34-year-old composer, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist Ben Cockerham is this generation’s new breed of musician-as-entrepreneur. By 30, he had sold his music tech start-up to Google, while passionately producing and performing his own brand of Americana, rock, and jazz, heading up groups out of Brooklyn.
Texas born, Cockerham carried on his parents’ tradition of earning a Bachelor’s from Baylor University in music composition, having grown up playing piano and singing in church. His lineage dates back generations on his mother’s side to Wales, and to his father’s deep English roots via Appalachia. With musical influences as far ranging as Duke Ellington to Funkadelic, Miles Davis to Talking Heads, the young Cockerham went on to earn a graduate degree from New York University’s Music Business (MUBG-MA) – Master of Arts Program, completing half of his course work at the Stern School (the entrepreneur in him) and the other half at the Steinhardt School (the musician side), uniting his interests.
While at NYU from 2004-2006, Cockerham began establishing himself as a composer for film, television, and video games while also taking an entry-level job at digital music service eMusic, and forming his indie rock band Sublunar Minds with co-founder and trumpet/harmonica player (and key grip for major music videos and film), Frank Vigilante. Cockerham fronts the band on vocals and guitar, delivering a style that crystallized once he was enlightened to what would become one of his all time favorite bands, the ’90s alternative rock group Soul Coughing. One listen to Sublunar Minds’ 2009 LP Get Hit in Your Soul, and 2012 EP The Last of the Natural Light, and you’ll hear its funky, simple, and catchy groove contrast beautifully against an abstract almost avant-garde soundscape, woven with inflections of bizarre and often non-sensical lyrical phrases.
Meanwhile, in 2007 (and two “day” jobs later), Cockerham and fellow employee, longtime colleague Patrick Sullivan, founded RighstFlow, parlaying their first-hand knowledge for simplifying the complex process of copyright compliance for amateur musicians, i.e., creating a legitimate way to record and release cover tunes. Cockerham was familiar with the process, from years spent emulating and performing works of composers on a spectrum spanning the Great American Songbook to those of instrumental virtuosos like the British guitar god Allan Holdsworth. Cockerham says, “To me Holdsworth is up there with Louis Armstrong, Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker in terms of transcending the improvisational style of their contemporaries.” Cockerham’s coupling of his interests was a win-win: in 2011 Google acquired RightsFlow in order to streamline music royalties processes for its YouTube platform.
Always the experimenter, that same year, Cockerham formed singer-songwriter folk-pop duo, The New Benjamin Britton with fellow Texan and Baylor alum Britton Matthews–a classically trained percussionist who handles vibes and marimba while Cockerham sings lead and plays guitar and bass on his Novax 8-string guitar, the same model created for the jazz funk guitarist Charlie Hunter. Their all-original 8-song album Raise A Glass Broken Land arrived in 2013 following a U.S. tour. With a healthy dose of the unconventional, the couple merges their vocals in beautiful harmony and the evocative percussive elements elevate it to uplifting and fun.
But as a bandleader, Duke Ellington is one of his all time musical heroes, as is the formidable trumpeter Miles Davis. It was Davis’ Miles Ahead opening track, “Springsville” that bred the primary inspiration for Cockerham’s jazz ensemble, Savoy in Color: a large horn ensemble, playing lush and dissonant harmony, with support only from bass and drums, and space. That’s the essence of Savoy In Color’s 2013 EP The World You’re in Is Perfect, with its instrumental jazz tracks reminiscent of the Gil Evans-Miles Davis collaborations that harken back to the 1950s & ’60s–offering five Cockerham originals plus his arrangement of Vernon Duke’s classic, “Autumn in New York,” which he considers one of the most beautiful standards of all time, adding that “Jazz doesn’t belong to any one destination, but the combination of these harmonies and NYC feels so perfectly suited to the genre.” Top it off with 2015’s follow-up live EP Hear Today Then, recorded Live at Zeb’s Place in NYC, with producer-engineer Saul Rubin, with Cockerham contributing on piano and Matthews on vibes…offering three more originals and a new arrangement of Cole Porter’s “Night and Day.” You’ll want to play it on your hi-fi.
* Get Hit in Your Soul – CD – 2009
* The Last of the Natural Light (EP) – CD – 2012
The New Benjamin Britton
* Raise A Glass Broken Land – CD – 2013
Savoy In Color
* The World You’re In Is Perfect (EP) – CD – 2013
* Hear Today Then (EP) – digital – 2015