I knew when I first met Andrew Neu that someday I’d be writing about him. I found him to be such an interesting and versatile musician. The first thing that struck me about him was the level of his skill in playing. Next was the very down to earth personality, those blond curls and that ready smile. With so many talented saxophone players already in my CD player, I wondered how I could fit yet another one into my mixed bag of musical favorites. I didn’t know how there could be anything truly new, because I’ve heard so, so many good players over so many years. And that’s only because I live in Reading, Pennsylvania, home of the Berks Jazz Festival; I’m blessed with the opportunity to get a close-up look and impression of the great players that come through our town. And that includes saxophonists like David Sanborn, Boney James, Richard Elliot, Kim Waters, Warren Hill, Euge Groove, Kenny Blake, Gerald Albright, David Mann, Kirk Whalum, Dave Koz, and the list could go on. But I didn’t need to worry. Just as with other artists who are true to themselves, I found that in Andrew Neu there was, indeed, something new.
I had heard Neu with other players, mostly as a sideman and recognized that he was very talented. I’d seen him lead a high school jazz band and knew he was not just a player, but an effective leader, conductor, composer and arranger and that his talents were many. But when I heard him do his own show back in 2011, I was more impressed than I ever could have imagined. I loved the tunes, I couldn’t believe how he kept going and going with one exceptional performance after another on each song. He had a passion I loved to watch, and while he’s aware of his audience, he was mostly lost in each moment of musical expression – totally engrossed in a perfect delivery of what he came here to do. I was, and still am, so impressed – after hearing him perform numerous times, now, I see the same signature of dedicated effort and perfection in performance.
What I have found in following his career is that there are new things to discover about him at every turn. His multi-genre abilities, his experiences with so many talented players and vocalists, his compositions and arrangements, his publishing work, the status he maintains as ready-willing-and-able to add so much to any project he’s asked to do -- all of this adds up to a remarkable journey for those of us who have become true fans. His life gives new meaning to the phrase, ‘There’s always something Neu.’
Neu has so many things going on I can hardly keep up. Here is an encapsulated view of just some major highlights of his career: he was chosen to play and tour with Bobby Caldwell and also with Diane Schuur in major US cities like Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, as well as Japan and China this past year; he has been regularly filling in with Smokey Robinson on his tours. He’s also played in England, France and Italy (the Italy trip involved taking a high school band there to perform). He plays with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops, and has played with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He leads an all-star big band with trumpeter Anthony Bonsara in Los Angeles, and has shared the stage with Elton John, Patti LaBelle, Melissa Manchester, Mel Torme, along with many contemporary jazz artists, such as Pat Martino, Randy Brecker, Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Gerald Albright, Kim Waters, Nick Colionne, David Benoit, Chieli Minucci, and Brian Simpson. He recorded with Bobby Caldwell and others, including Manhattan Transfer, David Sanborn, Jeff Lorber, Brian Culbertson, Sister Sledge and Buddy DeFranco.
One thing is certain about Neu. He is constantly changing from one location to another. You may find him in the Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood, California or the Razz Room at the Hotel Nikko in San Francisco, playing with Bobby Caldwell or Diane Schuur, or you might find him in Pennsylvania for most of the ten days of music of the Berks Jazz Fest, which is where I’ve found him in recent years. I might add there are a few regulars who are always part of Berks -- people like Gerald Veasley, Chuck Loeb and a few others with a versatility and talent for orchestrating and arranging music for events involving many musicians. Andrew Neu is quickly becoming one of those who are valuable to Berks in that regard -- he simply has that much to offer. I’ve seen it first-hand and I’ve seen his fan base continue to grow, something that is exciting to watch.
I wanted to learn more about how Neu began playing the saxophone in his early years and get to know the visions that have provided him the energy to accomplish all that he does. What has and does life as a musician mean to him as a person?
Interestingly, Neu began his musical efforts with a clarinet. He loved trumpet, but an older brother was already busy learning to play it, flute was taken by a sister, and drums were too loud for the household, so he settled on the clarinet. Later, he realized this had been a good choice, because it was much easier to go from clarinet to saxophone than vice versa. And when he switched to the saxophone, he always had the clarinet to fall back on. Along the way he learned to play the flute, also, and he has never fallen out of love with the trumpet.
Seeing his brother play gigs made him realize this is something he also wanted to do some day. He got into the high school jazz band. He spent a lot of time listening to classical music in his earlier years and this gave him an enduring appreciation at a young age for the teamwork of more than one instrument – a ‘big band.’ He loved the idea, and it shows that in so many of his efforts; it’s leading or playing in a big band that seems to satisfies something deep within him.
Neu likes to play all kinds of music – he’s happy with a big band, a folk band, playing behind a vocalist, enjoying the quietness of an acoustic song, or a loud ‘kicking out all the stops’ type of song, in addition to Latin, funk, and classical. He writes and transcribes music for entire bands for Kendor Music, and for the individual music of particular artists.
Neu learned early in his career to always give his best effort, and that he won’t always know who might be listening and what they are looking for. Bringing your top game every time and appreciating all of the opportunities that come your way has been an important part of his vision of what being a musician is about. It’s also important to him to be emotionally open to music and where it takes him and where it takes others who are listening.
Neu is grateful to have played on the albums of three key players in the last year, being featured on Steve Oliver’s top 10 record, World Citizen, Bobby Caldwell’s new CD entitled, House of Cards, and playing sax and flute on every track of Peter White’s new CD, Here We Go.
Neu has released three well received CD’s of his own (Inspire, 2000, In Clear View in 2007 and Try Something Neu in 2009) and is now ready to launch his fourth and most exciting CD on June 4th of this year. The new CD title, Everything Happens for a Reason, was inspired by his recent experience of looking forward to a gig in Bermuda or the Bahamas. While planning the trip, Neu realized Berks Jazz Fest was at the exact same time, and felt he needed to choose Berks instead of going to an island. As hard as that was, it turned out to be a great choice because that year many got to know him, and many opportunities grew from that particular year being part of the Berks Jazz Scene. He knew afterwards there was a reason why he didn’t end up on an idyllic beach during that ten day period. Since that time, he’s been reminded so often that it’s true – things really do happen for a reason.
The new CD is being produced by Brian Bromberg (who played on and helped engineer In Clear View) and Steve Oliver. Neu says, “It’s an adventurous project featuring Rick Braun, Bobby Caldwell, Jeff Lorber, Brian Bromberg, Steve Oliver, Tom Schuman, Alex Acuna and others. It’s embellished by a horn section and a full orchestra and takes you on a journey.” Andrew co-wrote a song with Bobby Caldwell for the CD and arranged a different take on the well-known jazz standard, ‘Take Five.’ Neu says it’s inspired by the soul jazz and Latin music of the 60’s. The CD will also feature more of Neu’s flute playing.
Neu continues to move forward with a keen desire to “be out in front of audiences, connecting to people on whatever level they are responding to the music.” As he puts it, “I can’t see having chosen any other career….my passion, my work, and my hobby are all the same thing: music.”
As an observer of his brilliant career, I can only say: it definitely shows. And becomes Neu every day.
Please keep up with the latest news on Andrew Neu at his website, andrewneu.com.
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Write me at email@example.com
2009 Grammy nominations & topping Billboard’s jazz charts
By Val Vaccaro
There has been an incredible evolution of American-born trumpeter, composer, and charismatic performer Chris Botti. At 47 years young, Botti has experienced many transitions. Overall, trumpeter Chris Botti has gone from young brown-haired, ‘smooth jazz’ male ingénue to blond jazz/pop/classical crossover music icon, who is one of the world’s best selling instrumental artists. With the pure warmth and graceful beauty of his tone, like his trumpet, Botti seems to have loyal fans in the palm of his hands.
Chris Botti is ending 2009 with 3 Grammy nominations for his current CD and DVD Chris Botti in Boston (which is also #1 on Billboard magazine’s Top Contemporary Jazz Albums chart). The Grammy nominations are for: Best Pop Instrumental Album for the CD (Columbia/Sony Music), Best Long Form Music Video for the DVD (Jim Gable - video director; Bobby Colomby - video producer [Columbia/Sony Music], and Best Instrumental Arrangement for the song “Emmanuel” (arranged by Jeremy Lubbock; performed by Chris Botti and violinist Lucia Micarelli). (See separate review of the DVD Chris Botti in Boston by Val Vaccaro on SmoothVibes.com)
For the end-of-the-year Billboard charts, Botti is also #1 on the Top Contemporary Jazz Artists charts. On Billboard’s Top Jazz Artists chart which lists both traditional and contemporary jazz artists, Botti is #4 – the only instrumentalist among great vocalists – following Michael Bublé (#1), Harry Connick Jr. (#2), and Diana Krall (#3). Two of Botti’s inspirational role models are listed after Botti - the late great Frank Sinatra is #5 and the legendary Tony Bennett is #6 on that chart). Also, Botti’s CD Italia (released in 2007) is #15 on the 2009 end-of-the-year Billboard Top Traditional Jazz Albums chart.
In smaller steps, Chris Botti’s transitions are still impressive. From touring with Frank Sinatra in 1981 to sideman and opening act for Sting in 2001. From appearing on Oprah to performing at Oslo at the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Concert. From an obscure newcomer, to one of People Magazine’s most Beautiful People in 2004. From session studio musician, to consummate live performer. From introspective soloist with his own band in 1996, to charming collaborator, sensational showman, and tour veteran in 2009. From headlining performer, to Blue Note bobblehead doll in 2009 at the renowned NYC jazz club. From Botti’s smooth-jazz/chill music debut CD First Wish in 1995 to the eclectic mix of crossover music in the 2009 Grammy-nominated Chris Botti in Boston CD and DVD. From Oregon native to NYC transplant to LA homeowner.
From studio musician and sideman, to consummate frontman.
Chris Botti has received both critical acclaim and is a fan-favorite with mainstream audiences around the world. In the past few decades, Botti is one of a handful of trumpeters to successfully reach a larger base of fans. In his own unique way, Chris Botti is following in the footsteps of pop/jazz trumpeters that have reached widespread audiences such as Herb Alpert, Chuck Mangione, Doc Severinsen, Chet Baker, and Botti’s main inspiration, Miles Davis, as well as other instrumentalists such as Kenny G and Yanni. Chris Botti said he admires jazz musicians who successfully crossed-over from jazz to the rock world such as David Sanborn, Steve Gadd, Michael Brecker, and Mark Isham, and felt that he would like to pursue a similar path. Further, Botti has garnered success as a multi-media star, due to a combination of talent, charm, providence, and good looks. For sure, Botti has been lucky and blessed, but he has also dedicated almost four decades of his life with a single-minded determination to get to where he is now.
Around the world, Chris Botti has sold nearly three million albums. He has recorded over a dozen CDs as a solo artist ranging from contemporary jazz and “chill” music to American jazz standards, classical music and pop music. From 1995 to the present, many of Botti’s CDs and DVDs have gone gold or platinum (certified by the RIAA). Botti has also received numerous Grammy nominations and awards.
Chris Botti got his first experience on the road touring with Frank Sinatra in 1981 (he said in a recent show (on May 14th at the Bergen Performing Arts Center) that he took a “leap of faith” and left college early to do that). In the past twenty years, Botti has also worked as a studio musician with many top producers (such as Arif Mardin and Hugh Padgham) and dozens of renowned artists. Chris Botti has recorded and/or performed with a diversity of renowned music artists such as Sting, Tony Bennett, Andrea Bocelli (Botti’s appeared as a guest on some of Bocelli’s PBS special Vivere: Live in Tuscany), Paul Simon, Natalie Cole, Gladys Night, Chaka Khan, Burt Bacharach, Julio Iglesias, Yo-Yo Ma, Ennio Morricone, Paula Cole, Steven Tyler, John Mayer, Joe Cocker, Linda Eder, Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Rod Stewart, Marc Cohn, Thomas Dolby, Roger Daltrey, Natalie Merchant, Joshua Bell, Jill Scott, The Brecker Brothers, film composer John Barry and more.
In addition, Botti has recorded with jazz artists such as: Michael Bublé, George Benson, Al Jarreau, Gerald Albright, Dave Koz, Jeff Lorber, Philippe Saisse, Peter White, Spyro Gyra, Angela Bofill, Reneé Olstead, Jill Scott, Rachel Z, Bob James, David Benoit, Dave Grusin, David Mann, Andy Snitzer, Eric Marienthal, Lee Ritenour, Russ Freeman, Chris Standring, Jimmy Sommers, Dominic Miller, Brian Culbertson, and others.
While on tour from 1990-1995 with Paul Simon, Botti met saxophonist Michael Brecker, which led to Botti producing the Brecker Brothers’ Out of the Loop CD. The album won a 1995 Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Performance. In recent years, Botti has opened for and/or toured with Michael Bublé, Josh Groban, Dave Koz, Diana Krall, Al Jarreau, Bob James, and Joni Mitchell.
From 1999-2001, Botti put his own contemporary jazz band on hold, so that he could go on the road as a member of Sting’s band on the Brand New Day tour. Botti credits Sting with boosting his career, and giving him his big break when he asked Botti to be his opening act. In 2001 after the concert All This Time (which was recorded for a CD/DVD and webcast at Sting’s estate in Tuscany on September 11, 2001). That show was broadcast as a part of an A&E (Arts & Entertainment) cable channel “In Concert” series in the U.S. and received six Emmy nominations.
In 2005, Botti collaborated with Sting on the sweepingly dramatic and poetic ballad “What Are You Doing for the Rest of Your Life” (composed by Marilyn Bergman, Alan Bergman and Michel LeGrand) which appeared on Botti’s CD To Love Again – The Duets. The recording won a Grammy in 2006 for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s), arranged by Billy Childs, Gil Goldstein and Heitor Pereira.
In 2007. Botti released the CD Italia inspired by the romance of Italy and his own Italian heritage, included classical, jazz, and pop music such as "Ave Maria", "Venice", "Estatè", and the title track "Italia." The CD Italia, which included duets with Andrea Bocelli, Paula Cole, and (a posthumous recording of) Dean Martin, was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
From Headlining Performer, to Blue Note Bobblehead
From December 15, 2009 through January 3rd, 2010, Botti was the headline act for a 3 week run at the legendary Blue Note jazz club in New York City. in the past few years, this has become somewhat of a holiday tradition for Botti at the Blue Note. Botti said the shows at the Blue Note “are always fun for me, and the only other artist to play at the Blue Note for three weeks was Dizzy Gillespie. So I feel quite honored." During Botti’s reign at the Blue Note jazz club in NYC, he was accompanied by his touring band: Billy Childs (piano), Robert (Bob) Hurst (bass), Billy Kilson (drums), Mark Whitfield (guitar), along with special guests: Andy Ezrin (piano), Susie Park (violinist), and Sy Smith (vocals) (according to a Tweet from Sy Smith). On December 24th, the Blue Note gave Chris Botti an early Christmas present – a Chris Botti Bobblehead Doll. The custom-made Bobblehead Doll is merely a token of the admiration and adoration for Botti. (The bobblehead photos were posted by BlueNotenyc on TwitPic.
As part of other end-of-year festivities, Botti pre-recorded a countdown to 2010 with some of his favorite songs, share some stories and new year’s resolutions which was broadcast on New Year’s Eve in 2009 from 8pm to midnight EST on Sirius/XM satellite radio on the Watercolors 71 channel in the U.S. (www.xmradio.com).
From Brown-haired ingénue soloist
The first time I saw trumpeter Chris Botti perform in 1998 at the Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania, I knew I watching a very special artist. I listened and watched in amazement and awe at Botti’s beautifully ethereal tone and the performance of his musical persona as he played with purity of sound and great breath control, while walking up the aisle into the audience of the Sheraton Reading hotel ballroom. Later in August of 1998, I saw Chris Botti perform at the Mount Hood Jazz Festival (in his native state of Oregon). There was a unique opportune moment when I went backstage and remember saying with a big smile on my face – how lucky I was to say hello to two of my favorite trumpeters standing and talking there together – Rick Braun and newcomer Chris Botti). That same month, I also saw Chris Botti open for Bob James’ smooth-jazz supergroup Fourplay (with Larry Carlton starting his tenure there). I remember watching the two shows on a summer evening under a spectacular full moon at an outdoor theater at a winery in the San Francisco area, where I sat with smooth jazz guitarist Joyce Cooling and her musical director and partner, keyboardist Jay Wagner, who were also fans of all of the performers. At that time on tour in 1998, Chris Botti was promoting his second CD Midnight Without You (released in1997) which was a follow-up to his debut as a solo artist with the 1995 CD First Wish. Little did anyone know that fate had in mind for Botti to be catapulted to worldwide acclaim transcending boundaries as a pop/jazz/classical music crossover artist and multi-media star.
Secrets of Botti’s Tone
Physical fitness and dedication to practice
After the Berks Jazz Fest show in March 1998, I asked Chris Botti what was the secret to his incredible tone and breath control – he said he attributed it in part to doing yoga. In an interview with the LA Daily News in July 2009, Botti said: "I do yoga, but to be honest with you, because I play the trumpet I have to practice that thing three, four, five hours a day. So when I'm not on the road, that's what I'm really trying to do, get better."
Recently, Botti humbly said that after all of his accomplishments, the one goal he continues to nurture is continuing to become a better trumpet player – everything else can simply just fall into place. In a 2005 interview for www.bandn.com, Botti said “ultimately, I think the thing that's most recognizable for me is the actual tone of my trumpet. The way that I phrase and play, the actual sound of my trumpet is very recognizable.” Botti is proud of his special sound, which he refers to as “dark” and “melancholy” tone, rather than a bright one, which really lends itself perfectly when Botti is playing ballads.
Botti attributes his sound to “a natural progression just from years and years of practice…. always trying to achieve a more polished, beautiful, round trumpet sound….Since I was a kid I’ve been trying to do that. So it didn’t just happen overnight at all. It’s been a long journey and something that I’ve dedicated my whole life to.” Botti has also (jokingly or may not jokingly) said: "The trumpet is a bit of mistress….You have to be physically on your game."
