Ben Powling Photos Maria Alzamora 12 Wall Print Benjamin Craven

Photo Credit: Maria Alzamora

Course Studied: BA Jazz

Year of Graduation: 2013

Top Career Highlights:

  • Undertaking a three week tour of China and India with WorldService Project in the winter of 2018 
  • Being commissioned to write a piece for saxophone and chamber orchestra by Deal Festival of Music & The Arts
  • Curating and releasing To Be Here Now, a vinyl compilation of Leeds jazz created in conjunction with Hyde Park Book Club

Having made an indelible mark on the Leeds jazz scene since his arrival in the city, Ben Powling has been involved with groups such as Vipertime, Mansion of Snakes and Wandering Monster. A champion for the artistic output of the city, Ben released compilation album ‘To Be Here Now’ in collaboration with Jack Simpson (Eiger Studios/Hyde Park Book Club) to celebrate the incredible diversity of music making taking place.

Outside of Leeds, Ben has been performing extensively as a sideman and leader across the UK, Europe and Asia. Ben’s festival appearances include Berlin Jazz Festival, NH7 Festival Pune, International Jazz Festival Saalfelden, Manchester Jazz Festival, The Great Escape, Greenman Festival, Shambala and Boomtown. His music has been featured on BBC 6 Music, BBC Radio 3 and Worldwide FM.

We caught up with Ben to delve a little deeper into his passion for music and learn more about its ability to break down barriers, bring individuals together and facilitate dialogue.

Your music draws on a range of influences, including jazz, punk and music from West Africa. How did your love for each style begin?

My parents played a lot of great music around the house when I was small, such as Louis Jordan, The Clash, Ian Dury & The Blockheads, Studio One ska and reggae, Talking Heads and Tom Waits. This gave me a pretty open mind and sowed the seeds for a lot of my current tastes. The punk they played led me to bands like The Stooges, Dead Kennedys and Gang of Four who are a huge influence on my music now.

Jazz and afrobeat were introduced to me mostly though older musicians I was working with as a teenager. They would lend me CDs, before streaming was an option.

What prompted you to set up the LS6 Jam Session in 2013?

A big part of it was that I had just graduated and had a lot of time on my hands! But also I was playing a lot of weddings and pub gigs at that point and wanted to create a situation in which my friends and I could hang out, play jazz, work on our craft and get some beer money.

Which Leeds-based jam sessions/jazz nights would you recommend to a prospective student?

I’m a bit out of touch at the moment since I’m on the road so much, but the LS6 session is still going strong under new leadership and there are a few different jam nights at Hyde Park Book Club.

Could you tell us a little bit more about the various projects you’re involved in, and the roles within each?

I’m co-leader of Vipertime which is a four-piece of saxophone, bass guitar and two drum kits. Matías Reed and I put the group together and started to write the music when we were listening to a lot of 70s Ethiopian funk, but as we composed that sound began to draw in a lot of post-punk, free jazz and psychedelia. We released our album Shakedown in 2019 and in April 2020 we released our Live At Smugglers Festival EP as a Bandcamp exclusive in aid of the charity Solidaritech.

I’m also one of the leaders of Mansion of Snakes, a band I set up with some friends in 2014. We’re an 11-piece band fronted by singer/percussionist Vanessa Rani playing songs influenced by Nigerian afrobeat pioneers Fela Kuti and Ebo Taylor as well as Talking Heads, Pharaoh Sanders and more.

As well as that I’m a member of Sam Quintana’s contemporary jazz group Wandering Monster and jazz-punk band WorldService Project. It’s an absolute pleasure playing in both those groups as the band leaders are really driven, book us a lot of touring and compose really exciting, challenging music.

Mansion of Snakes has received support from Come Play With Me. How important are collectives such as this to the Leeds music scene?

The UK music scene can only thrive with the efforts and commitment of amazing individuals and institutions like Come Play With Me. Since releasing our single Mating Season on their label, Come Play With Me have continued to go above and beyond doing everything they can to help the group.

What led to the creation of Leeds jazz compilation album ‘To Be Here Now’?

