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Ben Patton's Latest Album Is a Pop-Jazz Throwback


Published October 30, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Ben Patton - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Ben Patton

Ben Patton is an old soul. Clad in trousers and a fine shirt, the singer-songwriter has a dapper appearance and genteel, deliberated cadence reminiscent of a bygone time and place. He almost comes off like a character from a golden-era Hollywood drama. His eloquence is matched only by his humbleness. The 36-year-old composer and multi-instrumentalist probably doesn't think of himself as the musical genius he is.

Over nearly two decades, the Vermont native has written and recorded a series of left-of-center pop-rock albums. Much of his work recalls the bouncy Britpop boom of the 1990s and, by extension, the British Invasion of the 1960s that introduced Americans to the likes of Herman's Hermits, the Zombies and, of course, the Beatles. In past reviews of his albums, more than one Seven Days music scribe has likened Patton's sound to that of the Fab Four. He'll perform a short set of such material on Thursday, November 7, at Lake Champlain Access Television in Colchester.

But Patton's latest album, a partnership with Indonesian singer Michelle Sudarsano called Our Follies, departs from the off-kilter style for which he's mainly known. The pair presents a collection of pitch-perfect pop-jazz pastiches. Largely sourced from a musical revue Patton wrote in the early 2000s, the album's 13 tracks are nearly indiscernible from the works of legendary songwriters such as Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and George and Ira Gershwin. Our Follies confirms that Patton is a debonair talent with a wide range.

"I've always loved writers of that era and to borrow their idiom," he says.

Patton grew up in Bakersfield and was largely homeschooled.

"I was utterly miserable in [public] school," he recalls, noting that he was a "weird kid before it was fashionable to be a weird kid."

Creative influences, such as old movie musicals and classic rock and roll, arrived early in Patton's life. His father, Will Patton, is a well-regarded local instrumentalist primarily known for playing hot club jazz.

Ben Patton says he has "managed to squeak by in life" without ever having had a "real job," meaning that he's only ever worked as a musician and recording professional. A world traveler, he's lived in Boston and New York City as well as abroad in places such as Germany and the Philippines. At an early point in his career, he happened to encounter former tech entrepreneur and musician Jaye Muller and former Beach Boys manager Jack Rieley. They stumbled upon Patton performing at a Brattleboro farmers market in 2002.

"Jack and I were amazed at his talent," Muller writes of Patton via email. (Rieley died in 2015.) "I was hooked at that point."

The two eventually formed a duo known as Muller & Patton and released six studio records and one live album. Concurrently, Patton has released a slew of his own work — Our Follies is his ninth studio album.

From 2007 through 2011, Patton and Muller were living in the Philippines and working for Bigfoot Entertainment. (Muller still lives there.) They primarily composed and recorded music for TV and film while also writing and selling pop songs. During this time, they encountered Sudarsano, then a rising vocalist.

"She's my favorite singer," Patton says of the Jakarta-based artist.

Patton imagined Our Follies as a cast album for a show that never quite existed. A host of instrumentalists brings the lavish showstoppers to life, including a few noteworthy locals: pianist Tom Cleary, drummer Caleb Bronz and saxophonist Joe Moore, as well as Patton's clarinetist sister, Anna, and his father on bass. Due to logistical complications, the album's instrumentals were recorded piecemeal. Some tracks were even culled from the project's original demos.

But, rather than assemble a full ensemble of vocalists to play the album's many "characters," Patton decided he and Sudarsano would be the only singers.

"I tried to create characters based on his songs," Sudarsano says by phone. "It was fun for me to kind of try to pretend I was that kind of person."

Though it has no formal story line, the album winks at various tropes associated with musicals of the early jazz era. For example, "Our Overture" does what an overture should: introduce the musical themes of what follows. But the very inclusion of an overture here is a bit cheeky, since most neo-pop-jazz albums don't begin that way.

Two subsequent cuts overtly reference the album's spiritual source material. "Take Her to Hear Some Jazz" is a brush-shuffle, bass-tickled duet about the genre itself. "If They'd Had Flappers (Back in Shakespeare's Day)" prominently incorporates scat singing, which is practically compulsory in vocal jazz. The song is about one of the most famous wordsmiths of all time, yet most of the lyrics are gibberish. Is it meta commentary, or is Patton simply staying true to the blueprints laid out decades earlier by the Gershwins, et al.? Frankly, it's both.

"It was important to me to not be parodying that music," says Patton. "[But] there are formulas. Once you get a feel for the rules, it's easy to write in that style."

The "rules," which Patton studies by examining the minutiae of old music, emerge on the album in different ways. For instance, the interplay between vocals and instrumentals, such as the playful, dawdling piano line that traipses behind the vocals like a call-and-response on "It Doesn't Look So Good," is common for old jazz standards.

Our Follies "is neither homage nor mimicry," according to Muller. "These songs have a nostalgic character but also a distinctive, modern feel," he says. "They're an extension of the music that Ben loves."

"Abra Cadabra Presto," a saucy Sudarsano-led number, addresses listeners as if they were part of an audience. It recalls feisty, upbeat songs sung by young ingénues —think Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box Girls in Guys and Dolls.

The vocalist shows her versatility on the following track, the tightly harmonized "Underneath the Lilac Tree." Brash and boisterous on "Abra Cadabra Presto," here the singer transitions into a milder, more subdued version of herself.

Sudarsano says she imagines the song sung by a more innocent woman who "probably got married to her first love." She adds that Patton allows her the creative freedom to explore the characters he creates.

Patton is as shy as he is prolific. If Our Follies were to one day make it to the stage, the composer would not be the star.

"I think I would be terrified," he says. "I'm not an actor. I have stage fright just as a singer-songwriter."

That's perhaps why he's remained under the radar since returning to Vermont and settling in Burlington in 2016. He's made scant live appearances locally, despite having released three studio records and a live album in that time. But things could be changing.

"Since coming to Burlington, I feel like I'm in a new phase," Patton says, admitting that he's experienced depression as well as a perpetual struggle to find his place in various music communities and scenes in the places he's lived.

Our Follies may never get the live staging it deserves. But Patton and Sudarsano, along with a talented orchestra, create such a vivid world that listeners should be able to dress the sets, hang the lights and sew the costumes in their imaginations.

Correction: October 31, 2019: An earlier version of this story miscounted the number of releases from Muller & Patton. They released six studio records and one live album.

The original print version of this article was headlined "He's Got Rhythm | Ben Patton's latest album, Our Follies, is a pop-jazz throwback"