Melody-driven, distinctively reflective, and one of the most eclectic jazz outings of the new year, Battle Mountain stands as New York-based saxophonist Ben Flocks’ auspicious debut. In a quintet setting, Flocks traverses over a wide musical terrain with an 11-song collection of lyrical and deep-grooved originals, time-honored standards rendered in fresh arrangements, a twist on the Bob Dylan “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright” pop gem, a re-imagined, romantic version of the Buena Vista Social Club tune “Murmullo,” and sublime and true-to-the-melody renderings of two tunes from the country/folk repertoire: “Shenandoah” and “Tennessee Waltz.”
Firmly grounded in the jazz tradition, Flocks also infuses his music with touches of Americana, country and blues. As such, Battle Mountain—which he says is“dedicated to the wonder and mystery of California”—promises surprises around every bend.
A native Californian who grew up in the towering-redwoods town of Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz Mountains (south of San Francisco, north of Santa Cruz, close to the Pacific Ocean), Flocks was raised on Battle Mountain, which he writes in the album’s liner notes possesses “incredible serenity…juxtaposed with a battle to preserve the unique rural environment.” He adds, “It’s a special place isolated from the hustle and bustle.
Even though that setting inspired the music on Battle Mountain, Flocks has also been informed by his residency in New York, which he calls “the other end of the spectrum.” In the midst of taking advantage of the jazz-performance opportunities afforded him in the San Francisco Bay Area—SFJAZZ, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the Santa Cruz club Kuumbwa Jazz Center—Flocks was selected by Dave Brubeck to be a Brubeck Institute Fellow from 2007-2009 and then moved to New York to attend the New School, where he earned a BFA in Jazz
Performance and leaped into the jazz fray.
Flocks’ move East coincided with all of his jazz-playing friends also settling in New York. The quintet on Battle Mountain is comprised of guitarist Ari Chersky, drummer Evan Hughes, bassist Garret Lang, and keyboardist Sam Reider (the latter a member of the accordion-driven, jazz-fueled, Americana-possessed band The Amigos Band). “We have all been hanging and playing together since we were 15 years old,” Flocks says of his band. “We’re all best friends and we have a deep connection. All the guys have distinct, expressive voices, and we've crafted a personal sound that's influenced by the place where we all grew up.”
Recorded analog to 2-inch tape at Tiny Telephone in San Francisco, Battle Mountain showcases Flocks playing tenor saxophone with a tasteful, never-overbearing radiance. “My favorite thing about the saxophone is that it is so expressive,” he says. “You can make so many different sounds with it. I love Stan Getz and Lester Young who could weep through their horns. I love John Coltrane who could scream like a human voice with his saxophone. I try to sing through my saxophone and express emotion and explore a place where there’s both beauty and turmoil. I enjoy playing lots of different musical styles, but I particularly love ballads and blues.”
The originals on the album include the grooved title track (with chime-like guitar, noodling Rhodes and tenor sax issuing a clarion call); the gently swirling, sunset-colored “Eagle Rock” based on the serenity of the picturesque lookout on Battle Mountain; the R&B-styled groove of “Boardwalk Boogaloo” (a blues-based number inspired by the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk); and the rowdy, joyful, more experimental “Return to Battle Mountain” that closes the album.
The standards feature “Polkadots and Moonbeams,” beautifully delivered with Flocks’ smoky-toned tenor leading the lyrical way, and the slow-and-easy slide through “Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You,” which features Flocks' sultry, blues-tinged sound. One of the highlights of Battle Mountain is the country-rock interpretation of the old Lead Belly tune “Silver City Bound” with a playful tenor sax-accordion interchange.
While a California native at heart, the 24-year-old Flocks has become steeped in the New York music scene. “I’ve been in the city for four years, and it’s been quite a change from the peace and quiet where I grew up,” he says. “Being in New York forces you to live a different lifestyle. But I've learned how to play in many new musical contexts here, and I fortunately have the opportunity to play with musicians from all over the world.”
Flocks adds, “There’s still a lot to learn, but I’ve discovered that I have something new to bring to the table.”
Notable musicians have taken notice of Flocks’ talents. Julian Lage calls his playing “radiating,” while Joshua Redman has called Flocks one of the important new tenor saxophonists on the scene today who “doesn’t dazzle with flurries of notes or overwhelm with a tsunami of technique. But he may yet make some of the widest and longest-lasting waves…he’s diving deep.” Donny McCaslin says that Flocks “plays with a soulfulness and maturity that’s beyond his years,” and Taylor Eigsti notes that in listening to Battle Mountain “one can hear California a mile away.”
West Coast thoroughly meets East Coast in Ben Flocks’ first entry into the recording world as a leader. Expect more to come.
“In a jazz sea positively overflowing with darting and sprinting and flat-out-ferocious young tenor saxophonists, Ben Flocks is one to catch. Ben’s approach is patient, passionate, forthright, kind. He doesn’t dazzle with flurries of notes or overwhelm with a tsunami of technique. But he may yet make some of the widest and longest lasting waves. More importantly, he’s diving deep. Ben’s sound seeks the heart of the matter, the soul of things.”
- Joshua Redman
“Ben Flocks is one of the most talented musicians I’ve met. His organic approach to improvising and creative spirit is truly inspiring. Ben plays with a soulfulness and maturity that’s beyond his years and I’m excited to see him continue to develop his voice.”
- Donny McCaslin
“It’s not every day that a young badass on their instrument makes an album as unpretentious, genuine, melody-driven, and fun to listen to…one can hear California in the album a mile away.”
- Taylor Eigsti
“Your sound and the sound of the band has such a richness to it, and a clear direction and sense of love and respect for each other and the music…really such a joy to listen to, you guys are radiating!”