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Benjamin Lapidus IMPROV EXCHANGE: Episode 118 'Fearless Beats'

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Benjamin Lapidus is a Grammy-nominated musician who has performed and recorded throughout the world as a bandleader and supporting musician playing guitar, Cuban tres, Puerto Rican cuatro, touch style/tapping instruments (Warr guitar and Chapman Stick), as well as organ. As a scholar, he has published widely on Latin music, and he is a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY, and The Graduate Center.

Since the 1990s, Lapidus has performed and/or recorded Cuban tres, Puerto Rican cuatro, guitar, voice, and other instruments on film soundtracks, video games, television commercials, and albums with some of the most notable musicians in Latin music and jazz. Some of these collaborations include performances and/or recordings with Andy and Jerry González, Ibrahim Ferrer (Buena Vista Social Club), Pío Leyva (Buena Vista Social Club), Manuel “Puntillita” Alicea (Buena Vista Social Club), Bobby Carcassés, Orlando “Cachaíto” López, Juan Pablo Torres, NEA Jazz Master Cándido Camero, Larry Harlow, Ruben Blades, Típica 73, John “Dandy” Rodríguez, David Oquendo, Xiomara Laugart, Nicky Marrero, Nelson González, Carlos Abadie, Los Hacheros, Pedrito Martínez, Roman Díaz, Paul Carlon, Adonis Puentes, Pablo Menéndez, Bobby Sanabria, Ralph Irizarry, Charlie Sepulveda, Luis Marín, Humberto Ramírez, Harvie S., Hiram “El Pavo” Remón, Gene Jefferson, Frank Anderson, Enid Lowe, Jared Gold, Greg Glassman, Bobby Harden, Brian Lynch, Mark Weinstein, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Larry Goldings, Chico Álvarez, Alfredo “Chocolate” Armenteros, Emilio Barretto, Eddie Zervigón, José Fajardo, Rudy Calzado, Los Afortunados, Jose Conde, Kaori and Yuko Fujii, Roberto Rodríguez, Maurice El Medioni, Michael Torsone, and many others.

As the leader of the Latin jazz group, Sonido Isleño (founded in 1996), he has performed throughout North and South America, Europe, and the Caribbean while releasing five internationally acclaimed albums of his original compositions. In 2007, Lapidus served as musical director and arranger for Garota de Ipanema(JVC/Victor Japan) with Kaori Fujii and toured Japan twice. In 2008, he recorded Herencia Judía and in 2014, he released his eighth album as a leader, Ochósi Blues. Blues for Ochún (2023) is his ninth album as a leader. As a composer, Lapidus’ music has been recorded by groups in Cuba and Japan and has been featured in documentaries and television. In 2015, Latin Jazz USA awarded Lapidus a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to Afro-Latin music. In 2015, he wrote the liner notes, contributed an original composition, sang, and played electric guitar and Cuban tres on Andy González’s Grammy™-nominated album, Entre Colegas.

As profiled on the 2023 television show, Shades of Us (https://youtu.be/I_xMYUtgAhA), Benjamin Lapidus was born in Hershey, PA in 1972 to first-generation Brooklynites and the family moved almost 15 times before returning to New York City when Lapidus was 14. Trained in piano from a young age, he moved through a variety of instruments including trumpet and bass before concentrating on the guitar. Lapidus was exposed to music by his grandmother and his father, who played in Latin and jazz bands in the Catskills in the 1950s. Through his father’s record collection and stories of his father’s visits with his Latin American relatives, the seeds of Latin music were planted. Yet it wasn’t until the 1980s that the youngest Lapidus became immersed in Latin music when he moved to a predominantly Latin neighborhood in New York City, where numerous important musicians also resided. Living a block away from Mikel’s jazz club, Lapidus still has vivid memories of practicing in Mario Rivera’s house or seeing Mario Bauzá walk down the street. Deciding he needed a complete musical education, Lapidus earned two degrees from Oberlin Conservatory and Oberlin College, becoming one of the program’s first jazz guitar graduates. In 1994, Lapidus started to play the Puerto Rican cuatro and Cuban tres. After leading his own quartet at festivals and clubs throughout Europe and winning a grant to study briefly with Steve Lacy in Paris, he returned to the U.S. and worked with Joe McPhee, Joe Giardullo, Tani Tabal, Thomas Workman, and other creative improvisers.

At the same time, Lapidus began performing with Larry Harlow, Alex Torres, and other Latin music luminaries in New York and Puerto Rico. Lapidus earned a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at the CUNY Graduate Center in 2002. His travels to Cuba acquainted him with distant relatives and grounded him in the music of Eastern Cuba. He has taught guitar and Cuban tres at the New School and popular music of the Caribbean, Latin music in New York, and world music at Queens College and John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY. Today, Lapidus is a professor in the Department of art and Music at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and on the Doctoral Faculty of the Graduate Center, CUNY. In addition, he has served as scholar-in-residence with the New York Center for Jungian Studies and the Jewish Museum during several humanitarian missions to the Jewish communities of Cuba between 2004-2016. In 2008, Lapidus published the first-ever book on the Eastern Cuban musical genre changüí called Origins of Cuban Music and Dance: Changüí (Scarecrow Press). He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles and book chapters, translations, and presented papers at international conferences on Cuban music, Puerto Rican music, Latin jazz, and improvisation. He has also written liner notes for a number of recordings. In 2013, Lapidus won a prestigious National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) fellowship for his critically acclaimed book New York and the International Sound of Latin Music, 1940-1990 (University Press of Mississippi, 2021). With endorsements from Rubén Blades, Ilán Stavins, and other prominent academics around the world, this ground-breaking book has been featured on BBC 3 Music Matters, NPR’s Afropop, and Alt. Latino shows as well as the Miami International Book Fair and countless news outlets. The book maintains its bestseller ranking in Amazon’s top 20 salsa books since its release. In this episode, Benjamin shares his background, education, and musical journey.

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