Ben’s bread recipe is included at the end of our conversation. I’ve edited the interview for clarity, btw, not a direct transcript.
Avi Fox-Rosen: So let’s start with the important stuff. You bake?
Ben Syversen: Yes! I like to bake bread particularly. I had a college housemate whose dad was a crazy Russian emigre who baked bread. My housemate’s dad sat me down and taught me his bread recipe.
AFR: Was this a Russian black bread? Pumpernickel ?
Ben: It wasn’t a Russian black, just a very basic guide to bread. “You use about this much flour, to this much water. And use about half bread four.” Nothing too specific, but just an accessible way to think about making bread. He liked to put tea in his bread, and for a long time I used tea instead of water also, but now I’ve gone back to water. Lately, I’ve been working with the no knead recipe. It’s great because the texture and crust come out great, but the recipe is also very malleable. With bread making I like the things that are looser, with room to be flexible and creative.
AFR: Why do you make your own bread?
Ben: I like knowing what I’m eating, I like knowing what I’m putting in the things I consume. And the no knead recipe is really easy, and the quality is the best that I’ve come across, particularly with regards to texture and the consistency of the crust. I’ve found the no-knead technique to be as good as or better than most bakery bread.. These days I make a no-knead thing with a mixture of about 1/2 white flour, with whole wheat flour, oat meal, corn meal, and steel cut oats for texture. I met a baker, a friend of Matthew Fass who leads Raya, who has a bakery upstate. And he makes a great bread, where he cooks the oatmeal before adding it to his dough. It gave it a great creamy texture.
AFR: Right – and often vegans will use oats as an egg substitute, since oats bind other ingredients together and lend a creaminess.
Ben: I find that in my recipe if I let the oats sit all night, but don’t precook them like Matthew’s friend, I get a little bit of that creaminess, but the steel cut oats keep their hearty texture, and the corn meal also adds bite.
AFR: Baking is great. Ain’t it? But you don’t stay up late at night obsessing about bread I’m assuming… perhaps wrongly. Tell me about the band you lead.
Ben: My group is a trio with trumpet, guitar and drums, called Cracked Vessel. It’s always hard for me to describe – but the music has a lot of improvisation in it. The players in the band come from much more of a rock background, though obviously they’re pretty open to many different influences. The drummer’s name is Jeremy Gustin. The guitar player is Xander Naylor. Neither of them come from a super straight “jazz” background. They have some university training in jazz, but they’re not really jazz players, per se. And the sound of the band exploits their uniqueness as players – players who have some jazz language, but have a rock feel. There are moments where it’s really grooving, and there are moments where the music is very out of time.
AFR: How did you come together? And what is your process for working up music?
Ben: I’ve led a trumpet, guitar, and drums trio for a while, starting when I lived in Boston. But the guitar player in that band had issues with repetitive stress injuries in his hands from playing… and now he bakes bread! So he left, but then I found Xander. We shared a bill a few years back. And then Jeremy actually lived with my old guitar player, Dave. Jeremy has a band called The Rex Complex, a great rock band, and that seemed like a sound that would work for what I’m trying to do.
AFR: Let’s talk about the choice to lead a band without a bassist. You lead a bass-less trio, and I also lead a bass-less rock band that’s much more on the pop wavelength. We work in different musical contexts, but we’ve made the same aesthetic choice to avoid the obvious anchor. So – why no bass ?
Ben: There’s definitely more flexibility without a devoted bassist. Someone can play the bass function… or not! And the lack of a bass player makes for a creative limitation. If I had a band with more conventional instrumentation, I might be more likely to fall into more conventional writing patterns. So this automatically forces me out of that, because I can’t rely on things that might work in another setting. I think it’s a good creative restraint.
AFR: In a jazz context, if you had a bass player and wrote within expected forms, you might bring a melody with a chord chart. But without a bass, and with different structures, do you score things more thoroughly for your guitar player, to guide him a specific direction?
Ben: Actually – I score less thoroughly! In this band there only a few tunes that have chord changes. And even those tunes will feature standard chord motion for only specific sections of the songs. The thing I’m trying to do with this band is to create a music that has the viscerality of rock, meaning it has an emotional accessibility, while still experimenting with musical forms and the role of different instruments in the band. So things can go a lot of different ways, and I try to maintain an “anything is possible” mentality in what we do. Sometimes I’ll have scored counterpoint written between me and the guitar. Or sometimes I’ll have just one unison line, but the instruction is “play this, or don’t depending on what’s most interesting.” We have a tune we’ve been working on lately where the written material is just one unison line. But I will play the melody in one tempo, and then the drums and guitar choose an unrelated tempo to play the same melody, tagging along after me. And eventually we’ll meet back up. A lot of the process for this band has been coming up with weird interesting musical problems and finding ways to get around them. One thing I really like about Jeremy, our drummer, is he has a great ear for what feels good.
AFR: What feels good? Say more about that.
Ben: He’s pretty attuned to when something might go into the realm of self indulgence, or inaccessibility. I’ve brought in open vamps or grooves that will have some metrical quirk to them. And Jeremy will often say, “I get this, but we can’t do this for too long… because it won’t settle into anything.” So where I’m trying to pose intellectual musical questions, Jeremy brings the ear of the listener to ensure it will hold someone’s attention. I’m the only writer in this band, but there is a strong group process for arrangement.
