Ben Zahler and his band 8 Octopi’s new album Errors in Disguise is released by BERTHOLD records on March 10th 2023. The line-up: Ben Zahler (flute and composer), Isabelle Ritter (vocals), Iannis Obiols (piano), Ilya Alabuzhev (bass). The album is a poetic and stylish blend of music and lyrics, both composed by Zahler. His fine combination of sound and word makes for a multi-levelled experience for discerning jazz lovers. Ritter’s singing, which captures both the seriousness and playful satire of Zahler’s compositions, is complemented by the exceptional playing of the instrumentalists.
The band’s name 8 Octopi is drawn from Salmon Rushdie’s book – Quichotte. “On just one page,” says Zahler “a fictional president, clearly Donald Trump, is talking to a security advisor, a woman of colour, about digital invasions to the US being like an octopus. The President asks if octopuses are invading. She corrects him and says, it’s octopi, not octopuses, but she’s wrong. So by choosing the name for the band I’m making fun of intellectuals – but then I’m somewhat intellectual myself, so it’s also self deprecating.” The complex book also touches on dark issues of modern politics, well worth reading according to the composer.
Zahler sees his compositions as works of substance – philosophical and socially critical, but he also wants them to be fun and enjoyable listening. “Sometimes the ideas just emerge on the piano, as in the track Errors in Disguise,” he says. The lyrics came later inspired by a quote from the Swiss writer Max Küng – ‘dreams are often nothing more than disguised errors.’ The notion of the iridescent as somehow insubstantial is beautifully captured in the music. “I created the lyrics of 8 Octopi, a track as well as the name of the band, after working out the groove and melody,” says the composer. The songs concluding lines: Bubbles were bust. Certainties shattered. The nation tumbled, the president screamed, „Ok google, tell me how to get rid of black octopi!“ „Please excuse Mr president, it’s octopuses, not octopi.“ Eight octopi were gone. Ritter’s vocals, as so often, capture the humour and irony intended. “Her voice is extraordinary,” says Zahler. “As a composer, song-writer it’s great to have her singing these sometimes tricky songs because she’s such a fantastic jazz singer. She can sing anything.”
The quartet has no drummer, deliberately so, according to Zahler for whom it opens up as a flute player “a lot of possibilities and gives us an almost chamber music feeling. It creates a special band sound but it’s a challenge particularly for Ilya (from Ukraine) on bass. Our pianist Iannis (from Catalonia) also has to push his extraordinary creativity. He gets an unbelievable sound out of the piano. What he does with my songs – I love it, exemplified by his solo in Empty Net.”
Some of Zahler’s compositions have very personal backgrounds. Soul to Sell refers to his day job as an IT programmer. “It’s well paid,” he says “and allows me to do my music. It’s nothing I’m ashamed of, but something tempts me to work more. I say – it’s only for a limited amount of time, then I’ll have more time for music. Of course it doesn’t work like that. If you offer your soul to the devil for one night, you’re completely sold to him.”
Middle Finger Beauty Contest “is just a fun little piece, I was joking around with my daughter, who was ten at the time, and we were talking about who has the most beautiful middle finger. The song was the result of that discussion.”
White Sneakers is Zahler’s tribute to the jazz musician Andy Scherrer. “He was my teacher, one of the icons of Swiss jazz in the 60s. An unbelievable, special, but also very modest and unassuming person, usually wearing white sneakers. I was at the local jazz club where Andy was scheduled to join the band for the second set. During the first set he entered the room, one of the best tenors in town, and nobody noticed him. In the second set he got on the stage and it was fantastic, now everyone was aware of him.”
Zahler, with his quartet, follows in this illustrious tradition of Swiss jazz. He has been an active member of the Basel jazz scene, performing with various bands and also organising jam sessions and concerts. His compositions are poetry in music and lyrics, combining not least swing, scat, wit and literary images. Together they make for great listening.