While studying jazz at University of the Arts, guitarist Ben O’Neill started working for gospel stars Tye Tribbett & GA. After graduating, he went on to play with high-profile R&B performers including Musiq Soulchild, Erykah Badu, and Bilal. At the same time, Ben led the organ trio the Mini Qs , who had a weekly gig for over 3 years at Old City’s Marmont. Currently, Ben, is a member of the rapper Common’s touring band. When he’s not on the road, he plays gospel music at Newark, Delaware’s Faith City Church and works with his rock band the MLMs , who release their first album Thursday night at the Khyber.
Describe what it’s like to tour with a rap star like Common.
Touring with Common is good. Being a professional musician in the capacity that I’m a professional musician is really good and I’m thankful everyday for what I do and what I have and the people I have around me. At the same time, it is physically grueling to do this. Tomorrow [speaking on a Monday] I leave at nine in the morning. I have to be at the airport at 7:30, and I basically won’t stop moving until I get home Saturday afternoon and go into a rehearsal with the MLMs. Actually, I won’t really stop moving until Sunday night when I get back from four services at church.
When we were on tour, we did five shows a week for four and a half weeks. And, regardless of how much fun you’re having on stage–and we did have a lot of fun on stage–or how good the people around you are–and the people in that crew, for the most part, are really good people… Regardless of how much you believe in the artist–I actually believe in Common because I like his music and I think he’s one of the few rappers that makes consistently valuable hip hop, not disposable hip hop… Regardless of how well you’re getting paid, and I don’t have any gripes about we get paid on this gig… You’re still away from your home, you’re still not with your loved ones, you’re still living your life based on someone else’s schedule. So, the situation with Common, specifically, is a very good one. And the situation as a professional touring musician is a good one, but there’s still substantial drawbacks. Touring, sometimes, is great. I was on the back of the bus giving Serena Williams a guitar lesson one night. That was cool. That was fun. But sometimes it’s not
Why don’t you play much jazz anymore?
There are a couple things. One is, you’ll find this with music students, probably a lot of students regardless of what they’re studying, but definitely music students: when they’re in that institution they want to rebel against it very hard. You have a couple people who play along and everybody hates them. And then everybody else is like, “Man, this place is the worst.” Forward-thinking music was really, truly underrepresented at UArts when I was there; however, the guitar department was crushin’. I studied with some really heavy people that I have a great deal of respect for. In terms of an old-school approach to jazz, I’m really thankful for what I got there.
Leading up to my recital, it was an intense period. I was practicing with that group all the time. I played as best as I possibly could’ve played on that recital. When I got done with it, I don’t think I seriously played the guitar for like three months. For me, it was like–mental break from jazz. So, I stopped playing jazz because I needed a mental break and then around the time when I would have picked it back up, I started playing R&B professionally, totally accidentally. The other thing about why I don’t play jazz right now is because a lot of that music isn’t entirely inspiring for me. Most of the music that I find inspiring is older music. And when I do hear new jazz music, I’m just not really thrilled with it. The technical level for jazz these days is just–huge. The bar is way up there. And that’s cool, but I feel like a lot of the music that gets made is made just totally at the expense of the soul and the emotional quality of it.
Aside from the MLMs, what plans do you have for other projects of your own?
One day–I don’t expect it to come to fruition for another 20 or so years–I want to make a great organ trio record. And I’m gonna try to make one great rock record. I want to make a great rock record and a great jazz record. The reason I say organ trio is that the organ trio, to me, can be sort of a throwback without being corny. To me, it has a natural sound, a natural soulfulness, that translates well in our time as well. And, because a lot of the music I listen to is older music and that’s the stuff that influences me, that’s the type of jazz record I want to make. I feel like if I made a record that tried to sound like a Wes Montgomery record right now, it just wouldn’t sound right.
Look for a preview of the MLMs’ CD release show in the next day or so.