"a musician who puts emotion ahead of licks..."– Jazzwize Magazine (UK)
Musicians generally strive to maintain a balance between studied skill and natural instinct. Ben Castle intuitively combines both; indeed, the British-born, Dublin-resident is as reflexive a musician as you can imagine.
A noteworthy clarinet and saxophone player by the time he was nine years of age, by 13, Ben had achieved distinction in his Grade 8 clarinet exam. Within two years, he had joined the National Youth Jazz Orchestra. At 17 he left school, and within a year enrolled in the one-year Post-Graduate Jazz Course at London’s Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
You could say that such creative skills and reflexes were in the blood. The youngest son of Roy Castle (one of Britain’s best loved television personalities), Ben soaked up the atmosphere that filled his family home.
“There was always music around the house,” he recalls. “My dad was very much into the classic crooners and jazz trumpet players. My brother was into early Genesis, which got me into the rock side of things. Then I saw The Police on the telly, and Madness, and then I became completely obsessed with Deep Purple”.
A switch flicked on, when, at the age of 13, his father took him to see drummer Buddy Rich at London’s famous jazz venue, Ronnie Scott’s. “The drumming was obviously amazing, but it was when I heard sax player Steve Marcus, who was in Buddy’s band, that I knew music was something I had to do.”
Lessons came from some of the UK’s top jazz musicians, including saxophonists Stan Sulzmann, Jean Toussaint, Dave O’Higgins and Iain Dixon and trumpet player Paul Eshelby. “Paul was incredibly important to my development as a musician. He gave me lessons in ‘ear training’, which meant that I could listen to something, cut out the usual thinking process, and just play it. He taught me the definition of instinct – playing something that’s as natural as breathing.”
Defining his career as having progressed solely through word of mouth, Ben took his dad’s advice (to find what you’re good at and do it well without getting side tracked) and soon graduated from being a jobbing musician to working with an enviable who’s-who list of songwriters and musicians from the jazz and pop/rock worlds. These included Gregory Porter, Radiohead, Blur, Stan Tracey, Amy Winehouse, Quincy Jones, Matthew Herbert, Marlena Shaw, Paloma Faith, George Michael, Grace Jones, Lianne La Havas, Sting, John Dankworth, Cleo Laine, Jools Holland, Boy George, Jamie Cullum and Dizzee Rascal.
By this point, Ben had won the Rising Star accolade at British Jazz Awards, 2001 – as well as earning nominations in the BBC Jazz Awards 2002 and 2003. Something else had filtered its way into his life, too: composing original music. In 2003, he came first in the jazz category of the International Songwriting Competition, judged by Pat Metheny.
Whilst Ben courts the unexpected in his music, his methodology doesn't extend to blinding people with an overpowering display of out-there inventiveness. He’s not embarrassed to wear influences on his sleeve if they’re not too flagrant, and is far more interested in making a connection with the audience. As the prestigious UK magazine Jazzwise notes, he’s ‘a musician who puts emotion ahead of licks.’
As a musician and composer, Ben is open to various creative voices having different conversations in his head. He is fully aware of his own identity, but being an in-demand session player and writer he also has to adapt. This is something he’s fine with.
“With my own stuff, I have an approach, and a sound, but I love so many different types of music, so there are many sides to my musicality. What’s interesting about collaborating is that other people’s enthusiasm really rubs off on me, so while I might be working with someone whose musical tastes are dissimilar to my own, when I’m around them, and I see how passionate they are about it, I start to hear the music through their ears and begin to love it.”
With jazz touchstones such as Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Raymond Scott, Weather Report, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke and his openness to all forms of music, Ben’s primary characteristics as a musician include a sense of humour and a surprise element with regards to contrasting styles.
This is evident in his solo recordings but particularly on the latest offering ‘Over The Moon’ EP from his new band, The Tombola Theory. Ben formed The Tombola Theory as a tribute to Tommy ‘Tootle’ Truman, a school janitor who played clarinet in a Trad Jazz band in his local pub every Wednesday night for nearly 23 years. Jamie Cullum succinctly described their style as ‘Punk Trad’. (Their follow up album is planned for release later this year)
As well as writing music and songs for his own projects, Ben has written for theatre, TV, film, adverts and other artists. In 2009, he co-wrote the song ‘Wrapped Around Your Little Finger’ with Beth Rowley for the Oscar nominated film ‘An Education’. Ben also co-wrote Rowley’s 2008 album ‘Little Dreamer’, which debuted at #6 in the UK Charts. Other recent projects include songwriting with Duke Special, Carleen Anderson and Clare Teal, and co-writing with Soundtree Music for the 2015 ‘Lurpak Freestyle’ advertisement, which won all sorts of awards, including the BTAA Craft Award.
Self-possessed and accomplished studio work is one thing, of course, but the real measure of Ben Castle is in a live setting. Drawing people into your world, he says, is of paramount importance. As is engaging with the audience.
“That’s tricky,” he reasons, “because you don’t want to veer into cabaret. I want to make that connection with people, and it’s good to have them on your side. You need to hook them without compromising the music or patronising anyone.”