Benji Kaplan is a guitarist, singer, composer, and arranger. Born in New York to a Cuban father of Russian-Jewish ancestry and an Austrian mother, Benji’s musical tastes reflect—and amplify—his multiethnic lineage. His early interest in Afro-Cuban jazz grew into a deep fascination with a vibrant range of Brazilian musical styles. He began composing and writing lyrics in Portuguese while a university student in New York City. His musical influences include jazz greats like Wes Montgomery, Sonny Rollins, and Lester Young, as well as Brazilian legends such as Tom Jobim and Chico Buarque. In the last 10 years, Benji has released three albums of solo and ensemble works.
Brent: Thanks for talking with me, Benji. You are a true musical master—you play guitar, sing in multiple languages, compose your own works, and play both solo and with an ensemble. Does your learning process differ depending on the nature of the piece?
Benji: Well, for me, the process varies not necessarily based on whether they are vocal or instrumental; each song is, in and of itself, a unique case. Often times, if it’s a vocal piece, I will learn the lyrics first. I will make sure I have them well memorized, and that I understand them and my relationship to them (which can change moment to moment, as we can always see new things). Then, I will get inside the melody and the pronunciation of the words, sounds, dynamics, phrasing, vowels, consonants etc. Then, I will often start to learn the harmony, chords, and such with my guitar. Now I can put it together.
Brent: You do exactly what actors do to internalize their lines, which is to explore their character’s identity, emotional and psychological range, and backstory. In your case, each song is a character. What comes next?
Benji: There can even be a further step, which is to make the song my own, make it personal. This is where I begin to look for new colors, interpretations, sounds from playing through the basic chord structure enough times that I can begin to alter some harmony, do something that feels more personal to me to back my voice and sound.
Brent: Beautiful! Does anything change when you sing in another language?
Benji: The process is basically the same for me independent of it being English or some other language.
Brent: What about performing solo versus with a band?
Benji: When I perform solo, I have more freedom with stretching time and phrasing, both between my guitar and voice, but my preparation is essentially the same as with the band.
Brent: Tell me more about how you collaborate with other musicians.
Benji: With the band you have in some ways less freedom, but you may learn new things from listening to the others. It can inspire different ideas, letting go and trusting in a communal situation, a challenge for sure, but strengthening. If I play alone, I can often significantly change the interpretation harmonically in ways that I can’t with a group, especially if it’s through composed music
Brent: Composed music meaning…?
Benji: Meaning music that is arranged with specific melodic and harmonic ideas without any improv sections.
Brent: Do you feel a difference between playing your own music and someone else’s?
Benji: When it’s my own music, it always feels more personal to learn and perform than when it’s someone else’s song. I suppose one of the most interesting things is that I tend to remember and learn songs by making meaningful connections. The more a song speaks to me, the easier it might be to learn it, independent of its complexity.
Brent: Elaborate on that.
Benji: It could be an association to a lyric, the emotional impact of a chord on the guitar, or even the visual aspect, like the physical shape of a chord or line. It’s a journey through many different ways of learning, making various connections: auditory, visual, etc. It’s a story. Learning instrumental music is in this way very different from learning the melody in the voice when singing.
Brent: What you describe vividly resembles the memory palace technique. Your music takes you on a trek through an imaginary landscape. Along the way, you see, hear, touch, and engage with benchmarks that make the progression memorable. Let me ask you, do you think there’s something about the guitar in particular that lends itself to this sort of exploration?
Benji: I should say the guitar is a very fascinating instrument, as you have so many odd shapes and juxtapositions. It’s an instrument that really lends itself to a self-taught approach. In fact so many guitarists are stubborn about learning rudiments, and theory, or even sight-reading. They would rather learn by ear. It’s abstract and non-concrete, intuitive, spiritual, a tool, a guide—and a great friend or enemy depending on the day.
Brent: When you have a piece with multiple verses, what techniques do you use to remember their order?
Benji: I don’t really have a technique for this. I just learn the song and practice it a bit more than other ones. It may take a bit longer to memorize, but once I got it down, it pretty much stays with me as with any other song of shorter length.
Brent: When you play with a group, you have to know the styles of your fellow musicians, especially if improvisation is involved. Can you describe this interpersonal dynamic? Is it auditory, physical, visual, or something else altogether?
Benji: Well, interestingly, it is definitely a mix of all three. The visual is especially key when say, for instance, a member of the band is finishing his or her solo and will want to cue this so the other players to receive this information and react accordingly. Another key reason for the visual connection is to deal with conducting a group; they need to know when to come in or what the tempo is, when to play the form of the music, and when to go into different sections, be they solos, shout choruses, tempo changes, etc. While this is true, it is at the same time equally as important to be constantly listening, as the visual cues alone aren’t enough. To follow the musicians’ groove and support their musical ideas—laying down a framework or a smooth path as an accompanist—makes the music more fun for the other players, generating more possibility in dynamics. And that’s where the real magic can happen, together with knowing the form or structure of the song.
Brent: Your words flow and twist like jazz itself. What about the physical aspect?
Benji: I think it’s also physical in that you feel things emotionally whether you are playing alone or with other musicians. In turn, those emotions can manifest themselves physically as pain, pleasure, anxiety, tension, excitement, maybe even embarrassment or shame, especially if the band didn’t end the song together or someone suddenly blanked on the melody in the middle of the piece. But that never happens! Then there is also the vibration of sound that we are reacting to consciously or otherwise. That is certainly a physical experience.
Brent: It’s been a real jolt of energy to talk with you, Benji. You really feel your music deeply with all your senses, and that helps make it memorable to you and your listeners. Whenever I hear you play, it takes me to a higher plane.
Benji: Thanks so much for reaching out. It’s been a pleasure to think about these very thought-provoking, inspiring questions and ideas of memory and music.
Brent: Where are you performing next?
Benji: I currently have no shows on the immediate horizon, but I got inspired at the end of last year and have since begun working up the plans and arrangements for my fourth album! So please stay tuned for shows and their whereabouts soon!
Until you have the chance to catch him in concert, you can hear Benji play right now on his website, benjikaplan.com.