For those of us who’ve been around for more than a minute, it seems inconceivable that soft-spoken improvisational ace Ben Maney has been lending his colorful keyboard strokes to artists all over the spectrum of the Knoxville music scene for something like 25 years now. Indeed, Maney’s musical history goes all the way back to popular early-’90s fusion-jam outfit Free Formula, to late-’90s rockin’ blues act Michael Crawley and the Mac Daddies, to the prog-rock band People of the Square, to the mid-‘oos jazz-fusion group fronted by local guitar player Mitch Rutman.
Hell, Maney even did a stint with the circus, when he departed the University of Tennessee music program in 1995 to sign on with the traveling band for Ringling Brothers, joining fellow Knoxvillian and former Smokin’ Dave and the Premo Dopes bassist Dave Nichols on the road.
Nowadays, Maney says his teaching work keep him busy enough that he no longer has to scrounge for the next job. Maney teaches piano and keys privately, and also with the local non-profit Community School of the Arts.
“I’m not hustling for gigs these days, which is kind of nice,” Maney says with a laugh. “I’ll still do some private shows from time to time. But it’s not ‘wait ’til the phone rings, then see what happens’ anymore.”
Maney does have one project he’s happy to tout, however, that being his collaboration with the talented Electric Darling vocalist Yasameen “Yas” Hoffman-Shahin. With Maney being a teacher for the Community School of the Arts, and Yas having been a longtime student there, the two teamed up after CSA executive director Jennifer Willard recruited them to play a special one-off show together at a school function some time back.
“It was fantastic,” Maney says of his first musical summit with Yas. “We played a couple standards. She was amazing. Jennifer kept calling us, so we did an event or two after that. Eventually, we started doing shows outside the school.
“We definitely clicked. When you click with someone musically, there’s not much need to think too hard about it. And there’s a real spontaneity to our collaboration.”
Maney notes that while he and Yas were trained in opposing disciplines — at UT, he was woodshedding jazz under local piano ace Donald Brown and his assistant, pianist Matt Fries; Yas was trained in classical music at the university, singing with the opera company — they both picked up plenty of other tricks along the way, playing a host of different genres at venues of every description, churches and local clubs and sundry open mic nights.
Still, Maney says the foundation of their successful collaboration is rooted more in a mindset than a skill set. “She’s a seasoned and educated musician, as well,” Maney says. “And we talk about form and structure from time to time. But we can also just get by pretty well without those conversations, sometimes surprisingly well. That allows for a lot of creativity and expression to emerge.
“I’ve always had an easier time when I’m not tied down to a particular structure. I’m used to letting arrangements flow according to what I’m feeling. And Yas is very good at adapting to that. She’s intuitive, with an amazing sense of timing and a very good ear. It makes things very comfortable.”
And while both he and Yas have played extensively in the blues and rock idioms, he says their work as a duo — which has largely consisted of either interpreting jazz and pop standards, or on readings of Maney’s original compositions — shines best in more contemplative contexts.
“There’s a nuance in what we do, and when we go uptempo, we seem to lose some of that nuance,” Maney says. “There are things she does with her voice when we play that she can’t do with a full band, and I feel the same way with my keyboards. When we do peppy, jangly numbers, it just doesn’t work as well.
“The direction we’re heading is a place where we can explore space a little bit more. We’re starting to get into more brooding, darker sounds and arrangements. I’m experimenting with electronics too — you’ll get a taste of that at our next performance.”
Ben Maney and Yasameen Hoffman-Shahin will play Scruffy City Hall Friday, March 24 at 6:30 p.m. as part of the Funny Ears Fringe Festival.