Botti also used the sports analogy of how a trumpeter is “like being a baseball pitcher. I think every baseball pitcher would love to paint the outside corner at 95 miles an hour. But it’s just not like that. You just physically can’t do it all the time, and so with the trumpet it’s very similar. Your biggest enemy is the trumpet. Everyone would love to have that kind of dark, beautiful trumpet sound because it’s more rare than getting a bright, brittle trumpet sound.” That sports analogy is a great reflection of the risk that happens every time a trumpet player gets out there to play livea – they put themselves out there on the line. It can be a scary thing for all horn players – and reminded me of a story that was echoed by trumpeter Jon Faddis in an interview at a Jazz Times magazine convention in 1998. Faddis told a story of all of the practice he had to put in (since he was 9 years old) to avoid embarassment to make sure he could confidently hit the high notes (without fail) - inspired by his muse – Dizzy Gillespie. (On December 29th at the 32nd annual Kennedy Center Honors show, Jon Faddis recently played as part of a moving tribute to honoree, 89 year old legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck – the same show in which Sting performed a tribute to honoree Bruce Springsteen at that event’s finale.)
Another part of the equation that helps create the special tone is made via the instrument itself. Chris Botti plays a rare 1939/1941 Martin Committee trumpet with a slightly larger bell. The horn was popular from the late 1940s until the mid-1960s played by legends such as Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Dizzy Gillespie, Maynard Ferguson, Al Hirt, Kenny Dorham and Clifford Brown. Botti purchased the trumpet in 2003. Botti has said that “it was like finding a rare Jaguar or a rare Porsche. The sound is just so dark and beautiful, with a really soft and inviting tone." Botti also uses a 3C silver plated mouthpiece from Bach made in 1926, after retiring his 1920 3C Bach mouthpiece. He also uses a Leblanc Vacchiano Harmon mute from the 1950s.
Chris Botti has the dedication and discipline to stay on track - striving to be the best he can be - playing a challenging instrument that not many artists get to master in a lifetime. In admiration of his muse, Botti referred to Miles Davis this way: “Like a great athlete, he could get all around the horn and his sound was brilliant and moody and dark when it needed to be." Botti candidly has expressed his concerns about playing one of the most difficult musical instruments. Botti said "It doesn't take a brain surgeon to look at the history of trumpet players and see how quickly the instrument can make you humble. …Last year, we lost one of the greatest trumpet players of all time in Freddie Hubbard…You just never know, something can go wrong — have your wisdom tooth pulled out — and it just messes up your whole apparatus. Or you cut your lip, and it never heals properly, which is what happened to Freddie. Those things I'm painfully aware of and want to make sure that they don't happen."
For Chris Botti, It is much more than just yoga or playing the right horn that makes him a special musician. It’s the artist himself, the sound, the trumpet, his muses… the sum is much greater than the parts. Chris Botti’s sound seems to derive from the depths of heart and soul. Ask any fan listening and watching trumpeter Chris Botti focus and play the dramatic, religious aria “Ave Maria,” “Hallelujah” or “Time to Say Goodbye,” and you might suspect that there is some sort of divine intervention.
Botti’s Early Roots
Christopher Stephen Botti was born in Portland, Oregon and grew up in Corvallis. As a child, he also lived for two years in Italy. Born on October 12, 1962, that makes Botti a Libra. Even if you are a skeptic about astrology, Botti seems to fit the description of Libras. Being hardworking, idealistic, an archetypal romantic, and valuing beauty and balance appear to be in alignment with Botti’s philosophy on music and life. Consider the balance of his practice regimen and the discipline of being on the road 250+ days a year, his dedication to creating a beautiful tone and lush music on the trumpet, and view his persona – including his taste in designer clothing. A 2005 New York Times article noted that Botti’s taste included “Prada, Gucci, … leather jackets and expensive … jeans (which) make him something of a Sting style-alike.”
Since he was about 10 years old, Botti was already a dedicated musician practicing and playing trumpet. He said he chose music partly because he was not good at sports. Initially, Botti was influenced by his mother, a classically trained pianist and part time piano teacher. According to Botti "I can't really sit down and play a song on the piano. But I know harmony, and generally I compose on the piano rather than on the trumpet."
At 12 years old, he says he had the good fortune of listening to the live album by trumpeter Miles Davis (with saxophonist George Coleman and pianist Herbie Hancock) which included Davis’ recording of "My Funny Valentine." After listening to Davis play, Botti had an epiphany when he realized that he wanted to be a musician, play jazz on trumpet as a way of “doing something meaningful with my life."
In 1980, when Botti was 18 years old, he was chosen as a member of McDonalds’ All American High School Jazz Band, and played at Carnegie Hall. Botti finished his high school senior year credits at Mount Hood Community College in Gresham, and arranged it so he could also play music at night at clubs in Portland. After that, Botti attended Indiana University and studied with jazz educator David Baker and trumpet professor Bill Adam. Botti also received two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts which enabled him to study with trumpeter Woody Shaw and saxophonist George Coleman during two summer college breaks.
While in his senior year at college, Chris Botti had the golden opportunity to tour for two weeks with singer Frank Sinatra, and with drummer Buddy Rich. Botti was also a member of Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, an experimental, jazz fusion-oriented group. In the 1980s, Botti relocated to New York City, under the guidance of producers including Hugh Padgham and Arif Mardin. According to Botti, "After I came to New York "I realized I didn't want to be a jazz musician. I love improvising, but you really need to live the bebop tradition in order to play it. That kind of music--the kind that Woody Shaw, for example, played so brilliantly--just moves a little too quickly for me.”
In 1995, when Chris Botti embarked upon his solo recording career, he knew he needed to steer his own course and hone his own musical style. Botti was not interested in competing with traditional jazz trumpeters and playing bebop, although he says he admires trumpeters like Wynton Marsalis and Terence Blanchard. From 1995 to 2003, Chris Botti’s first five albums had an ‘atmospheric’ quality, produced with “electronic underpinnings.” Botti’s music was marketed as “smooth jazz” although his music had other influences such as alternative, funky pop music and chill music – Botti said he was influenced by pop artists such as Peter Gabriel and Bryan Ferry. In 1995, Botti released his first solo album, First Wish. His second CD Midnight Without You was released in 1997, and included vocalists Paul Buchanan (from Blue Nile) and Jonatha Brooke. In 1999 (when he also began touring with Sting) Chris Botti released Slowing Down The World with vocals from Sting and Jonatha Brooke. Also, in 1996, between his first two CDs, Botti composed the score and recorded a soundtrack for the 1996 Robert M. Young film Caught. In addition, a Best of Chris Botti CD was also released.
In 2001, Night Sessions became Botti’s first release on the Columbia Records label. The CD was well received by music critics. Night Sessions was inspired by the sounds of the late-night European club scene. Some highlights from the CD include the following songs. "Streets Ahead" was the first radio single, an upbeat tune with Botti along with Jeff Lorber on keyboards. Grammy-winner Shawn Colvin sang "All Would Envy" an unrecorded composition by Sting (similar to Sting’s tune "It’s Probably Me"). "Blue Horizon" is a mixture of funky, hip, with jazz fusion and Miles Davis-like influences with pianist Billy Childs’ playing style for that tune in Herbie Hancock’s “Headhunter” mode. Other guest musicians on the CD were: Christian McBride, Vinnie Colaiuta, Luis Conte and Dominic Miller.
In 2002, Chris Botti released a holiday-themed CD called December with songs including “Little Drummer Boy” and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Botti sung (his only recorded vocals to date) on two of the tracks – “Perfect Day" (a tune composed by Richard Marx with the season-appropriate line, "With you, it's Christmas every day") and "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." The CD also included Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah."
In 2003, Chris Botti released the CD A Thousand Kisses Deep which contains originals and covers that emphasize Botti’s crossover appeal as both a jazz and pop musician. Botti described the CD as "a more mature and expansive version of the kind of thing I started doing eight or nine years ago. I'm chasing the ultimate chill-out vibe. I'm trying to create music that is beautiful and sophisticated at the same time."
The CD included a breathtakingly beautiful, tender interpretation of the classic jazz standard “My Funny Valentine” accompanied by pianist Billy Childs. That’s the song recorded by trumpeter Miles Davis that most inspired Botti when he was only about 10 years old to become a trumpeter. Botti’s version also happens to be my favorite for the tune. I’ve also seen Botti perform “My Funny Valentine” at the old IMAC Theater in Huntington, New York. I continue to savor his beautiful arrangement and improvisations on that song from his 2003 CD.
It seemed for a while that “My Funny Valentine” was Botti’s “signature” tune in concert, but he did not include it on the 2009 DVD release Chris Botti in Boston (hopefully in the future, Botti’s solo version will also be captured on a DVD). Chris Botti, with Sting on vocals, recorded a version of “My Funny Valentine” on his 2006 DVD and CD Live: With Orchesta And Special Guests. (Sting also recorded it for a movie called Ashura (and it appears on Sting’s CD My Funny Valentine: Sting at the Movies.) During Chris Botti’s tours, audience members would often be treated to him playing a poignant version of “My Funny Valentine” – to highlight his pure, warm tones ‘acapella’ (i.e., solo-no band). Botti would usually pick a special person to play the tune to in the audience. In October 2003, I had the pleasure of seeing Botti pick a young boy about 9 years old (about the same age as Botti was when he started playing trumpet). Before he played the song, Botti spoke about the importance of early music education for children. Botti then performed “My Funny Valentine” to the boy, his parents, and the hushed crowd during a Dave Koz show at the Westbury Music Theater in New York. (That same night, in contrast to his beautiful balladeering, Botti showed off his chops performed with Dave Koz on alto sax a memorable, fantastic version of the very funky, hip, quick tempo song “Sounds Of The Underground” which samples the ultra-hip, cool Lee Morgan tune “Sidewinder“ (the song appears on the Dave Koz CD Saxophonic).
Another cover Botti did on the 2003 CD A Thousand Kisses Deep was “The Look of Love” (an exhilarating rendition sung by Chantal Kreviazuk) which was a hit on smooth jazz radio. Botti also later recorded a “live” version of “The Look of Love” with singer Paula Cole and composer/pianist Burt Bacharach on the 2006 CD/DVD Live with Orchestra & Special Guests. In 1967, “The Look of Love” was a popular hit sung by Dusty Springfield as the theme song for the James Bond movie Casino Royale.
In 2004, Chris Botti released his breakthrough, most pivotal CD of his career to date, When I Fall in Love, recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra, and a number of notable artists such as Paula Cole, Billy Childs, Jeff Lorber, Brian Bromberg, Billy Kilson, Dean Parks, and Vinnie Colaiuta. The 2004 album was ‘a dream come true’ for Chris Botti, and the CD was certified gold in sales by the RIAA. The 2004 CD has some of the most romantic jazz standards ever composed from the American Songbook (which appeared in some of my favorite old movie musicals such as those with Fred Astaire singing and dancing to these great songs). With wonderful arrangements by Marc Shulman, Gil Goldstein, Billy Childs, and Jeremy Lubbock, the songs included are: the title track “When I Fall in Love, Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do” (featuring Paula Cole on vocals), Rodgers and Hart’s “My Romance,” “Let’s Fall in Love,” Ira and George Gershwin’s “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “Nearness of You,” “Make Someone Happy,” and the Harold Arlen-Johnny Mercer tune “One for My Baby” (covered by artists such as Frank Sinatra). The CD also features the song “La Belle Dame Sans Regrets” sung by Sting (composed by Sting and Dominic Miller). “How Love Should Be” is sung by Paula Cole (and composed and arranged by Jeremy Lubbock). There is also a cover of the song “No Ordinary Love” (made famous by vocalist Sade) which was arranged by Bobby Colomby, Jeff Lorber and Brian Bromberg) with vocals by Jill Zadeh. Botti also included two dramatic selections by Italian composers influenced by classical music: “Cinema Paradiso” and “Time to say Goodbye” (Con Te Partiro).
Chris Botti’s follow-up CD was the 2005 To Love Again: The Duets, produced by Bobby Colomby, which also became a gold album. The CD included jazz standards and other popular love songs, also following the successful formula of artists such as Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Kenny G with some duets. The 2005 release included instrumentals by Botti on “Embraceable You,” “What’s New,” “To Love Again,” “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The duets included “What are you Doing the Rest of Your Life” sung by Sting (which won a Grammy award), “My One and Only Love” with Paula Cole, “Let There Be Love” with Michael Bublé, “Good Morning Heartache” with Jill Scott (which became a big smooth jazz radio hit), “Are You Lonesone Tonight” with Paul Buchanan, “Lover Man” with Gladys Knight, “Pennies from Heaven” with Renee Olstead, “Here’s that Rainy Day” with Rosa Passos, and the CD’s moving conclusion, “Smile” sung by Steven Tyler.
The 2006 CD/DVD Live with Orchestra & Special Guests was the first of Chris Botti’s highly successful PBS specials recorded at the Wilshire Theatre in Los Angeles (for the public broadcasting system’s TV network 2006 pledge drive). The popular DVD went platinum in sales. The show included six instrumentals, including songs like “Someone to Watch Over Me,” “When I Fall in Love,” and Leonard Cohen’s “A Thousand Kisses Deep” with Botti and his band (including pianist Billy Childs and drummer Billy Kilson). There were eight duets including Sting on vocals for “What are you Doing for the Rest of Your Life” and “My Funny Valentine.” Jill Scott sang “Good Morning Heartache,” Renee Olstead sang “Pennies from Heaven,” and Paula Cole and Burt Bacharach performed on “The Look of Love.” Other guest artists included Gladys Knight and Paul Buchanan.
In 2007, Chris Botti added more of a classical music influence to his themed record called Italia. On the title track, Botti collaborates with opera/pop crossover singer Andrea Bocelli (Italia was composed by Chris Botti and David Foster). (Botti and Bocelli performed that song on Bocelli’s 2007 PBS television special/DVD Vivere: Andrea Bocelli in Tuscany). Botti’s CD Italia also contains duets with Paula Cole, and (a posthumous recording of) Dean Martin. Italia was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Album (as previously mentioned). As noted earlier, Botti’s most recent release is the 2009 Grammy-nominated CD Chris Botti in Boston.
To Blond-Crossover-Music Icon: Lucky Breaks, the Media & the Botti Brand
New York City was Botti’s adopted hometown for many years after he graduated college to gain experience as a studio musician in the 1980s, so in a way, it’s a type of homecoming while he played for three weeks at the Blue Note jazz club, even though he recently purchased a house in Los Angeles. While in NYC, on December 23rd, 2009, Botti did the honors of ringing the closing bell of the New York Stock Exchange. It’s these kinds of unusual items that continue to keep Botti in the press.
For Botti, it seems providence leads to a series of events from one lucky break to another, and whatever challenges and surprising new experiences offered to him, Botti has adeptly handled these events with finesse, grace, humility, and with a sense of humor to top it all off.
One fortunate event for Chris Botti was when Bobby Colomby (who became his producer and manager), brought Botti to Columbia Records (he released the CD Night Sessions on Columbia in 2001). Colomby was the drummer and original founder of the mega-pop group Blood, Sweat & Tears. About three years later, Columbia Records would help change the course of Botti’s career to include covering jazz standards from the American Songbook, and that would make him a rising star. Botti wrote (in his liner notes) that Don Ienner, President and CEO of the parent company of his record label Sony Music Label Group U.S. (Columbia Records) made “a suggestion that is also a personal dream, I know that I am truly blessed. We agreed a recording of romantic music allowing an escape from life’s everyday anxieties would be a timely remedy for listeners and truly extraordinary at this point in time.” The idea was for Chris Botti to record a CD of jazz standards with an orchestra (an expensive initial investment which proved a wise decision for Botti’s career (and from a marketing and sales perspective). That CD became the 2004 release When I Fall in Love (which was later certified as a gold record).
A 2007 New York Times article once described Chris Botti as “Sting-endorsed and Oprah-approved.” Botti always credits his first lucky break to touring with Sting from 1999-2001, which helped get Botti’s solo career to the next level. Botti once told the Palm Beach Post that “He (Sting) calls me his evil younger brother. I gotta tell you, all my big breaks lead back to Sting, every last one of them. Going around the world with … (Sting), he gave me so many fans. ... It all leads back to him and his constant friendship."
According to Botti, “I was opening for Sting. At one of the shows there was some guy in the audience who listened to the show, then went out, bought my album, and sent it to Oprah.” In November 2004, veteran talk-show host Oprah Winfrey quickly became an enthusiastic fan of Botti’s music, and then invited Botti to be a guest on her show where he played the song “When I Fall in Love” for a special fantasy wedding (supposedly at the request of the bride) on the show. Botti also performed on a TV special in May 2005 at Oprah Winfrey’s Legends Ball honoring her African American heroines. After Chris Botti initially appeared on Oprah’s talk show, on November 12, 2004, he performed “Someone to Watch Over Me” and was interviewed by Al Roker on the national program the Today Show on NBC, which further increased his exposure to American audiences watching daytime television. By reaching a new, larger audience (just one week after the appearance 50,000 CDs of Botti’s were sold), Chris Botti’s CD When I Fall in Love shot to the Number 1 Album spot on Amazon.com, and was Number 1 on Billboard’s jazz charts (as www.SmoothVibes.com reported back in November 2004).
Just one month later, in December 2004, Oprah Winfrey was co-host with Tom Cruise at the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslow, Norway. Botti had the privilege of performing alongside artists such as Andrea Bocelli, Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, Patti LaBelle, Cyndi Lauper, and Joss Stone at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert which was broadcast to over 100 countries. Botti was quoted in the Seattle Times as saying “I just thought, what did I do to deserve this?”
Botti’s 2004 CD When I Fall in Love was later re-released as part of a package with a DVD. In addition to the music, the DVD When I Fall in Love also includes a documentary about the making of the album and a video of Botti's performance of "Someone to Watch Over Me" at the 2004 Nobel Prize Concert in Oslo, Norway. The CD/DVD combination has proved to be a winning marketing formula for promoting Botti as an artist.
