Ben Comeau is a London-based pianist, composer and organist, active in classical music, jazz and more. He graduated top of his year in music from Cambridge University, UK, where he was organ scholar at Girton College for three years, and he subsequently taught pastiche composition and practical musicianship at the university. He also studied postgraduate jazz piano at Guildhall, London, and in Cologne.
Ahead of him coming to Bradford Cathedral to perform at March’s Earth Hour concert we spoke to him fresh from a break in Amsterdam to find out more about his music, what to expect from his concert, and his thoughts on the importance of music in bringing important issues to the attention of the public.
Could you give us an introduction to yourself?
I used to be a chorister at Truro Cathedral, and grew up surrounded by musicians, and classical music, with Bach as a particular favourite. A focus on music was always a clear path for me. As a teenager I became more interested in other types of music and increasingly jazz, and eventually did an undergraduate academic classical degree at Cambridge University and was the organ scholar at Girton College, which helped me build up lots of connections in the world of Anglican choral music, which is still something I keep in touch with.
I still play the organ but alongside that I’ve been doing different types of music and I did a postgraduate degree in jazz piano at Guildhall, which I completed quite recently, and which included an exchange semester in Cologne, which was amazing.
I’ve got a really hungry appetite for exploring different styles: I play jazz, I play classical piano and organ, and I’m always fascinated by the differences, and similarities, between different styles. For example, there are all sorts of links between Bach and bebop players such as Charlie Parker – but it’s also crucial to acknowledge the differences, not just in the music itself but also the differing cultural contexts where the music has come from.
What attracted you to the style of jazz piano?
Initially I really got into Gershwin, who was my way out of just focusing on classical music. I got interested in a lot of the 1930s pianists like Fats Waller and Art Tatum. They really resonated with me. But what I enjoy more generally now is the capacity to improvise: I love when music can be left up to the spur of the moment. I enjoy that spontaneity in performing. I love classical music so much but I do find it frustrating that there is not a lot of scope to be spontaneous during performances. It’s amazingly refreshing to be able to get on stage and just play the first thing that comes into your mind, even if you’d only thought of it five seconds ago!
Do you enjoy the excitement of discovering where the music can lead you?
Totally yes, and it can go in so many different directions than you might think. Sometimes when I got on stage I’m feeling quite mellow and will play something quiet, but then maybe half-way through the performance my mood will pick up and I’ll suddenly launch into something more upbeat and I didn’t know that was going to happen. It’s also good to be able to bounce off the other musicians as well. Though my concert in Bradford will be solo piano, it’s also incredibly fun to be part of an ensemble, as there might be musicians from very different backgrounds, or who might be feeling very different to you psychologically on the day, but you have to make something work. Something very productive can happen when you’re playing with a musician who has a very different mentality to you, which can be very powerful.
As well as classical music you do adaptations of music by Bjork and Pink Floyd; do you enjoy exploring the mix between classical and more modern styles?
Definitely. I’m interested in everything; I like so many different kinds of music. But I increasingly feel it’s crucial to be aware of where music originally came from, and the stylistic context. When I was younger, as soon as I heard something I liked, even if it was in a style that I knew nothing about, I would try and immediately recreate it on the piano – though sometimes not very well! These days, I play some more off-the-wall music like Bjork but I try to back it up with more detailed research into the style, and I consider how it relates to the classical music and jazz that I’ve formally studied. But I do like exploring beyond that as well. At the moment I’m playing percussion in a samba band, which is a rigorous discipline, and it’s very different from what I’ve done before. It’s been a very good education!
Has percussion been something you’ve played before, or are you learning that as you go?
I did some orchestral percussion in a youth orchestra once but not to a big level, but samba drumming is a totally different discipline. It can be very repetitive, but you have to be very accurate and very precise and if you don’t know the style you don’t necessarily know all the details that are going on, and there’s so much detail. It’s challenging, but very fun.
What can people expect from your concert with us in March?
It’s going be reflect a wide mixture of my influences. I think a lot about the links between classical and jazz music and I’ll be bringing up those links in the concert. I haven’t decided what pieces I’m doing yet but I’ve been working on a lot of my own compositions which really bridge between those styles, and I’ll be playing some of those. I’ll be particularly exploring, through my compositions, the counterpoint that comes a lot from, particularly, Bach, but with more jazz harmonies and rhythms. That’s something I’m interested in, the counterpoint of Bach mixed with the jazz rhythms. I haven’t decided the exact pieces I’m going to play, yet, but I like to take my favourite aspects of classical and jazz and put them together.
You talked about composition and mixing styles. You recently adapted a piece by the White Stripes about Donald Trump?
That was very fun, and a bit of a joke. Again, it does stem from my love of Bach and his counterpoint.
You are playing at our earth hour concert; do you think music has an important place in the big issues of the day whether that’s politics or the environment?
I absolutely do. I’ve been thinking about this question an awful lot, and there are no easy answers, but when you play music it connects to parts of people’s brains that go beyond where conversation would hit. It can really make people connect with the emotions behind an issue, rather than just the facts and figures. I’ve been a passionate environmentalist for quite a long time, before it was as popular as it is now, and it’s amazing to see people talking about the climate a lot more than they were a few years ago. I’ve been taking part in a lot of environmental activism in London with a lot of the protests that have been seen on the news in the last year and music has always made a big difference and unifies people when you’re marching.
Of course the music in the marches is very different to what I will play in Bradford Cathedral; it’s a lot more based on drumming, that’s very repetitive and rhythmic, and quite hypnotic, particular and exciting. I don’t know how it all works; the psychology of music is such an interesting thing and I don’t know how it gets through to people, but from the results you can see it clearly does.
With groups like Extinction Rebellion and the work of Greta Thunberg being more prominent now, as well as the awful fires in Australia, we’re at a turning point now where people are actually sitting up and taking notice about climate change?
I think we are. A lot of politicians are lagging behind on this but I’m hopeful that we’re getting to a turning point, and that ordinary people are taking notice. You only have to look at the news from Australia and how dramatically bad that situation is: as catastrophic as that is, the more people see it, the more we realise what we need to do. And unfortunately we’ve only seen the beginning of the extreme weather – a certain amount of dangerous heating is inevitable at this point – but as the effects become more obvious, hopefully it will be enough to persuade politicians to take the action that’s required to avoid truly apocalyptic scenarios.
Finally what are your plans for the rest of 2020?
I am planning something of a sabbatical, to go travelling and exploring other parts of the world very shortly after the Bradford concert, so I’m not really setting up any big musical projects. I’m more interested in discovering more about the world and myself: I’m hoping to take a trip around the world without flying, and I’m working on the logistics now. I’ll probably be taking the Trans-Siberian railway to East Asia and I will be exploring some of the musical traditions there, and I’m investigating how to get to India via land. I have lots of exciting plans!
The Candle-Lit Concert for Earth Hour with Ben Comeau takes place from 8:30pm on Saturday 28th March 2020 with refreshments from 8pm. Tickets can be booked at the cathedral office, online at https://bradfordcathedral.org/music/earth-hour-candlelit-concert or you can turn up on the night.