A Salve for the City

Jazz bassist and composer Ben Tiberio sees music as “a powerful healing tool”

| 02 Nov 2021 | 02:16

There was a moment about two months back when the New York stalwart stickman, Ari Hoenig, ending a stellar set at Smalls over a drumroll, shouted out one of his bandmates: Ben Tiberio.

One may not suspect it from his scruff and everyman mane but the young bassist/composer is one of the finest around, as especially heard on “Rare Peace“ (Outside In Music, 2021), his debut album that burns with fresh ferocity and doubles as a balm for the coronavirus pandemic.

Tiberio hails from Fairport, a suburb of Rochester where he immersed himself on the upright in late high school, but he has been living in New York for the past six years. Throughout this time, the twenty-nine-year-old has played with such jazz masters as Kenny Barron and Gretchen Parlato and recorded with the celebrated contemporary vibraphonist, Joel Ross.

With “Rare Peace,” however, Tiberio truly emerges, offering compositions that echo both the city’s chaos and its momentary serenity.

The album is perhaps unique to New York. On the opener, “Telepath In Monotone.,” for instance, Tiberio’s bass strums simmer like the steam from a downtown manhole while on the second track, “E(Motion),” Nathan Reising’s alto saxophone blares like an ambulance siren at midnight. The record, in fact, courses with an intensity that reflects not just the city but the artist himself.

“I have a friend that put it one way,” Tiberio says in the dim light of a Bushwick bar. “The way she says it is, ‘There’s always the fire in me,’ and she means it almost in a negative way, like I’m always kind of fighting myself and there’s always an inner battle.”

Spirit of Mingus

Charlie Mingus wrestled in a similar way with albums like “Pithecanthropus Erectus” (Atlantic, 1956) and “The Clown” (Atlantic, 1957), and the legendary bassist’s spirit hovers above “Rare Peace.” With its cover art of Tiberio in clownface and its loping horns, the album could even be seen as an homage to the latter Mingus record.

At a recent show at the fishnet-floored Terraza 7 in Elmhurst, Queens, the musician played the Charlie Parker standard, “Segment” and the Hoenig original, “For Tracy” with a smile, picking his bass like a regular hangdog.

Sporting a baseball cap and sitting down to share his love of classic rock, Tiberio could lend the impression that he’s just another guy on the street. He is perhaps that but, as “Rare Peace” proves, Tiberio is more than that: he is a composer of deep ideas and even deeper compassion.

The album, with such songs as the tense “Midwife Crisis (feat. Morgan Guerin)” and the sizzling “Harlequin,” pinpoints but finally embraces all of the hawkers and hucksters of modern New York, as if saying, “Come here, I love you and all of your nonsense.” It’s Mingus’s “The Clown” for 2020s West Village, blasting its freneticism, with Tiberio as the ringmaster calling for calm.

As tracks such as the warm “Kayla” and “The Becky Song” show, Rare Peace scours the city’s trash-strewn corners not just for the titular tranquility but for love, too. A song like “Stay,” for instance, is almost a plea for someone to do just that, to stick around even as the city — and the world — whirls by. The sax-stomped “Aggron,” similarly, wails for connection amidst a Babel-like mess of tongues.

“Moments of Calmness and Peace”

Speaking of his intention with the album, which he recorded in just a day and consistently intrigues despite its hour length, Tiberio says that the idea was to “emphasize these moments of calmness and peace, whatever it is.”

He continues that such instances “could be anything, like, you have some crazy epiphany about something and you just feel like, ‘Wow, it all makes sense.’ You have a sip of coffee and it’s like, ‘Wow, this is the best coffee ever,’ just a moment that takes you ... I guess it’s about being in the now, a moment that’s like, ‘All that matters is right now.’”

Tiberio, whose album has drawn praise from modern jazz luminaries such as saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, knows that attaining the bliss he mentions isn’t necessarily easy.

“There’s a lot here,” he says. “Even just the times that we’re living in, with just the political climate, and obviously COVID, there’s just been so much kind of disagreement and misunderstanding, not even to mention all of the things that are happening in other countries and around the world.”

Seeing music as “a powerful healing tool,” Tiberio still hopes that his debut can ease some bruises. He continues that, whether he’s playing as sideman or bandleader, he’s “always trying to come from the heart,” and this sentiment couldn’t resound louder than on the soaring closing title track.

As birds call in a quiet forest, the piano rises and Tiberio threshes on his bass before horns swoop atop the trees in a beatific swell. Then it’s just the birds again and, at least for the moment, all’s well; peace looms like a real possibility.