PITTSFIELD — Ben "Benny Fingers" Kohn has been playing piano since he was 5, and for the past five years, his skills on the keys have made him a cornerstone in local acts like the Rev Tor Band, Misty Blues and Berkshire Jazz Collective. But this Sunday night, Kohn will finally step into a spotlight of his own, with the launch of his own debut album, "Fingers First."
A ticketed CD release party ($10) will be held from 7 to 10 p.m., at the city's Whitney Center for the Arts, during which a collective of past and present bandmates will back Kohn as he performs his own original tunes.
"Different people come out to see me in the different bands I'm in and know their sounds, but most people don't know me as a songwriter. I'm kind of different in that regards, and I think it offers something for everyone," said Kohn during a recent interview at Dottie's Coffee Lounge, one of the many venues in which he's performed.
The 36-year-old Windsor resident grew up with a diverse musical background, first learning to play music by ear. He's the son of educator Valerie Kohn and the late Ed Kohn. "My dad was a great folk singer-songwriter, so music's definitely in my DNA."
During his time at Wahconah Regional High School in Dalton, from which he graduated in 1997, he played in rock and jam bands with friends, like longtime collaborators Matt Lamb and the Poor Becket Rebels, and began taking music classes and lessons here and there.
Not entirely sure what he wanted to do, he went on to Westfield State College (now Westfield University) and, with an affinity for improvisation and its rich music history, he became a jazz piano performance major. He began to immerse himself in his music studies because he realized he "couldn't read music at all," and playing music with classmates, which includes another Berkshire jazz musician, Bill Chapman.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kohn transferred to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music for a year, where he got his first experience recording music and first professional gig, playing jazz at a bar with a professor. He then left Berklee to bounce between the Berkshires and New York City. In New York, he roomed for sixth months with fellow musician, Codaryl "Cody" Moffett, son of famous free jazz drummer Charles Moffett, and later moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn.
"I experienced a lot of music living with Cody," said Kohn, who eventually found a steady niche playing sessions at Smalls Jazz Club in the West Village, and other jazz venues. "At that point, I was deep into the jazz thing ... and going to different sessions to get as much experience and I can. There are so many great piano players in the city."
During this time, he also began honing his style by developing melodies and playing more simply, like one of his idols, Miles Davis. "It's hard to play in a minimalistic way like that. To play more simply and melodically is the hard part of jazz," Kohn said.
All that — the live performance, mingling with musicians, the competition and grit of the city — gave him a good foundation to return to the Berkshires and find steady gigs with various local bands.
For the past 13 years, he's been a faculty member of the RockOn music camp and workshop and the Young Musicians Workshop, both based at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield. He's performed locally with New Orleans legend Charles Neville and Berkshire Community College Jazz Ensemble professor Alan Livermore and his trio; he's also toured locally and abroad with the Sister City Jazz Ensemble.
He's performed a multitude of weddings and events. This past weekend, Kohn played in three bands at the StrangeCreek Campout in Greenfield. Once, while performing for the Midsummer Night's BBQ series at Wheatleigh, a Lenox luxury resort, he spotted Grammy-winning classical pianist Emanuel Ax among the audience. "That was surreal," he said.
Kohn has also recorded on several local musicians' album, from Billy Keane to Jack Waldheim, and with the Jason Schwartz Project, which performs original jazz compositions. His fingers have an aptitude to playing almost any genre, from folk to rock, funk to Latin music, and he's developed his singing chops too.
For his new album, he worked over the course of two years with musicians Waldheim and Chapman, as well as Andy Wrba, Andy Crawford, Charlie Tokarz, Pete Adams and Dan Broad, all of whom are slated to perform at Sunday's CD release party. The album was recorded between Waldheim's home studio, Northern Track Recording Studio in Wilmington, Vt., and at Kohn's home in Windsor where he recorded on a baby grand piano with Berkshire soundman, Darren O'Brien.
Backed by social support from friends and family, as well as financial support through crowdfunding campaigns and fans, Kohn said he's happy to see this new milestone in his career come to fruition.
"It's nice to control my destiny and my career, and this year it was time to make the final push to release my own album," he said. "I took the time to piece it together and I'm happy to put my name on it."
"Fingers First" is a piano-driven record that ties multiple genres together with original lyrics. "I think I got bit by the songwriting bug, and I'm going to keep evolving more stylistically," Kohn said.
The musician said he'd like to continue recording his own work, booking more of his own gigs, and eventually finish his college degree. But for now, he says, "I'm doing what I've wanted to be doing, and I think I'm in good shape if I keep at it."
About Ben Kohn
Genre(s): Piano-driven jazz, rock, blues and more.
Gigs: CD release party for debut album, "Fingers First" at 7 p.m. on Sunday, at The Whitney Center for the Arts, 42 Wendell Ave., Pittsfield. RSVP via eventbrite.com: http://bit.ly/1t1CS7n