As part of popular culture, in 2004, Botti was also voted on People Magazine’s Top 50 most Beautiful People. (The only other ‘smooth jazz’ artist I can recall who has been on a People Magazine list is saxophonist Dave Koz – who was on the 2004 list of People’ Magazine’s ’50 Hottest Bachelors’.) In 2005, a New York Times article described Chris Botti this way: With his sculptured blond hair and crinkly eyes, Mr. Botti, a boyish (looks), is a modern-day jazz heartthrob.
Botti has also been described (sort of tongue-in-cheek) as looking like “a Greek surfer god… Botti the brand is Adonis with a trumpet in his hand” by Minneapolis/St Paul Magazine. From an art history perspective, aficionados might also find some resemblance of Botti to the classical beauty of a marble bust of ancient Roman Emperor Tiberius. (What do you think?)
In 2004, the same year his CD When I Fall in Love was moving up the charts, Chris Botti was covered by the entertainment gossip media for his new relationship with television news reporter Katie Couric, who was then co-anchor of the Today Show on NBC. After sometime, Botti reported to the press that they were no longer an item, and remained friends.
From 2004-2005, Chris Botti also had appearances on numerous American television shows. Botti appeared on the daytime TV variety program The Tony Danza Show, entertainment news programs Access Hollywood and The Insider, and on the Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn. Botti performed a song with Paula Cole on the CBS Early Morning Show and also on The View. Botti also played on the Sharon Osbourne Show where Botti and Jeff Lorber played “My Funny Valentine.” On March 5, 2005, cable news channel CNN aired an interview they did with Botti about what his success meant to him.
Trumpeter Chris Botti has also performed at fundraising events. On March 21, 2005, Botti performed a show at a fundraiser for Hillary Clinton in NYC ($1000 per plate). Interestingly, Botti had also been invited to play at George Bush’s Presidential inauguration. According to SmoothVibes.com, Botti’s manager said Botti turned down the opportunity to play at the Bush event due to conflicts with his touring schedule, but another source –Toby Rogers, author of book on Bush The Blue and The Red, claimed that Sting had influenced Botti’s decision to decline the invitation. In April 2005, Chris performed a show at the First Annual Diamonds For Humanity Gala to benefit the International League for Human Rights at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center in New York City (sponsored by Gemesis Cultured Diamonds and Harper's Bazaar magazine).
According to SmoothVibes.com, on October 23, 2005, the week that Chris Botti released his 2005 CD To Love Again, Botti had the honor of playing “God Bless America” at Game 2 of the World Series baseball game in Chicago with the Chicago White Sox versus the Houston Astros. This opportunity was to make-up for a lost one the previous year, when Botti was originally scheduled to perform at Game 5 of the 2004 World Series – a game that never happened because the Boston Red Sox beat the Cardinals in their home town of St. Louis in four games, winning their first championship in 86 years.
The marketing of various products and services have also been associated with Chris Botti, which is atypical for most jazz and pop artists. In 2003, Chris Botti appeared in a national advertising campaign for Christian Brothers Brandy (Heaven Hill Distilleries) (notice the brand cleverly has the same initials and shares the same letters of Chris’ first name). The campaign actually was for a "Smooth As Jazz" summer sales promotion, where consumers received a $6 mail-in coupon towards the purchase of Botti’s Night Sessions CD; the firm also sold the brandy with the sampler CD as an on-pack promotion. Also in November, 2003, the U.S. electronics retail chain Best Buy released a limited edition special CD (not sold to the public) as a reward only for members of its frequent-buyers program “Reward Zone.” The CD called Sweet Tracks was packaged in a festive holiday container that looks like a peppermint candy, and included Chris Botti (accompanied by Billy Childs) on the song “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The CD also included vocals by Sting on “Bethlehem Down”, Jewel on “Blue Christmas,” Seal on “Make Someone Happy” and Coldplay on “2,000 Miles.” (Botti was the only instrumental artist on that CD.) On December 21st, 2004, Chris Botti and his band performed a one-hour concert on the QVC Home Shopping cable television channel in their U.S. studio in West Chester, Pennsylvania. QVC broadcasted the show to be available for viewing throughout the world on the internet at http://www.qvc.com/ On November 9, 2005, Botti performed on television at the opening of the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show in New York City. Back in 2004, Botti’s website also sold tee-shirts and other merchandise, and his website often ran contests for visitors to win prizes.
Also, Chris Botti had the honor of performing “My Funny Valentine” on the televised PBS broadcast (which was released in 2007 on a DVD/CD) on pianist Ramsey Lewis’ show: Legends of Jazz with Ramsey Lewis: Season One, Vol. 1, on a program with the subject “The Golden Horns” alongside trumpeters Clark Terry and Roy Hargrove. Botti also hosted a nationally syndicated “Chill music” radio show Chill with Chris Botti (in 2007, the show got a new host and changed its name to Chill with Mindi Abair.) From 2002-2003, Botti was the house band leader on the nationally syndicated daytime talk show The Caroline Rhea Show. With a laugh, Botti once said: "You just never know what will happen in this business!" Botti even did a brief acting stint on a daytime drama (either “The Young and the Restless” or "One Life To Live” – depending on the reported source).
In recent years during his concerts, trumpeter Chris Botti has often picked a young boy in the audience to play a song to (asking if the child plays an instrument) and talking about encouraging young people to play musical instruments and to dedicate themselves to the craft. In this day and age when most schools in the U.S. educational system have cut music programs, trying to promote music as an essential part of education and personal growth, and to keep the industry going is an important goal. In June 2009, Botti took the time from his busy schedule to conduct a special “master class” for young musicians at the Britt Institute. One of the questions Botti asked of the students at the instrumental jazz camp was "What do you do when you practice?"
(Photo credit: Josh Morell)
(To) New “themes” for Botti’s future
By jazz industry standards, trumpeter Chris Botti is somewhat of a pop-culture icon. Yet, there is still plenty of room for Botti’s career to grow.
New Career Strategies
There are always going to be new, interesting media opportunities to conquer. How about playing at the Grammy’s as well as on some other TV shows? What about a role in the right noir-ish, moody, romantic movie? When he’s older, perhaps Botti might get involved with some organizations or causes that champion music education, as well as organizations that help bring jazz to more mainstream audiences – he’s already working with PBS on this - these are issues close to his heart. The possibilities are limitless, the same way Chris Botti’s music crosses boundaries.
There are also new audiences to reach (e.g., more baby boomers, younger music fans, more international). An article in the Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine once cleverly joked that “if you’ve never heard of Chris Botti, don’t be surprised. All it means is that : a) you’re probably a man, b) you don’t watch daytime television, and c) your iPod deosn’t contain a folder labeled ‘romantic’.”
New Music Themes
Of course, there is also new music to cover. According to Botti, “I think there’s a huge appetite for jazz-influenced music which is melodic, accessible and reins it in, but doesn’t dumb it down at all,” Botti said in a 2008 interview for the Associated Press. That seems to be Botti’s philosophy or niche – to meet that criteria, no matter what he decides to record. From a brand personality viewpoint, according to Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine, “the product he (Botti) sells is rooted in a kind of unabashed, love-struck sentimentality that’s simultaneously old-fashioned and daring.”
In the liner notes of Botti’s pivotal 2004 CD When I Fall in Love, Botti wrote some insightful comments that would seem to apply to his career for many years to come: “I have often been seduced by the melody of a beautiful song. That these melodies often play to our notion of what romance is, or how it feels, is something that captivates and inspires me when I play.” In a recent interview, Botti also said: “Well, I think that my whole life I recognized that the great trumpet players primarily did ballads. Those are the kind of records that people relate to.”
Right now, the key question remains… So musically - where to, Chris Botti? With Botti’s talent, the Botti brand and his team of top industry support, Botti has found a recipe for continued success as he evolves as an artist. Botti’s manager/producer is Bobby Colomby, former drummer and founder of the famed pop/rock/jazz-influenced 1970s group Blood, Sweat & Tears. Botti also has the support of the great publicity ‘machine’ at Columbia Records (Sony Music)… the separate public relations firm of Rogers & Cowan. (In the 1980s, Rogers and Cowan was Frank Sinatra’s PR firm and in 1981, Botti left college to tour with Sinatra – an opportunity that he could not pass up.) Obviously, Botti has some musical connections in his music and career with Sinatra.
Earlier this year in February, Botti said he is planning to record a new CD and that “the key is figuring out what’s the theme, what’s the vibe, what’s the main thread to the album — and that I don’t know yet.” Also, Botti mentioned (back in 2005) that that he has a ton of Sinatra songs on his iPod. Botti has already covered a number of songs associated with Sinatra – “One for my Baby,” (composed by Arlen and Mercer) “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” performed with Katherine McPhee and “Glad to be Unhappy” performed with John Mayer (composed by Rodgers and Hart) (the latter two on the current CD/DVD Chris Botti in Boston.)
There is a similar Frank Sinatra-like air often found on Chris Botti’s moody tone on trumpet that delves into the depths of listeners’ emotions. Like Sinatra, Botti is a great interpreter of ballads, only in the instrumental realm; there is a melancholy sound which runs through much of Botti’s music (whether it’s ‘contemporary’ jazz from his early CDs, or jazz standards, classical music and pop songs that Botti has recorded in more recent years). The timing also could be right. Eleven years after his passing, “Ole’ Blue Eyes” also know as the “Chairman of the Board” Frank Sinatra is still popular, appearing on Billboard’s 2009 year-end charts with two CDs on the Top Traditional Jazz Albums, as #4 on the Top Traditional Jazz Artists chart and as #5 on the Top Jazz Artists charts, plus Sinatra has influenced top-selling artists such as Michael Bublé (who reached #1 on the Top Jazz Artists chart).
One new theme perhaps could be “Chris Botti’s Bossa Nova.” Bossa Nova has a “cool jazz” vibe, with beautiful melodies, rich harmonies, and understated rhythms which could be a good match for Botti’s musical style. Back in March 1998, when I first met Botti after the Berks Jazz Fest performance, I mentioned to him that I thought it would be great if he would consider recording some of the great love songs from the classic 1967 album Francis Alpert Sinatra-Antonia Carlos Jobim album (in my view – the album is one of the most romantic song collections of love and longing ever recorded).
Also for inspiration, Botti could check out the classic 1963 Getz/Gilberto album which won 4 Grammy awards covering Jobim’s songs, featuring the gorgeous, perfectly-balanced production with Stan Getz, Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Joao Gilberto, with the hit song “The Girl from Ipanema” sung by Astrud Gilberto). Botti (and perhaps his manager/producer Bobby Colomby) might also take note that in1962, saxophonist Stan Getz released an album called Jazz Samba with American guitarist Charlie Byrd which, according to Amazon.com is the only jazz album to reach number one on the pop charts of Billboard magazine. Botti certainly has the potential to cross-over onto the pop music charts from the contemporary jazz domain (perhaps in a similar way to Herb Alpert or Kenny G).
As a jazz journalist, musician, and a Botti fan, I could definitely imagine Botti recording Bossa Nova tinged arrangements of some of those great American songbook tunes from the 1967 Francis Alpert Sinatra-Antonia Carlos Jobim album. Perhaps Botti could record some duets with Michael Bublé or John Mayer singing Cole Porter’s tune “I Concentrate on You,” Irving Berlin’s “Change Partners” as well as the classic “Bubbles, Bangles and Beads.” (Bublé sung “Let There Be Love” on Botti’s 2005 CD To Love Again: the Duets). Perhaps Botti could also have some female jazz vocalists work with him on songs such as “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars” (Corcovado). Recently, Diana Krall found success with her recent CD titled Quiet Nights – which was the Number 2 Top Traditional Jazz Album on Billboard’s charts. (Botti toured with Krall in 2007.)
As a fan, I would also enjoy hearing Botti doing instrumental versions of sweet, classic Bossa Nova tunes (co-composed by Antonio Carlos Jobim). Two songs that could be an absolutely perfect match for Botti’s pure, warm tone are the beautiful “Dindi,” and the melancholy “Once I Loved” (O Amor en Paz – maybe he could also do a duet version of this with Andrea Bocelli). Botti might also consider covering songs such as “Meditation” (Meditacao) and “Desifinado,” Some other “fun” more upbeat Jobim tunes for instrumental covers for Botti could be: “One Note Samba,” “Water to Drink” (Agua de Beber), “Wave,” “Só Danco Samba” and of course, the classic and popular “The Girl From Ipanema” which could become crowd-pleasing favorites with their catchy melodies for Botti fans in the live show).
A second new “theme” that Botti could pursue is more music from Burt Bacharach’s extensive popular songbook. Botti has already covered two Bacharach songs on his 2003 Thousand Kisses Deep CD: “The Last Three Minutes” and “The Look of Love,” the latter received heavy radio airplay for its catchy production. He also worked with Bacharach on two Grammy- nominated songs (in 2005) "To Love Again," and a separate collaboration with Burt Bacharach, "In Our Time." Perhaps Botti might consider covering some of my favorite Bacharach tunes: “Alfie,” “What the World Needs Now Is Love,” “(They Long to Be) “Close to You,” “Stronger than Before,” “A Message to Martha (Kentucky Bluebird),” “Do you Know the Way to San Jose,” “Always Something There to Remind Me,” “Anyone who Had a Heart,” “April Fools,” “Arthur’s Theme,” “I Say a Little Prayer,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” and “God Give Me Strength.” (Herb Alpert has already done “Casino Royale and "This Guy’s in Love with You"… but you never know…)
A third new “theme” for Botti’s future recordings might be to pay tribute to Blood Sweat & Tears, Botti’s manager, Bobby Colomby’s old band. Botti could do great versions of tunes such as the beautiful ballad “Sometimes in Winter,” “God Bless the Child,” (BS&T did a great version of the Billy Holiday classic) and upbeat tunes such as “Spinning Wheel” and “You Make me So Very Happy.” How popular would that be with baby boomers!
No matter what Chris Botti chooses to do, whether it’s Botti does Bossa Nova, Burt Bacharach’s songbook, or Blood Sweat & Tears (notice all of the good vibes alliteration – i.e. from “Boston” too), or something else completely unanticipated, it will most likely be enthusiastically welcomed by his fans.
This is just the beginning. Botti is able to play music in any genre – so the inspirational evolution of Chris Botti continues. So here’s a summation of the secret to success for Botti – being true to himself, playing to his strengths – following his heart and his musical muse – his love of the music, hard work, dedication, good luck, gratefulness, and a healthy mix of humility, humor, and musical bravado to keep things fresh also keeps his audiences entertained … with surprises… old and new. As Botti told the LA Daily News earlier this year in July, his “greatest musical weapon over the last couple of years… is the ability to change things up.”
Sort of like Madonna – with her transitions and transformations, Botti knows how to keep the audience guessing and delighted. Chris Botti’s successful collaborations seem to also be on a path similar to another Italian icon who is an interpreter of pop and American Standards, Tony Bennett - who has graciously grown as an artist and a collaborator over time in a timeless way. Botti’s no musical boundaries approach also seem to serve him and his audiences well. Wherever Botti wants to go, his audiences seem sure to follow.
King of the Road
Trumpeter Chris Botti has been on the road touring almost non-stop, 250-300 days a year, for about nine years across the world, and around the U.S., from the Hollywood Bowl to New York City's Carnegie Hall and Blue Note jazz clubs, living in hotels. Botti once owned a duplex apartment in the Soho area of NYC which he bought from Sting, which he later sold. In June 2009, he purchased a home in California.
During his early years touring as a new artist to introduce his original “atmospheric” style of smooth/contemporary jazz to audiences, as a frontman of his own band, he appeared more of an introspective soloist. Between 1998 to 2009, I saw Botti perform at shows numerous times. In more recent years, Botti has become a consummate live performer and collaborator with major artists in jazz, pop, and classical music. Botti appears more relaxed and outgoing on stage and has a great rapport with the audience as a host and telling stories and jokes. Botti credits his transformation to observing pop mega-star Sting perform, as well as touring with other pop artists.
According to Botti: “By being around so many popular singers like a guy like Sting, and seeing him firsthand night after night for years and being on stage with him and making music, you start to see how you can play sophisticated music but still make it accessible to the first two rows as well as 15,000 people. That’s something that you learn through osmosis. Nobody can teach you that or tell you that. You’ve got to see it and be around it and those kinds of artists.”
In addition to showmanship skills, Botti has learned from Sting things like the discipline of being on the road - like how to run a band, and how to manage his own routine of doing yoga, practicing the trumpet, and getting ready for the show, and the motivation to reach a fan base every day.
During the Bergen Performing Arts Center show in May 2009, Botti said a fan recently asked him if he was in the “middle” of his current five-year long continuous tour. Botti cleverly answered that he hopes that he is just at the beginning (the audience’s enthusiastic response was resounding applause). Based upon success of all of Chris Botti’s work, I’m sure that (millions) of fans around the world can’t wait to see what Botti does next! Trumpeter Chris Botti is at the top of his game – or maybe just scaling the peak.
Botti also once was band leader of a daytime talk show. Perhaps someday Chris Botti will host his own variety show – hey – he’s already sort of doing that now live and on the past two DVDs originally recording for American television broadcast PBS. As the 70’s Sonny and Cher variety TV show song goes, “And the beat goes on….” From Breath to Breadth: You’ve Come A Long Way, Chris Botti. Looking forward to the next phases of your journey for many decades in the future.
For upcoming shows and TV appearances, check www.chrisbotti.com. Botti already has over 40 concert dates around the U.S., Japan, and Canada booked through May 2010.
Guitarist and composer Drew Davidsen, newcomer to the contemporary jazz scene, is fast becoming a familiar name among fans in this genre. Having been invited to the Catalina JazzTrax in October, here's what Art Good, festival producer, had to say about him:
"Drew Davidsen turned out to be one of the absolute best "finds" the JazzTrax Festival has landed in recent memory. I was especially on "the hunt" this year for young talent that few had seen and especially that the West Coast had never seen. Never having seen or met Drew, I took a real chance in this booking and had no idea until the show began, how it would turn out.
I knew he was good enough for the first third of the show, but the last two-thirds showed he was not only good enough, but a sure bet for other festivals to follow in putting this young guitarist on stages across America.