To Be Here Now was born out of hours of open ended conversations about the Leeds jazz scene between me and Jack Simpson, owner of Hyde Park Book Club and Eiger Studios. We loved a lot of the music that was being made but lamented the fact that it was not being documented, so we decided to record and release a compilation of some of our favourite bands on the scene. All the bands recorded at Eiger Studios and we had a launch party at HPBC. We got a lucky break when DJ Lubi (Leeds jazz and world music stalwart) organised for us to speak to Gilles Peterson about the album on his BBC 6 Music UK Jazz Special.

To what extent do you feel that music is a vehicle for social and political activism?

In our current climate I think making exciting, creative music is a political statement in itself but, due to brutal cuts to arts funding, it is one that is harder and harder to make. Music breaks down barriers, brings people together and opens discussions, and that is inherently political. Almost all of the music I love has an aspect of protest music to it and many of my musical heroes were extremely vocal about their politics, such as Joe Strummer, Charles Mingus, Frank Zappa and Archie Shepp.

Clash Magazine recently suggested that Leeds’ jazz underground is breaking boundaries. What makes Leeds such a hotbed for music?

Leeds has had a reputation for a DIY, underground aesthetic for long time and it’s still going strong. I think having a conservatoire and an art school really helps. The comparatively low cost of living in Leeds is also a vital ingredient, meaning that artists and musicians can work less and have more time to work on their craft, put on events, record and collaborate. The fact that every house in the LS6 postcode has a basement to rehearse in doesn’t hurt either.

How has Leeds’ music scene developed since you first arrived in the city? Did the variety of music-making taking place in the city have an impact on your creative approach?

When I first arrived in Leeds there was a lot of really noisy, experimental music being made that had a huge influence on me. Bands like Collider, Trio VD and the LIMA collective totally blew my 18 year old mind and left a real impression. The sounds of Leeds jazz has definitely changed to draw more from hip-hop, funk and afrobeat but the scene is just as fertile as when I arrived nearly 10 years ago.

How does your approach differ in a rehearsal when acting as a leader in comparison to a sideman?

That’s an interesting question. As leader you have a lot of responsibility. This includes tour booking, composing, social media, searching for funding, looking after your musicians. I often feel the duty to have new music and ideas to bring to each rehearsal to keep the musicians interested.

As a side-man you are there to interpret what is given to you. That can be turning the lines and dots handed to you into music, or it could be a much more open and collaborative situation where the band leader gives you ideas and concepts to experiment with. However, you have been chosen because of your voice, so this should be an exciting situation not an intimidating one.

What do you think of the UK’s jazz scene – in terms of its evolution, its distribution and its current trajectory?

The explosion of interest in UK jazz is definitely exciting. There’s a really vibrant, young market opening up for the music and that can only be a good thing. However the press being given to the scene is covering a very narrow field of the music being made. People have called it ‘London-centric’ but I don’t think that is specific enough. The press is celebrating a small part of the London scene that is mostly playing groove based jazz influenced by African and Caribbean music. I love a lot of these bands but there a much broader palette of jazz and improvised music being made in the capital, and so many amazing bands around the North of England and the rest of the UK who are just as deserving of praise and media attention.

You’ve appeared in a number of festivals across the world. What’s been your favourite and why?

It’s hard to say as they’re so varied but one of my favourite gigs was at NH7 Festival Pune in India with WorldService Project. It’s such a thrill to play outdoors to such an enormous crowd of people and it really make me realise that the music in that group is written to be played on big stages.

In complete contrast my favourite festival overall is probably Smugglers Festival in Kent. It’s tiny, maybe around one thousand people, but it’s the most home-grown, intimate, friendly event I’ve ever been part of. Considering its size it punches so far above its weight in terms of bands and books groups from all around Europe, Africa and Asia.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to study Jazz at Leeds Conservatoire?

Be prepared, be on time and be nice. But also make sure you make the most of everything that’s offered to you and look beyond your course to the institution as a whole. A lot of my most long-lasting and fruitful musical relationships have come from working with musicians who were studying on the classical, production and pop courses.

Learn more about Vipertime, Mansion of Snakes, Wandering Monster and WorldService Project

Alternatively, read this in depth interview with Ben in The State of the Arts

Follow Ben on Twitter or Facebook

Discover our BA (Hons) Music (Jazz) undergraduate programme

Find out more about what our successful graduates have been up to in our Alumni Profiles

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RT @LeedsDrama: Great to be in such great company! Thanks for your support😁
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