The first thing that pianist, vocalist, composer, producer Ben Sidran does in the liner notes to his latest album Don’t Cry For No Hipster is try to come up with some kind of definition of “hipster.” What exactly does it mean to be hip? He traces the term back to the Prohibition Era when bright young revelers would arrive at a club with a hip flask. How this came to signify street wise cats who knew their way around town and was then extended to really cool jazz musicians (although which came first may be one of those chicken-egg questions) isn’t clear, but for a long time “hip” and “cool” were very much synonymous. Then along came the Beat Generation and poetry sometimes combined with jazz became hip (sometimes not). These were the early hippies, but they really weren’t quite hipsters.
The most important thing to know about a hipster is that if you style yourself hip, you’re not. As Sidran puts it, “It is a well known fact among hipsters that anybody who self-identified as a hipster was, by definition, not one.” Hipsters don’t advertise. They don’t need to.
Sidran’s Don’t Cry For No Hipster harkens back to the cool jazz tradition. A dozen of the 14 songs on the album are original compositions by Sidran himself or in collaboration with his son, producer and drummer, Leo. They mix clever lyrics with cool jazz rhythms, interspersed with nice little improvised moments from Sidran on the piano, Will Bernard on guitar, and the tenor saxes of John Ellis and Mark Shim. Lyrics are often suffused with a cool irony. “In the Beginning” starts with a blues guitar solo leading to the line, “Man created God so he would not be alone.” “Brand New Music” has the cryptic refrain, “Brand new music, same old song.” “At Least We Got to the Race” has the kind of retro swinging sound that goes back decades into heart of the last century.
The two non-originals on the disc are Thelonious Monk’s “Reflections” and the old country hit made famous by Tennessee Ernie Ford, “Sixteen Tons.” The first is the album’s only instrumental and features some nice subtle work from Mark Shim and well as Sidran. “Sixteen Tons” seems an odd choice for the album. It isn’t exactly a song associated with anything hip, but maybe that’s the point.
Even a glance at Sidran’s promotional material makes it clear that this man is a musical power house. Don’t Cry For No Hipster is the man’s 35th album. He has produced for the likes of Van Morrison, Diana Ross, Rickie Lee Jones, and Mose Allison. With Steve Miller he wrote “Space Cowboy.” He has composed sound tracks for Hoop Dreams and Vietnam: Long Time Coming. His books include Black Talk and Talking Jazz, as well as his memoir, A Life in the Music. You have to wonder where he finds the time to play, but listening to the new album, you have to be glad he does.