Davidsen not only put forth an amazing live show, displaying a rabid guitar and pure enthusiasm, but he turned into the perfect lead-on as new, never-before-seen talent by many who were there for the exciting evening follow-through by the legendary George Duke. Drew himself couldn't believe he was leading off for George Duke.
Audience response was that it was a 'perfect island match-up' with hopefully much more to follow from Drew Davidsen in future years."
Having an endorsement from someone like Art Good has only served to fuel Davidsen's enthusiasm and desire to compose and play great music that fans can enjoy.
During this break in November, before returning to California, I had a talk with Drew about his music and what it means to him.
BJP: You've been in the music industry for 20 years. What have you been doing in music until more recently when you began to explore contemporary jazz as a favorite genre for you?
DD: I was playing in any and every band possible, learning my craft. I was studying every inch of my guitar. I worked some odd jobs too. I was even a preschool music teacher for a season!
BJP: How did you get your start in music and who has influenced your playing?
DD: My start came in the third grade in public school when they gave me a cello to take home. That was the first time I was ever playing with other musicians and had to learn to work together as a unit. My Dad was an early influence. He filled our home with the music he loved and encouraged me to explore music. BB King, Ray Charles, Carole King, The Beatles. I can still remember when his old college band mates would come over to the house to jam. Those were really fun times for me.
BJP:What was your favorite music to listen to over the years?
DD: When I was a kid I really enjoyed listening to The Beatles. Another group I liked was called XTC, and the Dukes of Stratosphere, also Squeeze. These are British pop groups. Then it was a steady diet of all the jazz guitar giants, George Benson, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny, Larry Carlton, Earl Klugh, to name a few.
BJP: How did you become drawn to contemporary jazz?
DD: When I was in the navy a shipmate gave me the Breezin' album. When I listened to that I thought, "Wow! That's amazing!" I was really drawn to the clean sound of George Benson's guitar and the whole concept of scatting the vocals alongside the lead.
BJP: You've composed 2 CD's, This Journey, and Around (Again) within a relatively short time span. How do you come up with your tunes and do you have a sort of method you use to get a good composition?
DD: Many of my tunes are created in the middle of the night. I usually start with the "hook" that is the main melody that I want someone to remember from the tune. If they don't remember anything else I want them to get that. Some tunes are constructed from a rhythm - a groove that I hear. When I was recording "Little Wing" I was trying to do something different. I was imagining what would it sound like if Pat Metheny did "Little Wing?"
BJP: Your hit single from the second CD, 'Astro,' is climbing the charts in contemporary jazz and that's pretty unusual for someone who has come onto the scene recently. Tell us about that song and is it the one you would have predicted would do this well?
DD: "Astro' was first put together in my studio. Then I invited Jay Rowe to be a part of it. I asked him to give me a piano track. Jay's response about the song was very encouraging to me. My producer, Eric Copeland, liked the tune too and we rebuilt it around Jay's piano. Yes, I always liked "Astro" and knew it was a good tune. But I like all my songs! I had imagined that "Island Blues" might be the first thing to go to radio.
BJP: What was it like to work with people like Jay Rowe and Gerald Veasley on this second CD, Around (Again)?
DD: I feel very blessed that these two guys came on board my project. They are both first rate.
BJP: This year you've been able to play at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C. and you were also invited to perform at the California Catalina Island JazzTrax festival. What were these experiences like for you?
DD: Blues Alley is always a treat. I had played there before, but this was the first time to have my name on the marquee. It made it extra special to be performing my music. Playing JazzTrax was incredible. i enjoyed every minute. It felt like the right fit. The ballroom is really beautiful. The whole experience was very cool. Be sure to visit my website to check out the new video of it. I am very grateful to my friend and videographer, Michael Packard, who came and did the honors. It was super cool to play with the wonderful band I had, Dave Krug-sax, Jesse Powers - bass, Moyes Lucas - drums, and Bill Steinway - keys.
BJP: The crowd loved your music at Catalina Island, and Art Good said you were the best 'find' he's made in many years, and wants you to return. What does this mean to you in terms of your goals and direction you want to go?
DD: I truly hope I get invited back. I was very humbled by his positive feedback of my show. When there are 1000's of great artists out there and only 30 can be invited I count it a huge honor. I hope to continue to be doing shows like this as long as the Lord allows.
BJP: You'll be returning to California soon -- what will you be doing there this time?
DD: I will be hanging out with Allen Kepler doing interviews, radio liners and all that good stuff. We plan to be jumping in with the guys at Spaghettini's and crashing Melanie Maxwell's 10th Anniversary Party for Smooth Jazz News.
BJP: You have a dynamite saxophone player in Dave Krug, as well, and you two complement each other very well. How would you describe him as a bandmate? How was it to work with Bill Steinway and Moyes Lucas at Catalina? And your bass player, Jesse Powers, how did you connect with him?
DD: Dave is a genius. His tone, and skill on sax are amazing. I am sure that he will one day be the next Michael Brecker. Dave is a very good listener and is teachable. He understands the idea of dynamics and all of that. He is also fun to travel with. Working with Bill and Moyes was eye opening. These guys are incredibly professional musicians all the way around. They brought their A game to the rehearsal and their AA game to the gig! Moyes had contacted me through MySpace offering to put together the musicians I would need for the Catalina show. I took a risk but I knew two minutes into the rehearsal that it would be a hot show. When I was a Ft. Dix hanging out at a Guitars and Saxes show I was talking with Jessy J. She had worked with both of these guys in the past and assured me that everything would be fine. And it WAS! As for Jesse Powers, he is my long time friend and mentor. We met at a jam 14 years ago. It was awesome to be able to take him on this trip. Jessie and I play together in Baltimore a lot and I am sure that we will continue.
BJP: Are you ready to begin composing new tunes for another CD? Any ideas of who might play on the next one?
DD: Yes, I am composing and thinking about new music for the next CD. I like working with Eric Copeland and we will continue our relationship into the next CD. Definitely Gary Lunn - bass and Dan Needam - drums will be on it. I also have something for Jay Rowe in mind. One big thing I am really thinking about is how to stay commercial but also grow deeper as an artist. The inspiration to meet that challenge came from a recent conversation with Jason Miles who I deeply respect.
BJP: You're a tireless player, obviously you love what you're doing ~~ what is it you're hoping to convey to the fans when you're up there playing?
DD: I am creating moments with the fans. I want them to remember the experience, buy a CD and take it home with them -- I can even sign it! Next time I hope they bring all their friends! It is really one big party when we play. We like to have a lot of fun. My job is to entertain the fans. I am there for them and I'm always aware of their needs. I want to "bring it" to them.
BJP: Is there anything you'd like to share with fans as far as what your music means to you?
DD: Yes, this is what I want the fans to know about me: I am truly grateful for the gifts I have. Yes, I have worked very hard to learn the craft of playing music, but I do believe that I was born to do this and it was a gift given to me by my Father to be shared with others.
BJP: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Drew. And I wish you safe traveling and a great, productive time in California on your trip out there!
DD: Thanks for the questions, and I'm sure I'll have a lot to tell you when we get back!
BJP: Great, I'm looking forward to it!
Learn more about Drew Davidsen at www.drewdavidsen.com.
Drew Davidsen, jazz guitarist who recently burst onto the contemporary jazz scene on the east coast, is now expanding his horizons and joining the jazz scene on the west coast. Invited by none other than Art Good to grace the stage at the Catalina Jazz Trax Festival, it's a great opportunity for Davidsen to showcase both his raw talent and his passion for music.
Davidsen's band will include his regular saxophonist Dave Krug, who in his 22 years has already evolved into an outstanding player, along with the dynamic Jesse Powers, bass player, and well-established players Bill Steinway on keyboards and Moyes Lucas on drums. During the Catalina show, Davidsen will focus on his latest CD, Around (Again), which features his hit single, “Astro.” Astro has been receiving a good amount of airplay and has climbed the XM Radio Watercolors Channel 71 chart to #4.
Although Davidsen’s musical career spans a number of years, he’s a relative newcomer as a smooth jazz musician. Yet in the span of just two years, he’s already got two top-notch CD’s under his belt with more music floating around in his head for a third CD.
A Balimore native,Davidsen followed an interesting path to the music he loves to play these days. His father had a passion for music as well as science, and eventually chose science for himself, but cultivated a love of music in his son by taking him to concerts featuring artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass and Ray Charles. His dad’s love of science led him to become an astrophysicist, instrumental in discovering technology that was used in the Hubble telescope. Hence, Davidsen chose the name ‘Astro’ for this irresistible high energy tune that serves as a tribute to the talent of his late father.
Both Around (Again) and Davidsen’s first CD, entitled Journey, contain a number of tracks that could easily be hit singles. Already a master composer, Davidsen’s talent in putting together memorable tunes is truly amazing and something fans of this genre won’t want to miss.
If you’re already on Catalina Island, come on over to hear Davidsen on Sunday, October 18th, at 7 PM, immediately preceding George Duke. If you’re not able to attend this impressive festival this weekend and you’re stuck on mainland USA or elsewhere in the world, you can still enjoy Davidsen’s music. Simply visit drewdavidsen.com to hear some clips and then order some of his music for yourself. You'll be glad you did!
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
by Val Vaccaro
It was a sad day on May 15, 2009 when we heard the surprising news in the smooth jazz world that 44 year-old bassist Wayman Tisdale passed away from bone cancer in a hospital in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Sincere condolences go out to Wayman Tisdale’s family (his wife Regina, his four children, and new granddaughter), and all of his friends, fellow musicians, and fans.
In 2007, after Tisdale had fallen down a flight of steps and broke his leg, he had knee replacement surgery and chemotherapy. In August 2008, Tisdale had the lower part of his right leg amputated. Recently, it seemed that Wayman Tisdale had happily recovered and was a proud cancer survivor. In early 2009, Tisdale released a new CD aptly titled Rebound – with the double meaning of recovery in life, and in reference to the sports term of regaining possession of the ball during a basketball game, in the winning spirit. In April 2009, sports cable TV channel ESPN in the U.S. aired an inspirational feature story on Wayman Tisdale.
In January 2009, Tisdale enjoyed being surrounded by his family, friends, musical peers, and over 2000 smooth jazz fans. They rallied around Wayman to celebrate his music, his ‘recovery’ and the wonderful human being he was – on the smooth jazz cruise he hosted for Jazz Cruises LLC.
Just this past March, Wayman performed a show at Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania at the Scottish Rite Cathedral as part of a “Smooth and Soulful” double-header show which also included the group Take 6. Tisdale had lost weight, needed the help of a cane and an assistant to walk, and he performed sitting down – but as SmoothVibes publisher Peter Boehi wrote, Tisdale still sounded great, and was planning to tour throughout 2009.
A decade ago back in 1999, I had the pleasure to see bassist Wayman Tisdale perform for the first time at the Beacon Theater in New York City (as part of a show with Gerald Albright and Will Downing) and had written an article on the show for the JVC Jazz Festival program.
The next time I caught up with Wayman was in June 2001. Tisdale and his band were opening for Kirk Whalum on a CD 101.9FM Smooth Cruise in NYC. It was then that the 6 foot 9 inches tall bass guitar player, towering over the crowd, wearing one of his sequined shirts, got to really shine on bass guitar and show off his musical prowess – including his great, catchy cover of the Earth, Wind and Fire tune “Can’t Hide Love” from Tisdale’s CD Face to Face. That was a special show in 2001 because lots of audience members had still never seen Wayman perform, and Kirk Whalum also joined in to play, along with Tom Braxton - the saxophonist in Wayman Tisdale’s band.
Fast forward to 2004 - Wayman had become a big smooth jazz star with his radio hit “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” from his CD Hang Time. That year, I had the pleasure of seeing Wayman Tisdale play on the Dave Koz Tour at the Westbury Music Theater in Long Island, New York.
As a person, Wayman Tisdale was a dual-achiever – a great role model and an inspiration having been both a successful NBA player and a smooth jazz star.
Twenty five years ago, Wayman Tisdale had the honor of winning a gold medal playing on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team in Los Angeles with teammates Patrick Ewing, Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, and Chris Mullin. In 1986, Wayman Tisdale was chosen as the No. 2 draft pick behind Patrick Ewing for the Indiana Pacers. For twelve years, Tisdale scored more than 12,800 points, and made over 5000 rebounds playing for the NBA with the Pacers, Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns, before he retired from playing basketball in 1997.
Before he joined the NBA, Wayman Tisdale was a three-time All-American at the University of Oklahoma (in his freshman, sophomore, and junior years at college) where to this day, Tisdale is still the all-time leading scorer (in one single game alone, he scored 61 points)! Just last month in April, Wayman Tisdale received the news that he will be inducted on November 22, 2009 into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, along with Indiana State’s Larry Bird and Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Now that induction will be posthumously, but at least Tisdale knew of this honor before he passed on.
Wayman Tisdale always loved music and had been playing the bass guitar since he was about nine years old. In 1995, Tisdale finally started to live out his other dream as a contemporary jazz musician – and released his first CD Power Forward. Since 1995, Wayman Tisdale has successfully recorded and performed his enthusiastic, catchy, upbeat R&B influenced smooth jazz music, releasing eight albums including his 2009 CD, Rebound. Tisdale garnered a number of hit songs on the radio, including his popular covers of “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” and “Can’t Hide Love.” Tisdale’s CDs often appeared in the Top 10 albums on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz charts and crossed over onto the R&B charts.
Wayman Tisdale also received admiration from actor Jamie Foxx. (Jamie Foxx – who received an Academy award in his role as Ray Charles in the 2005 movie “Ray” has recorded his own records as a musician - his CD Unpredictable was a platinum-selling number one record on the Billboard albums charts.) In a recent Rolling Stone magazine interview, Jamie Foxx had said that his “dream band” would include Wayman Tisdale, Herbie Hancock, Wynton and Brandford Marsalis and Prince. That would have been something to see!
Back to Wayman. The greatest compliment an artist can receive is having an instantly recognizable sound – when you hear the first notes on the bass guitar over the airwaves of the radio, on the Internet, or in a store or airport, you know immediately that it is Wayman Tisdale – something that was acknowledged by the legendary bassist Marcus Miller, among many others. I remember telling Wayman that I had read about Marcus Miller’s compliment when I saw Tisdale at a solo performance release party for the CD Way Up at the record store FYE in midtown Manhattan on a rainy afternoon in June 2006. Wayman’s manager, Earl Cole (who also manages Kirk Whalum), was there at the store quietly supporting Wayman by his side.
In September 2006, I was happy to talk with Wayman Tisdale at the CD101.9 FM Liberty Jazz Festival. It was a jovial atmosphere in the backstage area with Wayman Tisdale, David Sanborn, Kirk Whalum, Kirk’s Uncle - vocalist Hugh “Peanuts” Whalum, and Jeff Golub all chatting together before the show. In my article on the Liberty Jazz Festival for SmoothVibes.com, I wrote: “Hear a note or two, and you instantly recognize the buoyant bass sounds of Wayman Tisdale on songs like his current hit "Get Down On It" on his 7th CD, Way Up (2006 Rendezvous).” Wayman Tisdale was truly at the top of his musical game that evening along with his fantastic “Rendezvous All Stars” tour mates that year - Kirk Whalum, Jonathan Butler, and Brian Simpson as the finale act at the Liberty Jazz Festival.
On his website, Wayman Tisdale fondly called his fans “WayTru Fans.” Wayman and his family recently established the Wayman Tisdale Foundation, with the mission of helping to make a positive difference in the lives of individuals with cancer and amputees by providing support and resources. Wayman’s inspirational words to others were: "Never give up because you can make it. If I can do it, so can you!" Wayman’s legacy will live on now through his Foundation and his music.
What I will always remember and one of the things that I’m sure family, friends, and fans will truly miss was Wayman Tisdale’s endearing, wonderfully winning smile – his big, charming baby-faced infectious grin always lit up the room with his warm friendly, and gracious personality. One word that may best describe Wayman and his music is “joy.” Thanks Wayman, for being “WayTru” and bringing us the joyful gift of sharing your enthusiastic personality and melodic, optimistic music with the world. We will miss you.
On Wednesday, May 20, 2009, there was a public viewing to pay respects to Wayman Tisdale, and also a service where attendees could share their memories later that evening at the Friendship Baptist Church in Oklahoma.
On Thursday, May 21, 2009, the BOK Center in Oklahoma opened its doors at 8am to welcome family, friends, and fans of Tisdale; that morning, at 10:30am, Wayman Tisdale’s band played a tribute to him, and at 11am, the funeral was scheduled to begin (with all events free and open to the public).
Later that Thursday evening on May 21st, a musical tribute took place at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame at the Jazz Depot presented by the Jazz Hall and drummer Arthur Thompson and hosted by comedian Jonathan Slocum. Wayman Tisdale’s musical friends scheduled to perform included: Kirk Whalum, Dave Koz, Marcus Miller, Gerald Albright, Najee, Tom Braxton, Everette Harp, Kim Waters, Raphael Saadiq, Marvin Saap, Fred Hammonds, Mike Philips, Arlington Jones, Bernard Wright, Lenny White, Cornell Morell, Arthur Thompson and many others. The proceeds from the show will benefit the Wayman Tisdale Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides support and resources to people in need, including individuals with cancer and amputees. Tisdale’s family also asked that in lieu of flowers or gifts, contributions be made to the Wayman Tisdale Foundation.
For the rest of 2009, at every concert event Wayman Tisdale was scheduled to perform at - and every time we see an ad for one of those concerts – it will be a reminder that Tisdale’s presence will be missed.
One of Wayman Tisdale’s roles in life seemed to be to make people happy with his music. Wayman Tisdale was also a spiritual man – his father was a Baptist Minister, and on his first CD Power Forward, he recorded the song “Amazing Grace.” On Wayman Tisdale’s current CD Rebound, the final song track is called “Grateful,” an emotional song with gospel great Marvin Sapp. The world is grateful to have known Wayman Tisdale and to have his music. I imagine that Wayman Tisdale will be “Way Up” there smiling down watching everyone at all of the tributes (at live shows and on future recordings) to him, knowing he was truly loved and appreciated by his family, his friends, so many great musicians, and his fans. At the present time, Wayman Tisdale’s website has not yet been updated since his passing… just another reminder that the shining star of Wayman Tisdale’s spirit will always live on.
