Ben Cox - no more waiting to sing
Ben Cox has advice for anyone who has ever wanted to sing but hasn’t followed it up: it’s never too late to start.
This may seem oddly worldly coming from a young man who is still in his early twenties but although he’s been making waves on the London jazz scene over the past two or three years as a singer and earning “one to watch” endorsements from observers including Jamie Cullum, the voice is actually Cox’s third instrument.
“My parents were always listening to people like Frank Sinatra, Bob Dylan, Carole King and James Taylor, all people who are now influences on me, especially James Taylor,” says Cox, who grew up in Chelmsford in Essex. “But it wasn’t until after I’d gone through my grades on piano and played trumpet at secondary school that I realised that I really wanted to sing.”
Cox, who plays his first Scottish concerts in his own right in Lyth and Dunfermline on Monday and Tuesday (he’s appeared on the Edinburgh Fringe with a cappella group Vive), learned initially from these records he mentioned, picking up hints about phrasing and song choices. After a while, however, he felt he needed some guidance and so he found a singing teacher and a career that’s currently picking up momentum with the release of his band’s first album, This Waiting Game, was born.
Having added lead singer to his role as trumpeter with the Essex Youth Jazz Orchestra, he applied successfully to the Guildhall School of Music in London’s jazz course and took singing as his first study. He still plays piano – he composes much of his own material at the keyboard – but notes that his trumpet playing, having become neglected, is in need of some attention.
At the Guildhall he fell in with like-minded souls including Emily Dankworth, grand-daughter of jazz singing dame, Cleo Laine, and pianist Jamie Safiruddin, who was in the year above Cox and has become a crucial force in Cox’s music as his musical director and arranger. It was with Dankworth and four other Guildhall students that Cox formed Vive (pronounced to rhyme with five) and shared a musical adventure that included appearances on BBC TV’s The One Show and BBC Radio 3’s The Choir with Aled Jones and Clare Wheeler.
“Vive was a fantastic experience,” he says. “Rehearsals were always very full-on but they had to be, really, because when you sing a cappella there’s no place to hide. You feel very exposed but I learned so much in those three years. It’s all to do with tuning, of course, but also getting the blend of voices right. We did a lot of touring and we had a good run but eventually we all had our own things that we wanted to do. I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world, though.”
By the time Vive’s run came to an end Cox and Safiruddin had formed a quartet with bassist Flo Moore and drummer Will Glaser. They were all friends at the Guildhall and the four of them being able to grow together as a band while students has been significant in Cox’s own development.
“Having a settled line-up to work with is a real help,” he says. “And the fact that we all get on as friends and just know each other very well as people has enabled us to work together better. It’s my name on the band but there’s a real rapport between us and especially with Jamie. He and I can show each other things we’ve been working on separately and give each other very constructive criticism and know that we can trust each other’s judgement.”
This Waiting Game, which was released in April, was produced by another musician who has been very encouraging to Cox, singer and pianist Ian Shaw, and while Cox is pleased with the results he and Safiruddin are already forging ahead with new ideas for both their own songs and interpretations of pop hits that take quite a radically different approach to the originals.
“Jamie and I bonded at college over our shared love of the album Tony Bennett made with Bill Evans,” says Cox. “For a pianist-vocalist partnership that was a heavy influence and it’s still the level that we’d like to reach, although we’ve moved on from it in terms of repertoire. Jamie and I both write – mostly on our own, we’ve only actually co-written one song – but we also like to give audiences songs that they’ll know, if in a different form. We did And I Love Her on the album and we’ve been working recently on Everybody Wants to Change the World. That’s a really interesting song and I’ve heard it being done differently before. So we wanted to see where we could take it. We’ll probably try it out on tour and see what people think.”
From The Herald, September 24, 2015.