Benjamin Cortez, a sophomore undergraduate student in the Arizona State University School of Music jazz studies program, recently debuted and produced a CD of original material, titled “In Your Hands.”
Cortez composed all the music and wrote all the lyrics, except one piece that was co-written with Benny Rothschild. He also sings all the vocals and plays 14 different instruments on the CD. Cortez said his experience in the jazz studies program has helped him grow as a musician and create his CD.
“One of the most important skills I have learned here at the ASU School of Music is how to have a better handle on the physical aspects of playing the piano,” said Cortez. “I took classical piano lessons from age 3 to 6, but my perfect pitch combined with my stubborn attitude got in the way of me continuing on the path of standard music education. I went years developing as a pianist on my own and ignored the importance of posture and physical motion at the piano. Now that I am at ASU studying with Professor (Michael) Kocour, I have found myself trying to maximize every movement while I am playing.”
Cortez’s talents were first discovered during The Nash Legacy Ensembles auditions when he was in high school. The ensembles, a signature program of The Nash, are comprised of talented, auditioned high school jazz musicians from across the Phoenix area. Students explore essential jazz styles, composition and arranging techniques and the art of improvisation, gaining invaluable small-group performance experience with expert coaching. The Nash was co-founded by ASU jazz studies faculty member and legendary jazz drummer Lewis Nash.
“We knew right then at The Nash Legacy Ensemble auditions that Cortez was an exceptional talent,” said Kocour, director of jazz studies at the ASU School of Music and director of The Nash Legacy Ensembles. “Since then, he has proven to be creative force as an improvising jazz keyboard player.”
Cortez was accepted in the ASU jazz studies program in fall 2017 and has been taking jazz classes, performing in the Latin Jazz Band and in jazz combos, and learning what it means to be an enterprising musician.
“Regardless of what style of music he is participating in, whether rehearsing or performing, there’s a joy and free flowing quality to Ben’s music-making that is contagious,” said Jeff Libman, clinical assistant professor in jazz studies at the ASU School of Music. “Audiences connect with Ben, but so do his musical peers. Ben is doing special things right now, and I can’t even imagine what his musical future holds.”
Cortez comes from a musical family with a primarily rock and pop background and was passionate about songwriting and producing before enrolling as a music major at ASU. His interest in studying jazz piano began in middle school while trying to learn the sophisticated harmonies from the classic album "Aja" by Steely Dan. Inspired by the way that they fused so many elements of music, he researched their influences and fell in love with jazz.
Cortez said another valuable experience for him was the opportunity to accompany the acclaimed Chicago jazz singer Dee Alexander on the Miles Davis classic, "All Blues," when she presented a masterclass at the School of Music in October.
“My advice to fellow students is to make the most of the time you have in college to focus solely on perfecting your craft, and keep your eyes on the prize (the degree),” Cortez said. “I know that this is what is helping me to maximize my potential while I'm here at ASU.”
Kocour said jazz studies students and faculty are excited about the release of Cortez’s CD. “We hope that ‘Arizona’ will become our state song in the same way that ‘Georgia on My Mind’ and ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ became emblematic for other states in our country.”