Live concert photos by Bazpix.
Those who know Chieli Minucci’s music already know what a fine composer he is and that he’s been able to crank out a Special EFX CD followed by a Chieli Minucci CD nearly every year for a number of years. (These days, Minucci and Special EFX are one and the same). But you may not realize how far and wide his composing abilities stretch beyond the world of contemporary jazz, to include television and radio station clips, as well as children’s musicals. When there is music to be composed, not just that which needs to be expressed from his own heart, but for a specific purpose directed by someone else, Chieli Minucci seems to easily get the job done.
This is a special time for Chieli, having won the Emmy for Music Composition for a Daytime Drama for his composing/producing work on CBS Guiding Light. The Emmy was presented June 14th in Hollywood, California, by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences 34th Annual Daytime Creative Arts & Entertainment Awards. As an avid fan of his contemporary jazz music, it was a real treat for me to see him walk up on the stage with fellow composers to accept the award. Visit www.emmyonline.org to see the video playback for youself. Simply scroll down on the right side of the window, all the way to Music Direction and Composition – Drama, and double click to watch the clip (about two hours, ten minutes into the clip playback). Chieli is obviously happy and excited that Guiding Light won the Emmy.
I had the opportunity to interview Chieli about the Emmy awards and his latest CD, Sweet Surrender.
In our interview before winning the Emmy, Chieli had some interesting insights to share about writing for daytime drama. He said, “When I was younger, in my 20s, I wasn’t impressed with people who scored music for television. I was somewhat snooty, but later when I got involved in this type of composing, I found it to be a great outlet for writing and playing and arranging music that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise, not to mention the recording of it all.”
As a composer, writing jingles or writing for television has been the right road to travel for Minucci. “As for Guiding Light, we got a new executive producer who wants all kinds of music in the show. The music is stylistically suitable for shows such as Law and Order, and there are different kinds of night clubs on the show, so all kinds of musical styles are featured. So instead of having to compartmentalize the music, I have the opportunity to write in all styles, except smooth jazz, ironically!”
Speaking of Minucci’s skill in composition, he has added another CD to the repertoire of his vast collection of Chieli Minucci/Special EFX CD’s. This one, entitled Sweet Surrender, came out in March and is proving to be yet another successful endeavor in his busy career. It’s a surrender of sorts to places where Chieli’s been on his musical journey. Each song is a tribute to various phases of his evolution as an artist. Some songs hearken back to the days of George Jinda and Chieli as the original founders of Special EFX, and some speak to the solo CDs Chieli has composed, such as Renaissance. Chieli provides his own description of these songs in the liner notes, as he’s done on some other CD’s, and it’s always interesting to see where he’s coming from with each composition.
Those of us who’ve listened to many of the past CDs will see the influence of those tunes on the ones he created for this CD. For instance, the title track, 'Sweet Surrender,' reminds me of the sweet, more serene tunes Chieli has composed over the years, such as 'Ballerina' (Just Like Magic), 'Bella' (Masterpiece), 'You’re My Reason' (Night Grooves), 'Love is Always Young' (Got It Goin On), 'When Love Cries' (Body Language), 'Fantasies' (Party) as well as 'Quiet Beauty' and 'The Lady and the Sea' (Special EFX Collection). I told Chieli I think of all these songs of his as ‘lullabyes for adults’ -- songs that promote peaceful thoughts and a relaxed mood, songs that settle you down when you’re keyed up or worried about something. He liked the metaphor.
There are so many highlights throughout Sweet Surrender. One of them is his collaboration with Philip Hamilton’s , entitled, 'Chant.' Listeners are sure to enjoy that and also the tune Chieli and bass player Jerry Brooks have often played at concerts, entitled 'Rush Hour.' I've often wondered how in the world they could follow each other on this song when I’ve heard it live. Listening to it a few times on the CD gives me a better sense of the song’s progression, and also the skill of Brooks on bass. Brooks is an awesome player! Chieli and Jerry put a nice intro as a track before they get into their intense conversation on guitar and bass. I asked Chieli where this intro came from (entitled 'Dawn') and he told me, “'Dawn' was just part of a medley, while we were making stuff up on stage…..an afterthought, actually.” What an afterthought!
The CD starts off with two make-you-want-to-dance tunes. Chieli wrote the first song, 'Guitarzzz,' for some Guitarzzz concerts (Chieli's alternate band project, co-leading along with Chuck Loeb and Paul Jackson, Jr. Both this one and the single song 'Mystical,' are upbeat, very catchy tunes. Chieli mentioned his record company (Shanachie) is enthusiastically behind the record, and it’s getting a lot of airplay and is on the charts for 15 weeks now. Sweet Surrender as an album entered the Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts at #14.
'Astralcats' is fun, hearkening back to 'Courageous Cats,' and in this one Chieli has some super fast Frank Gambale-like speedy fingers (though I noticed this in many other songs, too). There’s a lot going on in this and many of the songs. As Chieli explained, ‘There’s a lot of layering of sounds and tones, that’s the whole idea. Some of the songs, like 'Cry of My Soul,' use a lot of guitars. I don’t know which guitar to listen to, there are so many parts that were layered. In learning about arranging, you discover that you can have a lot of layering going on, yet still have clarity and space in the music.”
I have to concentrate to stay with the songs 'Ascension' and 'New Bop.' Ascension reminds me of 'Destiny' (Got It Goin’ On); it’s different and I like it. I find myself wanting to take it apart, somehow, to understand it better. And 'New Bop' has something called hemiolas, a word Chieli introduced to me about this song a few months ago. I took advantage of the chance to ask him what it means. It's a term he learned in college -- "It's like when a rhythmical phrase is accented in such a way as to suggest a 'new' rthym. It's like a rhythm riff within a rhythm riff." Those of you who have appreciated the complexity of this music for longer than I have will no doubt be immediately comfortable listening to these two.
'Cry of My Soul' is a perfect title to a tune with a lot of emotion. It reminds me of Chieli’s powerful 'Without You' (Night Grooves) as well as his renditions of 'Because We’ve Ended As Lovers' and 'Europa.' And 'Play With Me,' featuring David Mann (seen in picture below, second from right), is one of my favorites on the album. Chieli mentioned this was originally recorded as a lyrical tune.
'Children’s Day' is a fitting tribute to the annual Children’s Fair in the area of Forest Hills where Chieli grew up. I love the way all the different harmonies come and go. It’s easy to see how Chieli can compose for children, as in Nickolodeon’s Dora the Explorer and now Thomas the Tank Engine. This really catches the essence of children’s kind of fun. Chieli explained it’s an old song from long ago, a melody he came up with in trying to write a rhythm song, one that starts with a conga player and clapping. It didn’t work as a world piece but he could adapt it to this newer song.
And of course the last one is Chieli’s acoustic duo with acoustic bassist Wayne Batchelor, 'Au Naturale.' That is so very complex, reminiscent of 'Beginnings 'from It’s Gonna Be Good. I wondered if he could actually remember how he played it, and did he write it down or is it just what came to him at the time of recording. Chieli said he had already played parts of it, and decided to turn it into something. “It’s good to add a duo or trio or solo piece to add to the texture of the record.”
Chieli’s been quite busy, having played on a cruise this past winter, (and scheduled to play on the upcoming Brian Culbertson All Star cruise next January.)
One of his latest accomplishments was working on a composing/scoring collaboration with Philip Hamilton for an upcoming Sundance Film Festival short, a project Philip Hamilton (seen in picture, far left) brought to him, entitled, 'Lifted.' It's produced/directed by Randall Dottin and will likely be submitted next year. A record was cut of this soundtrack. Chieli is also offering a trio performance including Jerry Brooks (his bass player), Lionel Cordew (his drummer) – the first of these is September 7th at the Long Beach Jazz Festival. (Brooks and Cordew pictured here left and right of Chieli, along with keyboardist Jay Rowe, far right). In addition, he is scheduled to perform in another Guitarzz concert with Paul Jackson, Jr. and Chuck Loeb in West Bend, Wisconsin (Milwaukee area) on September 8th.
Chieli has a lot of music available for downloading at his site, www.chielimusic.com. Among all the available music are CD material that was never released. One set of songs, East of the Sun, is a collection of some mideastern, new age tunes that provide peaceful, meditative listening. And there is Travels, a CD that was never before released. It's both soothing and stimulating, as its title would imply. Chieli has also added downloadable songs/solo transcriptions for the musicians out there who are curious to learn Cheli's songs, note for note.
In other news, Chieli has completed the score for the live stage show version of the long-running hit British children’s TV show, Thomas the Tank Engine – Thomas Saves The Day, which is now touring across the USA. Chieli has written and recorded songs for this project and as he explains, “I took the music from the tv and dvd’s and rearranged it according to the needs of the script. After rearranging came recording, and it’s a long piece of music to get the audience in the mood for the show. It’s called 'Journeys,' lasts 18 minutes, leading into the story line about the train and life and fantasy, and it’s very metaphorical. This was a very symbolic piece for me, as it was written right before my dad died.” (The late Ulpio Minucci composed for Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole and also scored the music for Robotech, a hit tv and dvd series, and greatly inspired Chieli in especially the composing aspect of his own musical career.)
So you can see, Minucci is quite a busy, sought-after musician these days. I wonder how he can produce all of this and constantly be so creatively inspired. As he puts it, “There’s inspiration but there’s also craft, and it’s like any craft that a person learns, whether it’s writing books or creating in some other way –when you know your craft, you get busy working at it day after day, you don’t need to wait until you ‘feel’ inspired.”
Words of wisdom from a master craftsman himself. To quote Jazziz Magazine, “Chieli Minucci is both an influential elder statesman and true innovator." I'm sure many in the music world would join me in saying, 'Amen to that.'
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photo Credits: National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, Chieli Minucci, Michael Packard
Yes, you can find Parris in New York. Not Paris, the city, of course, but rather Gil Parris, virtuoso guitarist who's here in New York City -- tonight. Not only here, but surrounded by an impressive group. Check out the cover of what will be a Live CD that is going to be made from Wednesday evening's 8:00 PM performance with GIL PARRIS AND FRIENDS at the Irvington Town Hall Theatre. Friends are none other than Paul Shaffer of the David Letterman Show, David Mann, Grammy nominated saxophone player, Randy Brecker, Grammy nominated trumpet player, along with vocalists Vanesse Thomas, Tommy "Pipes" McDonnell , and Master of Ceremonies Carolyn Kepcher of Apprentice.. There will even be an appearance by Bernie Williams of the New York Yankees. The show and the DVD will be dedicated to the late Michael Brecker, talented musician and brother of Randy Brecker.
So now you know the name Gil Parris, but I wonder if you know him? There’s really no way for a music writer like me to introduce and get you excited about someone whose guitar playing and composing you may be missing so unnecessarily. Better to let those who know not only the music business, but also a great guitar sound when they hear it, help get the point across. Prepare yourself, then, to read what people like Chuck Loeb, Jeff Golub, David Clayton-Thomas (of Blood, Sweat and Tears), and a few well-respected magazine guitar gurus have to say. Here we go:
"Gil Parris is without a doubt one of the rising stars of the guitar at this time. His command of many techniques and styles has dazzled me since I first heard him play a few years back, and with his new project, he brings all of that
and more to the small jazz group setting. I can't wait to hear what he'll do next." - Chuck Loeb
"Gil's a very talented player. He fit right into the band the first night he played with us and made the guitar chair his own." - David Clayton-Thomas to the "New York Times" about Gil's work with Blood, Sweat & Tears.
"While most players his age tend to get carried away with effects and distortion, Gil's playing is clean and precise, especially considering the difficulty and speed of some of his lines." - Mike Varney, "Guitar Player" Spotlight
"Gil Parris shines through as the brightest new star in the genre since Larry Carlton." - Guitar Magazine
"A dazzling mixture of jazz, light funk, and even country, Parris' playing is so hot it avoids any cliches from those styles." - Vintage Guitar Magazine
"Gil never fails to impress me with his excellent command of the guitar. This cat can really play!" - Jeff Golub
All those quotes are intended to get, and hold, your attention, so that you can discover this gifted artist. Because Gil Parris has released albums in over four different genres: R&B, smooth jazz, traditional jazz and blues, he doesn’t fit neatly into any mold within the contemporary jazz genre. And his philosophy demands that he doesn’t fit into a mold. He’s also done an instructional video entitled, Modern Blues Guitar, and has been part of the national video, “Masters of the Stratocaster.”
For the contemporary 'smooth jazz' music fan, at least two of his albums fall into the category of potentially your most beloved CDs. That first album, titled simply Gil Parris, is a masterpiece of playing and includes original compositions as well as cover songs ‘Rainy Day in Georgia’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.’ The original compositions as well as the cover songs are compelling, powerful tunes. Players on this CD include Will Lee, David Sanborn, Bob James, Mark Egan, Harvey Mason, Larry Goldings.
Those of us who heard and loved the first one have long-awaited the second one, entitled Strength, released this past August. One of the songs from the first CD, ‘When Love Was New,’ reappears on the newly released CD, this time with a slightly faster tempo and some new solo guitar lines. Once again, Parris has given us a stunning example of his composing and his playing. The CD is filled with tunes you want to hear over and over. Strength, produced by talented saxophone player/composer/arranger David Mann, also features Bob Baldwin and Randy Brecker.
In addition to playing with people like Blood, Sweat and Tears, Dr.John, Syndicate of Soul, Bill Doggett, and David Mann, Gil appears regularly in concert around the New York City area. He has been featured at the Catalina Jazz Trax Festival and the Berks Jazz Festival. And he also has a number of other CDs. One is billed as his 'sonic smorgasbord' recorded in front of a live audience, one is a tribute to Wes Montgomery, and of course there are his instructional videos, as well.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching Parris play a number of times, most recently at his CD release party, held in August of 2006. With David Mann on saxophone, Thierry Arpino on drums (Thierry is quite a drummer who tours with Jean Luc Ponty) , Matt King on keyboard, and Kip Sophos on bass, it was quite a memorable night. Each artist had solo performances over the course of two sets, and even the management of the Metropolitan Café didn’t want to miss one minute of Parris working his guitar magic or the rest of the band mesmerizing all of us.
I had a chance to talk with Gil Parris and also David Mann about the production of this CD and what it means in the career path that Parris is taking these days. They're both excited about the way the CD turned out and hope it places Gil Parris where he belongs -- squarely in front of a new and wider audience who, up until now, may not realize the unique talent that he is.
In addition to the new CD, Gil has also finished shooting an infomercial which features the romantic side of him (note the rose on his guitar.) This infomercial, according to Gil, will be aired in 60 and 90 second spots along with the DVD release on television stations around the country.
Of the show for this evening, Gil says it will be a great night and he's excited to have others be a part of it. In case you're wondering, it's true the Master of Ceremonies, Carolyn Kepcher, is Donald Trump's right hand girl, and she'll be there simply because she loves Gil's music!
To learn more about Gil Parris, please visit:
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
by Beverly Packard
Music has a lot of names, among them jazz, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, but I never heard anyone use the term rhythm and soul. No wonder -- it was only recently invented by Will Brock. Do you know him? He has a couple of his own CDs, but you may know him best as that capable and fun-loving keyboard player with Gerald Veasley’s band.
Gerald Veasley has a great band, and he freely admits the love he has for the members of the band. He accepts them as they are and allows them to exhibit their own individuality and that’s true, especially, in the case of Will Brock. At first you might not even notice Will – he sits there quietly before the show, taking everything in, very attentive to Veasley, and you get the impression he’s going to sit there and do whatever Veasley requires for a song. And he does do that extremely well.
But something happens along the way.
Something gets a hold of Brock………and he’s never the same for the rest of the night. He starts to dance in his seat, keeping the beat with his head and shoulders. Taking command of his keyboard, he appears to push it into areas it can barely go, at times shrinking away from it as if it’s going to protest and not cooperate! How can there be such a dynamic relationship between Will and his keyboard? Will explains some of this in the interview below.
The first time I saw him, he seemed to be exercising throughout one of the songs. His whole body is part of fascinating rhythmic movements and he exudes soul. He has more rhythm than almost anyone you’ve ever watched. Every movement is about the music; he seems to have a secret, and you’ve just got to wait until he shares it with you.
By the time Will Brock is launching into what I see as one of his most-prized compositions, ‘Home’ you know that song has got to be his secret. It’s a moving, nostalgic, spellbinding rendition of our collective wish to ‘be back home,’ to reconnect with all that is important and precious to us, to be excited and to be so keyed up (as he is) about this moment in time that, along with him, we can hardly sit still, either, because we, too, are ‘Home.’
Brock is a dynamite keyboard player and a dynamic person as well. He’s Rhythm and Soul personified – I call it R & S, and I could hardly wait to talk with him about his music and find out what's behind all that energy he has.
BJP: Welcome to Smooth Vibes, Will! I'm glad we're finally getting to this interview! How did you get your start in playing keyboard? And 'where have you been’ up until this point in your career?
WB: Well, I started playing piano in my fifth grade band rehearsal hall, kind of fooling around and plucking out ideas with a bunch of other kids who played as well. I wanted to be a saxophone player at the time. The world is a much better place since I let that idea pass.
We would hang out in the band room and play tunes (or something… sort of resembling tunes). I fooled around like that on piano with short stints of lessons hear and there until I was in College. At that point I switched to piano completely as my “primary instrument."
BJP: Did you have that infectious enthusiasm right from the start? Were you sort of dramatic when you were playing, even early on?
WB: My friends will all tell you that I’m dramatic about everything. I have always been a little over the top in general. As long as I can remember, in my mind life has been something to get excited about, music in particular. There’s nothing more beautiful than being involved with and surrounded by art. Being able to get inside of an audience, fellow band members and ones self is, like, exciting. That’s what I’m responding to on that stage. Living in that space for an hour or two every night is just downright fun.
