The titletrack to Ben Sidran's new album "Picture Him Happy"
For veteran recording artists like Ben Sidran, making a new album in today's contracted music business climate has essentially come down to doing what you do.
"In a way, it's a verry reaffirming thing," says the celebrated jazz singer-songwriter/keyboardist, who lives in Madison, Wis., where he first gained notice in the Ardells--the early 1960s blues-rock band formed by Steve Miller that also starred another fellow University of Wisconsin student, Boz Skaggs.
"It gets you back to your first principles," explains Sidran, who also played in the Steve Miller Band and co-wrote its hit "Space Cowboy." "You make the record because that's what you do. It's like the whole situation today strips away all pretense and artifice. So for those of us who have been doing it a long time, it focuses the lens on who we are and why we're still doing it. Besides, I'm totally unemployable!"
So he's released his latest album, Picture Him Happy, on the Nardis Music jazz label (named for the title of a Miles Davis tune--and "Sidran" spelled backwards) that he formed in 2003 with son Leo--himself a notable musician-composer-producer, who co-produced the Oscar-winning song "Al Otro Lado Del Rio" for the soundtrack to The Motorcycle Diaries.
"We've been putting out our own records and a lot of stuff over the years—including a killer record [Original, 2004] from [late James Brown drummer and longtime Madison resident] Clyde Stubblefield, and keep going through the motions—because that's what you do: We have a radio promotion guy who does a great job—but I don’t' even know what radio means anymore. Seriously! But it gets us out there to radio stations, and if we sell a few thousand, for us and other people in my situation, that's a victory."
Any other "so-called label," Sidran continues, "wouldn't be able to do that much more than I'm able to, which is kind of funny when you think about it: I would sell 5,000 records and someone else would sell 50,000, and I'd feel like I wasn't doing my job, and now we're all selling 5,000 and I'm doing the same job!"
In making Picture Him Happy, "I was definitely on to something," says Sidran.
"Something was in the air! The first song I wrote, 'Picture I'm Happy (Sisyphus Goes to Work),' comes from existential philosophy: Sisyphus is pushing the rock up the hill and you have to picture him happy, even though he never gets to the top. But he finds a way to happiness, and it's a perfect metaphor for what we're all going through.
"Then I wrote 'I Might be Wrong,' and found myself on a track with the philosophy thing again. I wrote a tune for [the late jazz great] Mose Allison a year ago, 'Too Much Too Late,' when Trump wasn't in the picture that much and Mose was still with us, but there was definitely something in the air and by the end of summer Trump was the candidate and Mose was critical. 'Another Old Bull' turned out to be about Donald Trump—guys like that with nothing to do but insert themselves into the cultue and f**k it up."
"So I was definitely onto something--but basically just writing songs and doing my thing," says Sidran, whose last album Blue Camus came out two years ago.
Picture Him Happy also includes two other Mose Allison tributes in "Big Brother," one of the first songs written by Allison, and "Was," one of the last. And "Too Much Too Late" also quotes a few of the things that Allison said to Sidran during their friendship of over 40 years.
Another Sidran original, "Thank God for the F Train," reflects his stay in Brooklyn while recording Picture Him Happy at his son's studio. Leo produced the album and played drums in the session band also including bassist Will Lee, guitarist Will Bernard, saxophonist John Ellis, percussionist Moses Patrou, backing vocalist Trixie Waterbed, and Sidran, of course, on piano and vocals.
"I took the 'F' to the city and back, and it's about all the things that are cool about going underground and mentions the place in Red Hook where I get key lime pies--and I got an email saying come by for one the next time I'm there. That's a real victory!"
Sidran "workshopped" the songs on Picture Him Happy last year during his annual Tuesday night summer residency at Madison's Cardinal Bar. He then went with a casual production approach, "setting up in a room in Leo's studio and singing and playing without earphones—and it worked, and we did the record in three days. Everybody just showed up and knew what the tunes were and the charts, and that was it. It was old school—but not really old school because we would have suffered more! But in the last 45 years we've all learned how to make records."
Sidran actually has a Picture Him Happy website dedicated to the new album. His Ben Sidran site, meanwhile, is "kicking," he says, noting that it contains "all this history" relating to such recently departed friends as Allison, Stubblefield and producer Tommy LiPuma.
"It's been a really tough year," he says, also citing the last election. "A combination of things. A perfect storm."
It makes him look back to another era of "challenging times," and a forthcoming conference in Madison examining it.
"In June, 2018, some of us are having a '60s reunion in Madison," he says. "We're taking over the [University of Wisconsin-Madison] Memorial Union for three days and staging a conference on film, music and politics."
Other participants, Sidran says, will include Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, who was a student activist at the University in the '60s, and the University's former chancellor John Wiley, who was a graduate student in physics there at the time.
"The idea is to make these connections that we're all feeling and talking about, and see if there's something back then that was left undone that we can get back to and start working on again."