I only met Ben one time, it was at IBMA right after he released his new cd Suite for Bluegrass Banjo. Super nice guy & a great player! We got to talking about Gibson banjo reissues & banjos in general for quite a while. We got ready to part ways and he gave me a copy of his new cd, the first and only time that I ever got to chat with him.
When I was getting back into serious playing after a dozen or so years away from it, Ben was unfailingly encouraging. He had a reputation for directness but there was never anything nasty about his critical assessments, and in my experience he was always right. When Donald Nitchie approached Ben about a profile for Banjo Newsletter, Ben asked Donald if I could write it (and I did). Sadly, all too few years later, I also wrote Ben's obituary for BNL. Ben had an incredibly fertile musical imagination, and the technique to convey all those wonderful ideas, but he was always telling me that what he enjoyed the most was playing hard-driving, traditional bluegrass.
Ben Freed is no doubt (perhaps a better word is "was".... but that sounds too sad) one of the bestest and perhaps unknown banjo players of our times. His mind could work wonders with a banjo; and to those who knew him, knew that he could write wonderful tunes, not just wonderful tunes for banjo but also tunes that were great played on any of the bluegrass instruments. He surely left us much too soon and is greatly missed. I wish that he were still around because I would get him to show me some of those licks in some of the tunes of his that I've worked on.....
I was with you, and I believe Ben too, waiting in the lobby for the show to start. You just got your Stelling and I had my Japanese rb100 clone and you were asking me how old it was, you were wondering how long it would be before your bindings would turn yellow like mine were. Are they yellow now?
Here is a review from 2003 of Suite For Bluegrass Banjo. Hopefully this CD is still available
BEN FREED SUITE FOR BLUEGRASS BANJO
It isn’t. Bluegrass, that is. At least some of it isn’t. (The unsettled and unending 30-year on-going debate in the letters section of this publication as to what constitutes real bluegrass does not bother us a bit here…). And, on the other hand, it is all terrific music
Ben Freed is a very talented Armonk, New York, banjo player who, incidentally, also gets around well on resonator guitar, pedal steel, and bass. His “Suite For Bluegrass Banjo” is a collection of twelve of his original compositions. What is great about the music here is that it is “close enough” to bluegrass that it should be of interest to most readers, and at the same time it is sufficiently different as to be intriguing to those who, while loving all those old three-chord bluegrass instrumentals, oft yearn for something that challenges the ear. It is the melodic strength of each cut that makes this music so attractive. It would seem Freed took to heart Earl’s mother’s admonition to play a strong clear melody, which is a nice change in an era when a bluegrass (or other) instrumental often means a bunch of chords strung together in random order, and the listener provides the melody line. When Freed composes a tune, there is no doubt about what he had in mind, and what he had in mind is typically intriguing, different, and very catchy.
Simply put, Ben Freed has a lot of extremely good musical ideas, and the ability to execute them well on the banjo. Whether it’s one of the four cuts such as “Bucktail Jig” that feature Rushad Eggleston’s fine cello work, or Freed’s solo workout on “Nine Below,” or the standard bluegrass instrumentation on “Cruise Control,” “The Keeper,” “The Sweet Spot,” and most of the remainder of the cuts, the strong melody lines combined with clever ideas and some great ensemble arranging make the CD great listening. It hurts the proceedings not at all to have help here from a fine group of sidemen, including Kenny Kosek on fiddle, Barry Mitterhoff and Mark Sasano on mandolin, Jon Sholle on guitar, and Jim Whitney and Mark Murphy on bass. Freed contributes some nice resonator and pedal steel guitar and bass work along the banjo. It should be noted also that Eggleston’s cello work, when present, meets the bluegrass musicians more than halfway along the spectrum from bluegrass to classical. Very impressive.
Freed has done an excellent job of holding on to his bluegrass underpinnings while giving us some great new tunes that are both infectious and very creative, on the edge of bluegrass and beyond. Highly recommended.
Ben helped me out with some new right hand ideas for banjo We did some banjo horse trading and did some jamming together on occasion I found him a kind and generous guy. He gave me several cds and instruction material as well He was a very musical individual generally speaking in addition to his superb banjo playing