BJP: That’s a great way to express who you are, that really fits the Will I’ve seen on stage. You have so much fun, yet you’re so serious in doing the job ‘just right’ -- how do you do both at the same time?
WB: As I said before, the fun part is automatic. The job, however, is the job. To work on this level, a cat doesn’t necessarily need to be the next Herbie or Oscar. One needs to execute what the bandleader wants to hear and bring a voice and personality to the table. Executing takes focus. I focus a great deal of energy on making sure the “thing” is working.
BJP: You have eagle eyes for what’s coming, always watching Gerald and everyone to know your next step which you carry out with precision. You take a lot of pride in how you play. Where did you get your training?
WB: There are several “schools” that deserve credit for my training. I graduated from the University of the Arts with a Bachelors degree in Jazz piano. That experience gave me a fundamental understanding of music on a pretty high level. That’s the obvious answer. The truth is, my real training has been way more involved than that. When I got to Philadelphia, I’d go down to the Old Zanzibar blue (before it got all hip and upscale). On Thursday nights for many years, Barbara Walker had a residency there. I’d hang and sit in with the band, play the two songs I knew (Autumn Leaves and Night in Tunisia with a funk thing on it) and get on the bands nerves ungodly.
I say all that to say, it was that and hundreds of experiences like that, that really gave me a sense of making music person to person. My teachers, the cats who really taught me how to get down, are the philly gig hogs. They play in some dive or another every night to make ends meet. The beautiful thing is that they’re always willing to share a tidbit of knowledge or a story. If one truly wants to learn to “shake the room” and get people excited about the work, those men and women are the folks to teach it.
BJP: That sounds like a fertile background from which to grow. Wish I had been able to be there at Zanzibar Blue in those days. I’ve only been during the ‘hip and upscale,’ more recent years.
BJP: I have to ask about the song ‘Home,’ of course! How did it come about? It is really wonderful!!
WB: My best friend/big brother Charles Baldwin and I wrote that song. We spent quite a few years writing quite a few songs. Truthfully, “Home” is one of the many that we wrote in a period when we were focusing on songs that one might call timeless. The idea was to come up with songs that folks could relate to now and ten thousand years from now. There was a point when we were writing 1 or 2 of those a day. It was really quite insane now that I really think about it.
Anyway, it was really the only thing that Gerald had heard of mine at the time we started doing it. We did it at a jazz festival once and it’s become a part GV’s set.
BJP: I know from watching you that you have to move around! Is that just part of your natural self, as in, would your Mom tell us you were ‘always moving’ as a child?
WB: Yea… me and still don’t really get along too well. Especially when I’m doing the “thing”. Quite honestly I don’t understand how anyone can be still up under any kind of groove. For as long as I can remember music moved me, literally moved me, to …well… move. I’m guessing my mom would tell you that I was that way from the moment I came into the world.
BJP: I hear you on that and I’m sure most music lovers would agree. I’d say you definitely found your niche! Who would you say influenced you in your style of playing?
WB: It’s funny. My playing is not super influenced by musicians, piano players, and even less so jazz guys. The keyboard thing is kind of a small part of the picture for me. It’s only one of many artistic expressions that I need to be involved in to exist (not as deep as it sounds I promise). So what you hear when you hear me play is my entire artistic life, filtered through music that day. It’s kind of fluid for me. The books I read, the films I check out, art of any kind, it’s all the same to me. I just happen to be able to execute pretty well on the piano so that expression is very clear for folks that stop and listen.
BJP: I know it must mean an awful lot to be able to play with someone like Gerald Veasley – what a great performer and friend he seems to be. How did you two get together?
WB: When I was in School at Uarts, Gerald came and did a guest artist swing with an ensemble called the Fusion Band. I was in the band and He was to play a concert with us. We did a duet (Stella by Starlight) and the vibe was amazing.
After that he’d call me to work on some of his productions and eventually I became a fulltime member of the band. Gerald has been like a brother to me for a long time. It’s to great to be able to absorb the music and life lessons from him. He’s a beautiful person and an awe-inspiring musician.
BJP: Yes, Gerald Veasley is amazing. You also have your own solo career that you’re working on – how is that going and what’s new on the horizon for you?
WB: I’m in the process of writing songs for another project. That is my main focus (Solo Career). I have spectacular band. We put on a super fun show (and modest to boot). Seriously, I’m just working on creating honest music and letting folks hear it. Hopefully that will yield the results I want. We’ll see!
BJP: From what I can see, everyone who hears and sees you in person just appreciates you and your style so much, so I think you’re going to get results! Is there something you’d like your present and potential fans to know about you at this point in your career?
WB: I would like fans to continue getting to know me. I’ll be making music for a very long time so I plan to create long-term relationships with folks that have an interest in good ol’ fashioned soul music. I have a long way to travel in this thing and it should be a fun journey to watch.
BJP: I’m sure it will be. Let me just say you are awesome to watch, you have an infectious smile, you’re totally involved, and when you play it’s just the greatest experience for me, every time you play – I never tire of seeing that passion and raw emotion you communicate, especially during that song ‘Home!’ I hope you keep playing in Reading a couple of times a year!
BJP: Thanks for doing this interview for Smooth Vibes, Will, and the best of luck in all your projects!
WB: Thank you for doing the interview with me!
Please check out Will Brock for yourself at one of the following websites:
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photo Credits: Will Brock and Michael Packard
by Beverly Packard
Often a musical artist has a great voice, whether his own or the way he plays his instrument of choice; often there is a talent to compose compelling music, or write memorable lyrics that speak easily to your heart. Some artists are physically attractive and/or have just the right threads (think Nick Colionne, for instance), and some have a stage presence you want to bask in long after the concert has ended, so unparalleled is their ability to connect with the audience and provide a captivating visual affect by their movements and expressions. Only rarely would I expect to find all these things in the person of one artist.
I first met Janita through her publicist, who asked me to review her latest CD. Listening to the CD a couple of times, I realized the voice, the compositions and the memorable lyrics were all there. She sings clearly with a good range and at times a more breathy, sensual style that fits her songs perfectly. Besides singing words, she uses her voice quite effectively as an instrument, as well. Upon seeing her in concert twice – once at Zanzibar Blue in Philadelphia and once in downtown Manhattan at the J & R Music Festival, I saw that the stage presence, punctuated with her sweet countenance, attractive appearance, and genuine appreciation to be before us, rounded out the picture. Finally, having conducted a recent interview with her (below), the maturity and insight she demonstrates confirm my impression that she is a rather unique artist, and has the whole package.
A Finland-born singer who became a phenomenon in her own country by the time she was a teen, Janita settled in New York City ten years ago and has been working hard ever since, hoping, as every artist does, for that moment when the chance comes to touch the lives of many with her music. I believe her moment has arrived.
Her latest CD, Seasons of Life, is a well-blended variety of songs and moods. The songs have a wistful feel, beautifully expressing so many things felt by many women in their ‘seasons of life.’ (Perhaps by men, too, but I won’t speak for them.) She gives words to many things we feel but seldom express, so you’ll find yourself singing along to those songs that particularly catch you where you are in life. She captures not only the longings and discoveries women make along their journeys, but her lyrics also capture differences in men and women and how they typically approach relationships. Just reading the song titles gives you an idea this CD has been borne of the common kind of poignancy we all experience during our own seasons of hope and change.
Watching Janita perform was a pleasant and exciting experience for me after becoming familiar with her music. She sang two full sets at Zanzibar Blue, a well-known jazz club in Philadelphia with great cuisine and ambiance. She was obviously very happy to be there and perform; she was eager to sing as many songs as she could share with us that evening, and it was easy to see the crowd was mesmerized by her. The set list included, ‘That’s How Life Goes,’ ‘No Words,’ ‘I’ll Be Fine,’ ‘Enjoy the Silence,’ a favorite of many which has climbed onto the Radio and Record chart, ‘I Miss You,’ ‘I Can’t Get Enough of You,’ ‘I Only Want You,’ ‘More Than Fantasy,’ ‘Give Me A Sign,’ ‘Let Me Love You,’ ‘Heaven,’ ‘Bear With Me,’ ‘Angel Eyes.’ Band members were Jonathan Maron, bass; Daniel Sadownick, percussion; John Deley, keyboard; Tomi Sachary, guitar; and Tobias Ralph, drums.
The show at the J & R Music Festival in New York City (shown in pictures here) featured many of these songs, and the only change in the band was bass player Nicholas D'Amato. Despite the oppressive heat of that day in June, Janita and band members showed no sign of wanting to slow down and the crowd only kept growing as her music drew people in. Janita shares easily with her audience in between songs, and one example was her telling us how thrilled she was to realize she was there, right now, at this festival, singing to us, that it was really happening!
Read on to see the interview and what Janita says about her early success, her impressions of the music scene in the states, her own development as an artist and her future hopes.
BJP: Welcome to SmoothVibes, Janita! You were successful in your singing career from teenage years in Finland. What made you want to come to the USA and is it all you hoped it would be?
Janita: By the time I was 16 I had already toured around Finland twice. It's a small country, so you end up performing at the same venues year after year... I guess I had always dreamed of an international singing career and was ready for a new challenge at 17. I am a pretty realistic person and have always been down to earth, so I didn't expect to be a success here in the States straight away. I was ready to work at perfecting my craft as an artist and I'm still a work in progress. I'm sure though that I've evolved way more in the New York environment than I ever would have in Finland -- the motivation to be as good as I can be is just that much higher, when there are so many other amazing artists around you. Moving to NY was one of the best decisions I've ever made.
BJP: What are the main differences you find here as compared to Finland, especially in the world of music?
Janita: The biggest difference is the enormity of the music business in the States. There's so much money to be had if you make it big, that there's a lot of people in the business for the wrong reasons. In Finland on the other hand it's almost impossible to get rich as an artist -- you make a good living, that's it. In a way it's good that way, so you can't be motivated by the fortune and fame.
BJP: Who would you say influenced you most in your own musical development -- both important people in your life and also musicians you grew up with?
Janita: Tomi Sachary, my musical collaborator has definitely influenced me a great deal, since he's been involved in every song I've ever recorded. But in terms of people I've idolized, Michael Jackson was probably my biggest hero growing up. I was in LOVE with him: I had the life-size MJ bedspread and everything. Kinda iffy, now that I think of it... Musically I have also been influenced by Meshell Ndegeocello, Bill Withers, Astrud Gilberto, Prince, Stevie Wonder. Really, I think the list is endless.
BJP: Has your band been with you from the start here in the US or have they joined you more recently in your career?
Janita: My band is from the States and has been formed during the years I've spent in NY. It's still not a permanent entity, it changes depending on who happens to be in town and available for gigs, but I do have a couple of main-stays: Danny Sadownick, my percussionist, who's played with the likes of Maxwell and Incognito, Jonathan Marron, my bass-player, who's played with Meshell Ndegeocello and India.Arie and Tomi Sachary, my guitarist, who has worked with me since the beginning of my career.
BJP: From reading about you, I realize part of the transition you've gone through is to put your own poetry and writings to music. Can you tell us more about that transition?
Janita: I was a very shy girl at 13 when I first started my career and it never would have occurred to me then to show my lyrics or compositions to anyone. And as I gained more confidence through performances and being in the public eye, I guess I became even more introverted about my inner workings. I always knew that I wanted to write my own music, but I just couldn't bring myself to open up for the longest time. It took an accident, a scaffolding falling on me one day in NY to realize that life is fragile and I have to do what I want to do in life, now. We never know what life throws our way, so we have to be brave and put ourselves out there, so as not to regret not having done it later. Shyness is such a waste of energy!
I started writing songs immediately after that and have now realized that I can't live without that outlet for my emotions.
BJP: I find the lyrics and themes of your songs to speak so well to how, especially women, feel in various stages of a loving (or not so loving, as the case may be) relationship -- simple, direct, poignant words that say so many of the things I've thought and felt, but didn't put into words as easily as you have or to music as beautifully as you have. Do you find others telling you how they appreciate the way you truly have captured these 'seasons of life?'
Janita: Thank you for the compliment! Yes, love is something that truly inspires me to write, those emotions have always been the strongest for me. I'm very sensitive and I suffer from it sometimes, but feeling things so intensely is helpful for me in what I do. So I can't complain...
I have always admired Joni Mitchell for using metaphors so beautifully to express emotions, but I find that what works for me is being more direct about what I'm trying to say. It feels more honest for me to just say it like it is. People have certainly expressed to me that they have felt the same exact emotions as I have felt, which of course is the best compliment; that people have been able to relate. We are not so different after all!
BJP: You are the first singer since Basia that has left such an impression on me with the uniqueness of your voice and the way you use your voice as an instrument, as she often does. Is that mostly improvisation on your part when you're performing, or do you have most of that phrasing figured out ahead of time? (It always sounds great.)
Janita: Thank you again. : ) I tend to analyze some things in my life to the point of unhealthiness, but singing is something that has always come natural. I do it all day pretty much everywhere I go, which is why my voice is becoming something that's directly connected to whatever I'm feeling at whatever moment. I think it's the same with any musician who is completely obsessed with their instrument and play it all the time. It just becomes something you rarely think about, you just do it. I still have a long way to go, before I'm where I want to ultimately be as a singer, but the compliment you just gave me sure makes me feel good.
BJP: I haven't yet heard you're other CD, but I'm anxious to hear that, too. (I think it's called, I'll Be Fine?) How are the two CDs different?
Janita: I consider I'll Be Fine more upbeat than Seasons of Life -- it has a younger energy. I'm proud of both albums, but there is more maturity in my voice and lyrics on Seasons of Life. I'm constantly growing as a person and as an artist, which of course is natural for everyone and anyone... The changes that I'm going through now will probably be obvious when I do my next project. Albums are like footnotes and it's nice to be able to see so clearly where you've come, where you've been and where you're going as an artist. That's how I think of these two albums, they are representative of the emotions and thoughts I was feeling at the time.
BJP: What is happening now as a result of more people getting to hear you and the Seasons of Life CD? What opportunities are you getting these days?
Janita: I've been traveling a lot this year and have been busy with shows and interviews, which I thoroughly enjoy. I'm in the beginning now with promoting this album and feel like this is the first fair chance in 10 years to get my voice heard in this country. It's been a struggle to get ahead and I know I'm really lucky to have gotten this far. There are so many awesome artists that I know, who are as deserving of what I'm experiencing now as me. I'm certainly going to do my best to enjoy all of these experiences to the fullest, and with this album pave the way for all my future projects. Lots of interesting opportunities are in the air and every time we do a show, something new pops up. There is no short-cut, everything is happening very organically, but right now, I wouldn't have it any other way.
BJP: What are your hopes for the future? Are you continuing to write your poetry with an eye to putting it to music? Do you write the melody lines or how do you collaborate with band members to write the songs?
Janita: I'd like to keep doing what I'm doing, hopefully increasingly successfully. Helen Keller said: "Life is either daring adventure or nothing at all." I have certainly experienced both sides of life, but right now I'm living just the right amount of adventure and I'd like to keep it that way.
I've been writing actively for some time now and have lots of ideas for a new album. I almost feel like I've gone backwards a little, that I'm not as mature as I used to be, which I find kinda weird. I guess life works that way sometimes. All of this will be going into the new project, which I will likely be writing with Tomi Sachary, my guitarist and long-time collaborator. I write the lyrics and together we work out the melody lines.
BJP: You're very comfortable on stage and your dancing and movements complement the music very well. How do you get yourself ready for a performance and what are you thinking when you're on stage? Does someone in the band help keep you focused on where you're going next in the performance?
Janita: We have great chemistry as a band and I love hanging out with the boys before and after the show. There's lots of joking around and I'm often laughing hysterically at their antics. We are way more serious on stage and I know my band-mates want to be as good as they can possibly be, I never have to worry about them. I guess all I really have to worry about on stage is doing the best I can to relate the song to the audience and hopefully make them feel like they understand what I'm saying. When I go and see performances of other artists, I'm always impressed most by the ones that make you feel like you've bonded with them on some level. That's what I'm hoping to do too.
Also, one of the most important things about performing is that you have to be in the moment -- you can't be thinking about what you're gonna have for dinner, cause otherwise you lose your energy and your intensity.
BJP: What kind of music do you find yourself listening to in your life now?
Janita: All my life I've listened to a lot of soul, R&B and hip hop, but right now I find myself listening to a lot of rock and folk music, which indeed can be very soulful too. I for example have Death Cab for Cutie, Travis, Neil Young, The Weepies, Patty Griffin and Gnarls Barkley on heavy rotation in my iPod. I know they are all very different from the music that I make, but I'm also hoping to be influenced by all of them in some way. Meaningful and interesting lyrics and heartfelt songs is what all these artists have in common. My taste in music is very broad these days.
On a personal note, I want to spread the word about Milton Nascimento, (listen to Tudo Voce Podia Ser) who is someone I only discovered recently, though he's been around for a while. I think that his is some of the most emotional music I've ever heard, even though I don't even understand the lyrics. Just beautiful!
BJP: That is so interesting -- I'll definitely look him up, it reminds me of how I feel about Amedeo Minghi from Italy -- beautiful music, and even though I have no idea what he's singing, it doesn't matter!
BJP: Before we stop, is there anything you'd like to communicate to your fans?
Janita: Yes. : ) My album Seasons of Life is in stores now and I'll be doing shows around the States to promote it. Fans of my music can sign up on my website www.janita.com to receive advance notification of my upcoming performances in their area. Peace of mind and happiness to all!
BJP: It’s been great talking with you, Janita and I wish you the very best in all your future projects, and I’ll be watching for them!
Janita: Thank you so much for your kind comments, I really appreciate it.
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photos of Janita compliments of Janita.com
Concert photos credits: Rachel Henry
Music Journalist Jonathan Widran to be featured on the show airing Wednesday, June 21st at 9 PM!
Although our Jazz Personality column typically covers artists in the world of contemporary jazz music, this time we get an inside look at a music journalist and what he's up to besides writing! Jonathan Widran, prolific writer of well known magazines Smooth Jazz News and Jazziz, spends at least some of his time singing. Friends and family have known this for a long time, but it might be news to the rest of the music world. Most of this happens in the karaoke circuit in the LA area where he lives; most of it happens with a good friend of his named Fred; and most of it happens with songs that are affectionately known as 'one hit wonders.'
