on Loch Raven Road, you’ll come across one of the darkest blocks one can find in Baltimore. Just past a railroad overpass and before you get to the townhouses of Better Waverly is a brief patch of strictly 9-to-5 industrial buildings anchored by a large dairy plant. And if one balmy late fall evening you could see through the walls of one of those buildings, a nondescript wood shop by day, you’d find, first, stacks of massive sawmill-style saw blades left over from the building’s prior machine-shop tenant, and beyond, in a small back office, you’d find the young composer and trumpet player Ben Frock sitting alone, gazing down at his shoes, looking much like he’s dozing or daydreaming.
This is Frock’s writing process, sitting and thinking for hours at a time. The band he leads and writes for, Love Unit, has run all the way up to 30 members in the past and will reconvene this New Year’s Eve slimmed down a bit only for physical space reasons. Over beers in that same office—adjoining Frock’s studio, which itself adjoins his father’s shop—on a recent evening, Frock suggests there’s probably a more proper way of writing for large ensembles than this, some proper techniques and protocols. But this wasn’t in the Peabody grad’s training. So Frock just thinks in his office, sometimes for the better part of a day, writing in his head and editing in his head and writing some more and then, finally, putting different parts on paper.
A description doesn’t come all that easily for the music of Love Unit. Which seems natural enough for an ensemble whose leader and membership is largely cut from the same Out of Your Head/Windup Space-based avant-jazz/new-music culture currently thriving in Baltimore—and thriving to the point that finding 30 people to play Frock’s music who can read music well and play with barely any rehearsal hasn’t been difficult. Musically speaking, take funk, go-go, Afrobeat, jazz, improv, and pop as the raw materials and, as wielded by Frock’s compositional brain, you’ll get an ecstatic big-band party more suited for Interzone than North Avenue.
Frock, looking every bit the perfect frazzled young composer in a tweed driving cap, camelhair blazer, and T-shirt, offers a bit of Love Unit history, which traces back to his last year at Peabody, circa 2004. “All the stuff I was into, all the classical and all the jazz, was just really complex stuff,” he says. “I was just analyzing and learning, just really nerdy music-theory stuff. I was hanging out a lot with Jon Birkholz, the keyboardist in Soul Cannon, and he had this organ in his apartment and a little four-track recorder. And I started recording myself writing these really cheesy pop songs. I was trying to rip off, like, a Michael Jackson or Quincy Jones kind of thing, and I would try to get as many influences into it as I possibly could.”
He did one show in that period, which he claims was a “disaster.” Two things intervened in the years after, keeping him from diving deeper into pop territory. Frock started his jazz improv ensemble Subatomic Particles, and he found himself playing trumpet on cruise ships for work. It wasn’t until 2010 that the Love Unit idea was resurrected. “I had a rough year personally and needed something to focus on,” he says. “At the time I was like,
Fuck it, I can write some really big music.
You really need some time to do that.”
Frock was just a kid when he first got awed by the capabilities of big-band music, the sort of next-level arrangements and compositions that could happen with a lot of people and instruments together in a space. “I can remember being really young and riding around in someone’s grandmother’s car listening to AM radio,” he says. ”I guess there used to be a lot of paid arrangers for television and radio. These guys really knew their shit and studied a lot of arranging and were really inventive.
“When you listen to a lot of older music you’ll hear arrangements and combinations of instruments, and you’ll go, ‘Whoa, that’s really cool,’” Frock continues. “I remember paying attention to that, being really young. I think it was [hearing] flute and vibraphone [together] and being like, that’s magical. So I’ve always paid attention to that.”
The first performance of Love Unit in 2010 was darker, not much like the pop and funk Frock had imagined in 2004 and brought forth this year. It was more classically influenced. He says it went over great with the band and crowd, but it was still a good distance from the big band originally in his head. Finally, Love Unit as a 30-person ensemble performed last November on Frock’s 31st birthday. “This thing we did in November,” he says, “started to crack the code a bit. [I’m] still learning how to put those things together.
“I want it to be a party onstage,” Frock continues. “I feel like it has been. I realized,
Holy shit, these are all my best friends and favorite musicians onstage.
There’s nothing like that. For the audience, I want to give them something fun that feels good to listen to and dance to, but I want to challenge them. I’m still working out how to give a healthy dose of both.”
Frock says he spends most of his free time in that industrial building off Loch Raven, that it might as well be a full-time job. (Like many trained musicians, he makes money teaching music lessons.) Though it’s not exactly a paying job, nor is it for the 30 musicians when you’re charging $5 covers. “If someone came up to me tomorrow and said, ‘Here’s a bunch of money, you don’t have to worry about your bills anymore. Write for 200 musicians [or] the biggest orchestra in the world,’ I’d totally do it,” Frock says. “As much as I get enthusiasm from everyone involved, it’d be a lot easier if I could be like, ‘I got this show coming up, here’s a hundred dollars for everyone in a 30-piece band.’
“I think I have a naive confidence about things like this,” Frock continues. “I’ll just decide,
I'm gonna fucking do this.
The thought that I can’t do it won’t really cross my mind.”