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Published January 23, 2023
A new album by Ben Markley, a University of Wyoming associate professor and the director of jazz studies for the Department of Music, was recently honored by DownBeat magazine as one of the best recordings of 2022.
The album, “Ari’s Fun-House,” was recorded in July 2021 and released in 2022. The recording features Markley, a jazz pianist, his 17-piece big band and Ari Hoenig, a New York-based jazz drummer and composer.
“Ari’s Fun-House” is composed of the work of Hoenig reworked into a big band format with Markley’s band. Markley says this format of working with another artist’s music and with the artist himself was particularly inspiring for his latest release.
“The style of music on this record is the most modern and adventurous and risk-taking style that I’ve ever done,” Markley says. “Ari Hoenig is a master of rhythm and all of the things that go along with that. Ari has a very complex style, and it takes a keen sense of musicianship to navigate what’s going on in the music.
“Ari and I played together at a university in Texas, and that is where this project started. His music moved me, and we worked together to score it for a big band format. This recording was a real stretch for me artistically to write this in a way that was true to Ari’s compositions and put my own voice into it in the big band setting.”
This inspiration resulted in a piece that garnered a positive review from DownBeat, a flagship publication in the jazz world, when the project was initially released. “Ari’s Fun-House” received a rare distinction of four out of five stars upon its debut. Markley says receiving this score is an honor, and this became even more important when the magazine designated his release as one of the year’s best recordings.
“DownBeat doesn’t give a ton of four-star reviews, so it is a big deal when you get one. It is very exciting to have it selected as an editor’s pick and then, later on, be named as one of the best recordings of the year,” Markley says. “To have this happen to a release from Wyoming with groups in Colorado is a big deal and is also something I’m very proud of.”
While “Ari’s Fun-House” was released to positive reception, it is far from the first time Markley’s work has been recognized for its stellar quality. Compositions from two of Markley’s albums earned him ASCAP Young Jazz Composer Awards in 2007 and 2008. Along with several accolades between the beginning of his career and now, Markley’s big band also received a four-star review in DownBeat in 2017 with the group’s first release, “Clockwise: The Music of Cedar Walton.”
Markley has no intention of slowing down or being content with repeating old work.
“That’s part of my nature. I’m a person who does not want to do the same thing again. If I’m going to put something out, I want to make sure I’m saying something with my work,” he says. “I like to take on challenges, which is why this project came out well. I had to learn Ari’s music and the vocabulary he and his musicians play with. I like that challenge.”