So when the America's Got Talent search was on (from the producers of American Idol), The Freds, as Jonathan and Fred are known, couldn't resist the opportunity to see if they have the right stuff to strut in front of a panel of jugdes -- a trio, nonetheless, typical of American Idol, complete with the American Idol band and a big stage on which to make their best impression. How did this happen and what was it like? Jonathan tells all in this interview with www.smoothvibes.com writer Beverly Packard.
BJP: Before you tell us about your audtition for America's Got Talent, let's back up and talk about how long you've been a music journalist, what genres you write about and where your work appears?
JW: To make things easier I tell people I have been a music journalist for 15 years, but actually my first articles were in a small free paper called The LA Jazz Scene in early 1989, so I’ve actually been doing it for 17! For that publication, which is well known in the local jazz community of Los Angeles, I wrote a lot of features, reviews and also a column called "Night Rhythms", which covered record releases, concerts, club shows of all the local jazz talent (mostly smooth jazz guys on their way up like Richard Elliot, Boney James, etc). I started writing for the national jazz publication Jazziz in 1990 and have been doing the "Contempo" column, covering mostly smooth jazz (with touches of other genres like world music, a la Willie & Lobo) thrown in since 1991. So that’s 15 years! I’ve written hundreds of reviews and done many interviews for that column, and it’s been one of my great calling cards since the magazine is so well respected in the jazz world.
I’ve also written for the same amount of time, covering other genres as well, for Music Connection, a West Coast based industry magazine that has given me high visibility among the movers and shakers of the recording industry. I used to write a column in there called "Producer Crosstalk", and got to interview big pop, R&B, and even country producers, plus smooth jazz producers like Paul Brown and Jeff Lorber! And also many famous film composers. Currently, for MC, I write a less interesting column called “Close Up,” which profiles one of the magazine’s advertisers in each issue. So I talk to a lot of studio owners and people who run mastering facilities…and get to learn about some of the nuts and bolts about making music. So even if it’s not as exciting as talking to the artists, its’ educational! And over the past two years, I wrote cover stories on Mindi Abair and Brian Culbertson, bringing them to an audience that had probably not heard of them before!
I have regularly appeared on this online site, Peter Boehi’s SmoothVibes.com, since 1997, and so that’s a great place to find old columns for reference purposes. Peter, jazz aficionado from Switzerland, allows me to post as written with no pre-editing. These days I don’t contribute original information here, but my Jazziz 'Contempo' column is featured in its original form every month. Plus, SmoothVibes is in search engines all over the world, which means people can read my work that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.
Many people in the smooth jazz community know me from my extensive writings in the nationally distributed magazine Smooth Jazz News, which launched in December 1999 and is very popular among the true fans of the genre. In the summer, the publisher, Melanie Maxwell, travels to every major smooth jazz oriented festival so SJN has high visibility in that community. I like writing for this publication because the articles touch on the personal lives of the artists beyond just their latest gigs and recordings…and it’s always interesting to know about their families and hobbies. Online, I also write for the popular website All Music Guide, and my reviews there are syndicated to hundreds of websites worldwide, so my name is definitely out there. I started out for them just doing smooth jazz reviews (since before me, they only had straight ahead jazz critics reviewing smooth jazz, which they didn’t like much), but now have covered everything from rock to R&B to country, gospel and world music. There have been other publications and websites over the years, including Amazon.com, but these are the major ones I write for now.
In addition to the journalism, I also for years have done a lot of PR writing, which means bios and press releases for many different record companies and public relations firms. I have written bios on most of the major smooth jazz artists, but companies have hired me to write bios in many different genres beyond smooth jazz, and that’s always expanding. I may not like all the music these artists make, but they all have great stories to tell and it’s fun to help artists just starting out their careers.
PR writing also pays a lot better than the journalism and reviewing! But the journalism is what got my name out there in the first place. For one L.A. based company I work for regularly, I have written about rock, folk, jazz, gospel, country and even hardcore alternative rock. Plus I’ve written press releases for clients I grew up listening to like Air Supply, Tommy Tutone and The Knack!
BJP: What are the most satisfying aspects of your work in music journalism?
JW: I think the most satisfying thing is being able to have built what is essentially my own freelance business, setting my own hours and beating the system by working entirely at home! When you live in L.A., where people drive long distances on the clogged freeways and spend their lives in traffic, this is a real blessing. I’ve created an interesting niche for myself. Unlike many freelancers, I rarely have to pitch ideas to anyone. I’ve built the PR business by word of mouth so people call me all the time for new projects. And I write regularly for the same publications and am comfortable doing that! When I’m caught up on my work I can go to the beach or the movies, or just take a walk. On the professional side, I really enjoy talking to the artists and finding out what makes them tick creatively. I like the fact that musicians, whether unknown, well known or legendary, talk to me with respect and most of the time treat me very kindly. It’s fun listening to people’s stories and figuring out clever ways to convey them to either other journalists (when I do PR) or people reading the articles. I also love getting so many free CDs and getting to see so many great shows and concerts over the years, all for free. It’s kind of a dream job for a music lover. The couple of jazz cruises I have been on were the best things…what could be better than enjoying a week at sea and in beautiful ports and listening to great concerts every night. Fans pay a lot of hard earned money to do what I get to do for free…but then again, I provide something for the artists that helps their career. I still feel like a kid getting away with something, but I know I contribute as well.
BJP: Before developing your music journalism career, you also wrote a book about your journey into trying to make it big in Hollywood called Hooray for Hollywhat? Can you tell us about what you were trying to do in Hollywood and basically how it turned out?
JW: I was always good at writing but I think it’s usually not practical to dream of making any sort of living doing it. Like being a musician, even if you’re talented, it’s hardly a safe career path like being a doctor, lawyer or teacher is. I hadn’t really thought about being a scriptwriter but while I was in my second year of UCLA, I was a big fan of the TV show Family Ties…and one day I woke up with a vision of Alex Keaton, the Michael J. Fox character, writing a term paper. I had just gotten a low grade on an English paper and needed to vent my frustration. I wrote a “spec” script (meaning on speculation, as a sample) for the show and was able to submit it to the producers of the show with just a release form. They liked it but said they already were working on a similar idea about Alex getting his first low grade in college. Anyway I got to go to tapings and meet the producers, and so for the next six years or so (including several after graduating) I wrote a lot of sitcom spec scripts and a few screenplays. I had an agent and began working with a partner, and had a lot of close calls in terms of selling stories and one of the screenplays, but it got very frustrating having so many close calls. Like a lot of people who are encouraged, I went through a lot of interesting experiences (chronicled humorously in the book) but ultimately focused on the music writing, where I was getting more respect and more money than I was ever able to make in Hollywood!
BJP: So when the America's Got Talent show was conceived by the makers of American Idol, you couldn't resist calling upon some of the talent that you have to see if you could possibly make your way back into 'show biz,' is that it?
JW: Kind of, but it’s doing a whole other thing. My original goals were to be a writer producer for television, not sing on TV, which is what my friend Fred and I (collectively known as The Freds) did on the first show of America’s Got Talent. Over the years, purely for fun, I did karaoke in various settings, and when I met Fred, we shared a mutual love for the one hit wonders of the 70s and 80s we grew up with…and karaoke was a fun and inexpensive way to hang out on the weekends. We didn’t have any specific act in mind, we just enjoyed singing together and we became real crowdpleasers on the karaoke circuit in the Burbank area. So when we heard about auditions for the show, we thought it would be fun to try out with all the strange folks who were bound to show up…we can carry a tune and we are definitely entertaining, but it shocked us when the evaluators liked what we did…and even more stunned when they called and said they wanted us to audition again on the main show stage at Paramount for the producers…suddenly we were onstage talking to Regis Philbin (the host), singing and entertaining the audience and having David Hasselhoff (one of the judges) tell us “You guys would be perfect to sing at a beach barbecue but not on this show!” So he got it that we were just having fun and hardly expected to win a million dollars. But the audience really liked us, and it was cool because we are not professionals so there was no pressure to get into the main competition. We also got to meet Simon Cowell, the show’s executive producer, who was very nice and told us, “You guys are good for the competition.” It was fun to go back to Paramount, home of Family Ties in the 80s, and do this instead of worrying about selling a script! Plus we got to meet all the other contestants on the show, many of whom were very talented and many of whom were weird, and the production team (many from American Idol) was really nice.
BJP: Tell us more about the talent that you and your friend have and how you share this talent every week around the LA area karaoke circuit.
JW: We were regulars at least twice a week at the Burbank Holiday Inn but have done it at different places (less regularly) since that venue closed a year ago. We have a repertoire of about 30 songs, all hits from the 70s and 80s that everyone who grew up then heard on Top 40 Radio. My friend Fred does comedy improvisation at Second City, and is an aspiring actor. I just do it for fun but maybe The Freds will have a career out of this. If William Hung could be famous, why not us? Reality TV gives people like us a chance to get our five minutes of fame! I really just enjoy making people laugh and smile, and not take life so seriously. I think there are karaoke singers all around America who like to have their moment in the spotlight. The one we got is just bigger. Obviously, the producers thought we were entertaining, and that’s all we really aspire to be considering our vocal limitations.
BJP: I've seen you perform live in a karaoke setting and I'd call it a quite 'commanding' performance -- total energy and dedication, you sing on key, you are simply 'on fire' about these favorite songs of yours. And a LOT of fun to watch. What was the reaction of people like the judges and others on the scene -- Regis Philbin and David Hasselhoff, to mention a few?
JW: Regis is just the host and I didn’t see how he reacted, but this is the breakdown on the show’s official judges. The British guy who is the Simon of the show, Piers Morgan (who was a big newspaper editor in England) didn’t get it at all but did say he thought we were fun. Brandy was born in 1979 and I’m sure never heard “Don’t Pull Your Love” so it didn’t connect with her…but she did like our Old Navy matching print shirts! Hasselhoff, who once recorded the other hit by Hamilton, Joe Frank & Reynolds himself, totally got what we were aiming for, with his beach barbecue remark. He acted like he thought we were fun but not right for a million dollar competition…which we already knew. Twice the next day, he said, Hey, how are the Freds doing? Once outside on the lot, the other when looking down from the judges table into the audience during a break. One of the producers of the show (and remember, this is the same group that does “Idol”) thinks we’d be great for corporate gigs. Another said of all the acts who didn’t “make it,” they were sorriest about us because everyone really liked us. Many of the other contestants came up and told us they enjoyed our performance as well. We’re sort of the crowd pleasers in between the great talent and the total Gong Show acts.
BJP: What is your personal reaction to being a part of this experience?
JW: It was really a fun experience, kind of surreal, and we got to meet a lot of interesting, strange and talented people…and sing on the biggest stage we were ever on. Plus it’s funny to think that the almighty Simon was watching us backstage, so he devoted five minutes of his life to “The Freds”! Also everyone on the show was very kind and attentive. It’s a great crew. Maybe if we can get enough people to write to NBC, they’ll have us back on the show like they do sometimes on the finale of Idol…Simon actually said, “people may like you and may want you back!” It was a great life experience, and one I’m sure thousands of karaoke singers across America would love to have!
BJP: Do you have a 'gut feeling' as to where this could lead you and Fred??
JW: Fred’s always fantasized about The Freds going on tour a la The Blues Brothers (another musical comedy act whose antics outshone their actual vocals), and TV is a powerful medium so who knows. Plus with internet marketing opportunities, you never know. Or it could just be a neat five minute thing and that’s the end of it. Either way, I know we’ll keep entertaining people. Whether we get paid for it, that’s the question. I’m enjoying the journey, wherever it leads. And it’s fun telling some of the musicians I know about it…so they can see me in a whole other way!
BJP: What's your advice for those who want to 'make it big' in the music/entertainment industry?
JW: That’s a question usually asked of people who have made it big. Have I made it big? Well, I make a living doing something I love, and am a Grammy voting member of the Recording Academy, so in a small way, yes, I suppose I have. Basically, I would say it’s about having the passion to do it…and showing up and not being afraid of rejection. As successful as I might appear as a writer to many, I can’t count the intense rejections I have received on my scripts and book projects. The journalism wasn’t really my first choice but when I started getting respect, I knew I was on to something. Follow your dream as far as it can go, but have the grace to adjust when you get to crucial crossroads, and there’s no shame in shifting gears. I love the stories artists tell me about the balance they have to strike between being commercial and being who they are. Usually success is a matter of both. Talent should be a given.
BJP: (tongue in cheek) Do you plan to give up music journalism and market yourself as an entertainer, if for nothing more than the parties of those celebrities who may have fallen in love with your style, or even better, if you triumph with the likes of anyone from Taylor Hicks to William Hung??
JW: I’m sure I’ll always be writing in some way, and I really enjoy what I do so I cant imagine abandoning it no matter what opportunities came my way. I’m sure if anything works out on the entertaining side, I would find a way to play a behind the scenes writing/scripting role. I will say however, that the idea of entertaining hundreds or thousands of people is probably more gratifying than seeing my name in print. I’ve been doing the writing so long, it’s not that big a deal anymore…but when I think of all the people who would love to be making a living doing something they enjoy, I am very grateful that I took the hard road and stayed on this path. As for Taylor, I think the fact that a guy who is more of a great and fun entertainer than a truly brilliant vocalist won Idol shows that America likes to be entertained and is ready for talent that isn’t in the typical cookie cutter mode. Enter the Freds! But seriously, I hope he can inspire a lot of people who work as hard as he did to “make it” for ten years to keep doing what they do best, and not give up.
BJP: Thanks, Jonathan, for spending some time with me so that musicians and others who keep up with your writing will know this other side of you that is quite fascinating!
JW: Thank you, too, and don’t forget to tune in Wednesday night!
BJP: No way would I miss this! That’s The Freds this Wednesday evening, June 21st, on America’s Got Talent, airing at 9 PM.
Interview done by Paul Adams*
Tony Levin. To most musicians, enough said. The guy's been everywhere and played with everybody who has made a dent in the world of music for the last thirty years. Peter Gabriel, John Lennon, King Crimson, Herbie Mann etc. etc. A musician's musician. The man loves to gig, and he's constantly on the road. But, the last few years he's started doing his own music, and Resonator is the current release on Narada Records. He also releases solo work on his Papabear Records label (Through his his web site only).
Tony is known for being solid and adventurous, and he doesn't disappoint. On Resonator, he opens up the door of his heart all the way, with an emphasis on lyric tunes. And the guy has hit the ball out of the park. The overall content of these songs are emotionally touching, with a dash of humor, irony, and mysticism. "Utopia" has a beautiful epic feel that just melts me. "Beyond My Reach" finds its genesis within the universal theme of grief, and the beauty of letting go of that that never stands still - life. The tune "Fragile As A Song" speaks of an encounter with a wonderful ape named Panbanesha, with Peter Gabriel. Throughout, there's a poignant ballad like approach to his recent decision to "open up" his lyric soul to the world. However, ballads aren't the only thing new and interesting. There are some wild rides here with instrumentals that shake the floor. "What Would Jimi Do" gives a rockin nod to Hendrix inspired music. The premise is interesting. If alive today, how would he Hendrix respond to the state of current music? On "Throw The God A Bone", even his dog Lilly takes part. A humorous movin' and groovin' celebration of our furry friends hold on simplicity and beauty. They have a lot to teach us. Woof!
In my discussion with him, he expressed concern that the lyric in these songs work well. There was also concern about the use of his voice. He wanted the music to stand - to be valid within itself, and not enslaved to a point in time that may not be as appropriate for an audience ten or twenty years from now (Tony expressed this same concern with some of the album covers for King Crimson). The themes are universal. Life, loss, existence, humor, and the sometimes precarious dance between science and the spiritual. These former themes expose Tony as a bit of a mystic, the later, allow him a bit of objectivity. He can acknowledge the sometimes overwhelming impact of these themes, yet balance the heavy, with the "Zen like" willingness to take the impact, dust himself off, get back on his feet, and re-join the dance for all it's beauty.
For the most part, the music industry has lost site of art. It offers us sameness with an ironic emphasis of trying to make itself look groundbreaking. Being an individual - making an artistic statement - is accomplished by sounding like everyone else. Tony and his wonderful band of Gypsy's ("The man" Adrian Belew on guitar, Jesse Gress on guitar, Tony's brother Pete Levin on organ, Jerry Marotta on drums, and Larry Fast on keyboards.) has offered us art. He's met the challenge of pushing the envelope, and taking a risk by heading into new territory. Exposing one self to these elements is being dynamic, involved, and alive. Tony Levin and the boys are alive! Resonator is alive!
Q This album showcases vocals in a prominent way. As someone known as a musician's musician, and one of the "go to" guys for instrumental excursions with many people, do you think you took more chance or risk? Was it frightening?
A Not quite "frightening" but a big leap for me. Like many musicians, I like challenges, and even with my comfortable territory (Bass, Stick, and instrumental music) I'm usually pushing myself to move off the old ways of doing things, learn new techniques, make some up... stuff like that. Maybe it's from being in King Crimson for so long, a band where challenging ourselves individually and as a band is standard practice. So, for years I've had a lot of material brewing - things I wanted to communicate that I couldn't get across with my instrumental writing. And finally it seemed time to take a deep breath, write the material the way I felt it suited me best, and do lead vocals on it. I'd sung backgrounds a lot (with Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and some others) so I was familiar with my voice (it's qualities and lack of qualities...) The recording process took me much longer than usual this time, but in the end I'm happy it did so that I had time to adjust the compositions the way they needed.
Q There's a bit of the mystics imagination with this outing. One song example might be "Throw That Dog A Bone". Dogs have the simple mind thing down don't they? So much to teach us! Care to comment? By the way Lilly has great timing.