AFR: What about Xander’s playing? What do you like about how he approaches the guitar?
Ben: When we first me, Xander and I played a couple times just as a duo. He has a great textural approach, and he’s not a coming from a bebop line-oriented place. And I really like that. When we first started playing together, he tried the line oriented approach with me, and I told him to avoid playing lines, and go in a different direction. Now we’ve been playing together for 2 or 3 years, and he’s settled into a role where he keeps a strong sense of color and space.
AFR: A guitar player who leaves space!
Ben: He actually likes to push that! Jeremy tends to want to give the listener what they want, but Xander, when given the opportunity, will push silences almost to the point of discomfort. So between the two of them, there’s a really interesting push and pull. Hopefully you won’t get bored, and you won’t always be given what you expect. Jeremy + Xander are good friends, and they both play in The Rex Complex together. And they have a very silly personal rapport, and that can come out in the music. I can come across as a serious dude, so having these 2 guys who are really playful brings some levity musically and personally.
AFR: So you have rock musicians playing with you, but you’re playing trumpet as a lead voice in this group, and pushing forms and improvisation. You’re straddling a few different boundaries. Do you think of yourself as a rock musician in this context ?
Ben: That’s interesting… usually people ask if i think of myself as a jazz musician! But I don’t know. We went to France on tour last summer, and we played a festival in northern France, kind of a hippy festival. I often worry that people won’t “get” my music, but we played at this little hippy festival with a bunch of 18 year old kids from England and France, and they were totally into it! They were cheering, trying to get Xander to take his shirt off! That was the first taste where we really thought, “oh! we’re kind of a rock band!” In this totally weird way. The folks there came up to us and were referencing other bands they thought we sounded like, “Oh Yes! Mr Bungle!” Which is not exactly what we’re doing, but there’s a similar energy. And it was cool that they saw that. But as for your question, am I a rock musician, is this a rock band… I don’t know. It’s hard to pin down. I want to put us forward as a rock band, but I have lingering reservations. Is that really what we are? So I’ve been a little hesitant to put ourselves forward that way. But it kinda is… It’s rockin music.
As promised – Ben Syversen’s Bread Recipe:
Ben writes: “The amounts are somewhat approximate, as I usually use just a full and half cup measure and combine several grains in one 1/2 cup measure depending on what I feel like that day, but here is an approximation of what I do, adapted fromhttp://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/08/dining/081mrex.html?_r=1&ref=dining
1 3/4 cups bread flour
1/4 cup corn meal
1/4 cup oatmeal
approx. 1/8 cup steel cut oats
5/8 cup whole wheat flour (just measure 1/2 cup, then when use a 1/4 cup measure to portion roughly evenly between steel cut oats and the remainder wheat flour)
1 1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp standard (not rapid rise) packaged dry yeast (Fleishman’s, Red Star etc)
~1 1/2 cups room temperature water
1. Combine ingredients in a large bowl and mix with your hands. Depending on seasonal changes in humidity, you may need more or less water, but the recipe is very forgiving in this respect. The dough should be quite wet…when you are first mixing it, you will find that it is dangerously close to being very thick batter. This is ok, as the harder grains like oatmeal will absorb some of the water while it is rising. Your hands will be messy. The messiness makes it fun, right?!?
2. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let dough rest for 12 to 18 hours. If it is cold in your house, find a relatively warm location for it.
3. The dough should be considerably larger and show small bubbles on its surface. Squeeze the dough out with your hands and let it rest for an additional fifteen minutes.
4. Using plenty of flour, form the dough roughly into a ball with your hands, and place seam side down on a floured mat. I use a silicone baking mat but a lint free dish towel and a generous amount of flour will work too as long as your dough is not too wet (in which case it could stick to the cloth. Some people like fabric as an ingredient in their bread but I prefer mine without). Cover the dough with a dish towel and let rise for two hours or until roughly doubled in size.
5. While the dough is rising, half an hour before it is ready, put a 6-8 quart heavy covered pot (cast iron or ceramic stock pot works well) into the oven, preheating to 450 degrees. When the dough is ready the fun begins. Remove the pot from the oven (and take the lid off!). Then, carefully, with surgical precision, lift the mat with the dough and flip it over into the pot. You only get one shot at this part so don’t fuck it up. It’s ok if the thing looks kind of messy, as long as all of the dough makes it into the pot. Shake the pot from side to side a little if necessary to get the dough vaguely centered, then replace the lid and put the whole thing back in the oven.
6. Cook for 30 minutes, remove the lid, then bake for an additional 15 minutes, until browned and the bread makes a nice hollow sound when you tap it. Let cool in some elevated fashion…a wire rack is great if you have it.
Variations are endless: experiment with other grains (as long as you keep the bread flour to roughly half of the total flour), adding fruit such as raisins, etc. Some fruits may be best added after the overnight rise, others before, it depends on how mushy you want them to be.”
Well folks, that’s it for this installment. Check out Cracked Vessel, click through and listen. It’s awesome. Try Ben’s bread recipe and let me know what you think!
Til next time – signing off. Coming soon – mixed tracks from my band DoubleDouble’s debut demo, and notes on the mix process. And after that – a great indie rock musician with a killin mac and cheese recipe. And after that, one of my favorite recording engineers and producers in New York, with his take on bread and classic compressors. Because those are totally a part of the same conversation…. Thanks for reading, and happy summer!