A "Throw The God A Bone" is somewhat characteristic of this new music - it's humor kind of masks a somewhat deep theme. Dogs look up to us, kind of like we're gods to them when you think about it. And the song is a processing of that fact midst our natural tendency to look up above us, and try to obey the edicts of our God or gods. It's amusing when our dogs, wanting so much to please us, break the rules sometimes, and feel so bad afterward - are we that different about our commandments? And then, science almost always being a component of these songs, what is going to happen when we create some new life (not so far in the future) and need to program it to obey 'commandments' of behavior from us? All interesting fodder for music, I think. Meanwhile, there's Lilly, my dog, happy to perform some barking for the song. I have to admit she did not bark on cue - but getting her barks on tape was as easy as... well, as getting a dog to bark!
Q I think when someone hears Resonator they are gonna get the Tony Levin approach. Music that seeks to use imagination a bit over formula. Can you elaborate about some of the tools and tricks you used to accomplish this.
A I certainly didn't want to sing about "love ya baby..." Maybe it's because I came from the progressive rock tradition, where music at least tried to be intelligent and challenging. And, for me, the themes were already there percolating in my mind before I set about writing the songs. It wasn't a case of thinking what a certain song would be about. I have lots of journals and poems about the things on my mind, often the collisions between where science and technology is taking us in this century, and the structures and traditions of religion. (My bedside reading is a very odd combination of science mags and the Bible.) When I have a theme, and perhaps a poem or a few pages of journal writings and drawings about it, it's kind of fun to form that into a song. The hard part for me comes when I have to shorten it (usually far too many ideas and verses to fit into reasonable length song) and when I need to fashion it into music that's my own style. (Some of the songs I rejected for the album were good musically but didn't suit the rock playing I wanted to do, or suit my voice, which is fairly limited.) (Incidentally, I ended up feeling that my voice limitations were a good thing for the material. There are ways a good singer can 'carry' some weaker parts of the song - maybe some lyrics that aren't up to the rest, but the singer can throw more emotion into those words and give them some resonance that way. Or, even weak melody lines can be made musical by the voice weaving around, adding filigree. Fine and dandy, but I can't do any of that, and so I had to keep plugging away at the music itself, knowing all I can do vocally is present the material. Ended up being better for the music, I think.)
Q I'm betting that approaching music in a non formulaic way may be very natural for you. I believe we are living in a time when formula music has never been stronger and more encouraged. I don't see people looking at music on it's own merits, but rather as a commodity and product to be compared. Consumers ask is that as good as this? Or is this one as good as the previous one - rather than looking at one particular piece on it's own merits?
A It's an interesting time for music, partly because music is somewhat a way of communicating, and it's a wild time for opening up new ways of communicating. I travel a great deal, and am always aware how much music is out there - it seems like almost everyone is making a CD. Listening just to the radio, you could get the sense that there is less unusual stuff being done, but I think it's quite different than that. Of course, the associated difficulty these days is getting your music heard, for the same reason - there is so much out there and so little of it gets media attention.
Q Do you think this new delivery system of selling digital downloads of songs - with the ability to bypass many middle men - is going to be a lasting vehicle for purchasing music?
A I've got no insight into the digital download world - seems to me that things are changing fast, and we don't know how music is going to be shared, and maybe paid for five years from now. It's certainly made things interesting! And maybe there's a lesson there for coming challenges in other areas - I think the rate of change with this new technology is increasing, and we'll have to get better at adapting, if we don't want to get stuck in the feeling of being left behind. It's complex now, in the field of music and music sales, but I think it may get like that with all media, and with information itself.
Q Back to the human and animal kingdom, and lessons learned from our planetary brethren. Peter Gabriel asked to you help him with a project in Atlanta. This lead to "Fragile As A Song". Can you give your fans your impression of what went down, and what this meant to you. What did it teach you?
A The story is in short that Peter called me from Atlanta where he was spending a few days playing music with apes! I joined him for a day, with Panbanesha (a bonobo ape) playing a bit of piano, while Peter and I jammed along. Her piano playing wasn't great, (though not bad for a beginner!) but her language ability amazed me. Later, in trying to "process" what had happened that day, I did what we musicians are lucky to be able to do, that is to process. I wrote a song about it, not explaining the event, but... filtering it through my musicality. So the resulting song ("Fragile As A Song") doesn't seem to be about apes, but covers the emotion and the wonder that I took from the event. It's hard to say what I "learned"' from it, but maybe it opened up my eyes to yet more permutations of what "communication" can be.
Q Tony, there is a bit of humor on this CD. AND, of coarse, the mystics perspective of science as on "Break It Down". You sang of the obsession of over analyzing and breaking things down. Of trying to make the abstract more definable. Even in the music business we have this need to break down the song and compartmentalize it so we can control the product, and assure good sales demographics. Any comments?
A Hah... you've got a good sense of the music business for sure. For me, though I sail into and around the music business. I remain somewhat on an island of just making music. We somewhat ignore the business end of things (until we need to address it, and that's often too late to be effective.) But it's a blessing, to be immersed in writing and recording music, and better still, being out on the road playing your music for the people who appreciate it. All musicians avoid compartmentalizing music, to be sure - we strive while making it, to make it our own and therefore, hopefully, different from the rest. Alas, it isn't ever completely different. To describe it in words, it is necessary to compare it to other music, hence to put it in a genre. We know that. But how nice that it's the job of others to do that - and we can happily sail along feeling our own music is unique!
Q Well it seems I'm going to drift back to the area of metaphysics and the song "Utopia". It offers us a choice of tools. It paints a picture of the many beautiful ways we have of seeing Utopia right before us - if we would just allow ourselves to see.
A Exactly. And in it is some reference to my having lost my father in the year I was writing - the writing I did about the painful side of loss, those poems and songs won't come out - more meaningful to me is the ever-present element in loss, of treasured connection. That's there, a bit, in "Utopia" and in "Beyond My Reach". And connection itself, between us fragile cousins in this human tribe, that's what I sing about, and that may be the function of music itself.
Q Concerning you not wanting to utilize the Music Industry formula approach, you said you certainly didn't want to sing about "love ya baby..." because you came from the progressive rock tradition, where music at least tried to be intelligent and challenging". My friend Gary Green played in a Prog group called Gentle Giant. They worked quite hard with little financial gain. In 1980, all "arty Rock", or "Progressive Rock" was buried in the closet. It's detractors called it pretentious and full of itself. Do you have any feelings about this?
A Well, in fact I don't like pretentious lyrics myself. In my opinion lyrics can be thought provoking and... well, resonant, without hammering you over the head that 'this is art. That naturalness, in writing, isn't easy to come by, and I struggled to try to achieve it - whether I succeeded or not, is for others to judge.
Q I see a strange irony happening in the business today. To be popular, your music has to be unique. One must be an individual. At the Grammys a few years ago Snoop Dog said something like, "we don't influence people, we just make music about what we see. People think for themselves". I'm not sure I agree with this. I hear a "sameness". From the phrasing, to the lyric, rhythm, and even the press photo pose. Irony. In order to be unique, I must be like everyone else. Care to respond?
A In a sense almost all of us who are trying to be unique are settled inside a musical genre with a lot of loose rules of form harmony and content. What we really are doing is bending some of those rules, maybe just combining elements that aren't often used together. It's a very rare musician who is writing outside the harmonic structure of hundreds of years ago. I listen sometimes to Schoenberg, to remind myself of the music (almost a century old now) that really did bust out of those rules - but my ear's not advanced enough to even get it, let alone write that way. Yet it's a good reminder to me - if I'm telling myself I want to be radical with my music, it's best I face the reality of just how radical I'm willing to get. (Add to that that if one is far from the norm harmonically, it'll distract from the other elements, like lyrics, that you might want the focus to be on.)
Q Every tune on the album is valid for me because I trust you. And I trust you because I feel that being dishonest and uninteresting would be a waste of your time. Even if you drive to a place that doesn't quite "tickle" my musical trigger, I'm going to say to myself. "Hmmm. I'm gonna put this away till tomorrow and have another listen. The guys a good driver." I find that it is this "trust" that is missing between the record buying public and the artists. Any comments?
A Well, first of all, thanks very much. Now, for 'trust,' interestingly I find myself grateful to be on a record label that has some musical faith in me. I've handed them albums before which didn't fit the kind of music they put out, yet they stick with me, not imposing anything on my music. And this time I've gone even further off their norm, with rock vocals, and some of them about religion - possibly a red flag to some companies.
As to the fans of my music, I do feel lucky to have a small following of listeners who don't expect to hear the same thing every outing. It's also a result of being in King Crimson, where the band always put its fans through a difficult conundrum - you liked the Discipline album of the early 80's... good, because Robert Fripp had us stop playing most of the earlier music in the live shows. But, next album - you'd like more of the same? too bad, we're looking for something new. Okay, maybe we don't succeed in finding that really new direction each time (definitely don't, in fact) but one thing's for sure - it demands a special kind of audience to stick with a band that keeps trying to forge new directions like that. So in a way the band got the audience it deserved - very astute, ready for the new, and... often frustrated that some of it's favorite music got dropped in the process.
Me, I'm not King Crimson, but I've been influenced by that experience. With my solo albums and tours, I'm just making the music I need to make. There was one album (Waters of Eden) which I wrote after a couple of years of back to back heavy prog bands. The collaborations (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, Bozzio Levin Stevens, Liquid Tension Experiment) they were great, but I was craving some gentler, more Gabriel World Music like music. So that's the kind of music I wrote, though I knew the fans of what I'd been playing for the last years would find it too.. nice. Now, 'nice' is gone, I've got things to say, about science, religion, progress, connections among people... and the rock context fits it best.
Q Resonator is a very poetic album. There's humor, as well as keen observation and a desire to touch. You coordinated this with the eclectic risk taking you are known for. Do you have any advise for those who want to create art honestly, yet, find it difficult to find a "place" to gig - or reach an audience?
A I'm not such an expert or icon that I can give advice about how to create art honestly - still doing my best to learn that for myself. But 'places to gig' are certainly becoming scarcer. I'd say my only tip is about the music itself - to try to stick with the music that you love and are happy making. There are often pressures (market pressures, genres that radio or labels like) that push you toward making music that seems to fit a market. I know some artists who have been lucky with this. But I know many more who have abandoned the unique slant they started with to try to please market needs, and eventually found themselves without either sales success or a body of distinctive work to continue to build off of. They can deny you places to play, make it tough to sell your music, but they cannot take the music away from you - that's something only you yourself can do
Q How about a small description of how you felt playing with the guys on the album. They are all so great. I was especially keen about the guitar work by Jesse on "What Would Jimi Do"?
A That song, "What Would Jimi Do" was an obvious vehicle for guitar solo from a Hendrix fan - I know many guitarists who love playing in that vein, and I was a bit torn about who to have on it. Ended up feeling that Jesse would be ideal - and indeed, he went right into 'Jimi mode" and played exactly the part I needed. All the band (Jerry Marotta, Jesse, Larry Fast, and Pete Levin) are excellent musicians whom I trust in their musicality - so having them join in on songs was the fun part of the project for me. ( I usually had done some kind of demo of each part on the song, with me playing, and gradually the real track would reveal itself as player after player replaced my demo parts with the real thing.)
Q You mentioned that you had great album support and that they gave you freedom. You did have your Papabear label. Was trying to be a label and an artist a huge chunk of work?
A Not a lot of work, but that's simply because I neglected the biz part of the work. I've always been better at the artistic side, and with Papabear I would just release good music albums, and let the sales be whatever they are, on web only. (Far too time consuming to send to distribution or record stores - so it kept small and manageable, by just website sales.) When Narada was interested in having me do records for them, I was intrigued by the possibility of actually getting my releases into stores. The collaboration has been a good one, I think - they leave me to do what I need to artistically, even if it's very different from their other artists. And on my side, I tour a lot to support the store sales of my CDs, and have a bit of a following among Crimson and Gabriel fans.
Q Ok. How about short answers when I mention a few of the folks you have played with? It can be what you learned from them, or just your impression of their place in your heart.
Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew
These guys are an inspiration to me - a lot of what I've learned about truly being progressive, about breaking out of the mold, has been from playing alongside them, live, in studio and just inhaling their musical intuition.
I was only in the band a short time - but their musical ability was inspiring. Mike Mainieri (the band's founder and leader) was a band mate of mine from the first projects I did in New York, back when I moved there ("White Elephant" was the band) and Mike is one of those awesome players, who is also a fantastic band leader. The only reason I didn't do more with Steps Ahead was, alas, big commitments in the same years, to touring with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson. It's a shame, but you can't do it all.
Probably the luckiest single thing in a career of lucky breaks is that I got to play with Peter. His sense of music is unique, his openness to unusual ideas (only Peter embraced my Stick playing from the beginning) is extraordinary, he's a great guy, and to boot, his tours are the most fun of all tours, because Peter's open to trying different things each day, whether it's camping in the wild, or motorcycling to the Grand Canyon on a day off.
Again, a lucky break for me, and an honor, that I was asked to play on John's album.
Back in my jazz days, Herbie was the force to bring together players of different styles - he threw me in with Potato's Bata Cubana, with Steve Gadd on drums... we started the Disco era (God forgive us) and Herbie was ever looking for new styles to explore.
My Crimson rhythm buddy - Bill's creativity is legendary (the man who never plays the same thing once!) When I joined Crimson I tried to hold things down, in a typical American rhythm section way - soon Bill opened my eyes to a new way to look at rhythm playing, innovative to the max, not concerned with tradition but blazing new paths. I sometimes still try to do it, but never forget who was my teacher in that aspect of musicality - Bill.
The stories are rife - always amusing tales about Buddy and his famous temper. But behind that, an amazing drive and unique ability to power a big band through it's paces. It's precious to me, to have spent a week playing with this master. (Yes, he did fire the whole band mid-session, but hired us back the next day - what else is new!)
Interview by Paul Adams
Paul Adams Music
My main job is working as a composer, but I do album reviews on a sparing basis. I'm especially drawn to write about music that I feel has great potential to counterbalance some of the "sameness" I hear in some music today.
Narada sent me Kazu Matsui's album Stone Monkey awhile back and I admit I put off listening for awhile. My mistake. This is interesting, creative, and risk taking in it's boldest sense. We spoke by phone when he was in LA working on a movie soundtrack with James Horner. Talking to the guy made me feel a sense of simpatico. He is forthright, open, and hasn't let the "business" end of music temper his attitude. Supported by charming bits of elfish laughter, this review/interview was a gas!
PA: You are in the USA doing music for the Zorro 2 soundtrack?
Kazu: Yeah, It’s called Legend of The Zorro, with Katherine Zeta Jones and Antonio Banderas.
PA: I got a hold of you because of the excitement I felt when I heard your new album Stone Monkey. The thing that excited me was that there doesn’t seem to be much risk taking in Instrumental or New Age music. There does seem to be a “sameness”. But you threw everything in this album but the kitchen sink
Kazu: (Laughter) Right
PA:Why did you take such a risk?
Kazu: Well if I am making a living ONLY on my music it might be risky. But, I write books and produce, and my living depends on those things (Kazu produces all of the recordings by his wife Keiko Matsui). Fortunately I have a deal that the record company (Narada) allows me to make all the creative decisions
PA: That was a very good deal
Kazu: Yeah (Laughter) I don’t know if I can continue that, but anytime they can cut me! (Laughter)
PA: Well, I find it an irony that we live in a time where we have very sophisticated composing tools, but I don’t see music in the market place pushing artistic boundaries. Matter of fact it seems less “chance taking” now than 25 years ago. I’m excited to see people push parameters and hope that there will be a place for those who want to do that.
Kazu: I hope so too. But now the outlet of music is shrinking in some ways. They only seem to want certain types of music and that’s a problem.
PA: Another interesting irony is that you mentioned that you don’t make a living from album sales. NOW, if you don’t have that market already defined and you have other means of support, this allows you more freedom in composing. So, lack of success in sales can foster more creativity! There are no executives telling you what and how to do something!
Kazu: Yeah. We used to make albums in one or two months in the studio. However we don’t need it anymore. You can have five thousand dollars worth of equipment and you can make an album. Technology has advanced so much that ones creativity can flourish. Unfortunately the market system is in the middle of a maze. We don’t know what to do. Internet is helping and killing part of the industry too. WE are in transition. I think we’ll be OK. And again, we are able to create using this technology and come up with great stuff. We may need to work on something else to make a living so it is a special time.
PA: I agree with you 100%
Kazu: Of course we need an (marketing) outlet because we want other people to listen. We haven’t figured out what to do, but this internet is either killing us or make us flourish. It can go either way
PA: Well it’s filled with irony
PA:What is going to happen? It’s such a blessing and I curse. I’I've always believed that the internet was going to be a continuation of the same. Most folks will drift to Rolling Stone or People magazine. Pop icons will attract the most attention. BUT, there’s going to be a place where you can find something different. Something more unique. They cannot make us go away
Kazu: Yes, exactly
PA: I had a friend in a band called Gentle Giant. Another in a band called Happy The Man. Of course progressive rock died a painful death and these groups couldn't’t make music after they were dropped by the label. Because of this revolution in technology They can NOW record their own albums. So we have guys like you who can take these tools of MIDI, DIGITAL RECORDING, SAMPLING, COMPUTER AND LIVE INSTRUMENTATION and make a complete cool mix of that.
Kazu: Yes, um hum. Yes, exactly what I was talking about. It is a great time.
PA: I want to make a turn and ask about your interest in the shakuhachi flute which you blend with this technology. How old were you when fell in love with this instrument
Kazu: I think I was about 16 or so.
PA: Some find that the pentatonic scale of the flute may pose a limitation (Pentatonic scale has 5 notes and is usually in a fixed scale ).
Kazu: I like limitation
PA: Tell me more about that
Kazu: If I have more talent in western music some may find the Shakuhachi to be at a disadvantage. However my music taste and ability is limited. I love music, but I don’t read western notation. I’m more like a “street player.” For a street player, limited technique is our “ballpark”. We stay there and we remain in the true character of the instrument. This limitation is a cultural thing in Japan - like Kabuki (Kabuki theater is an old and established performance and theatrical art form) In the last 300 years we don’t change or evolve. Even in the limited thing, there is so much depth. Like a comedian in Japan, he is saying the same joke for years. Everybody knows how the same joke goes. This comic theater called Kyogen has played the same joke for years and still people “dig it.” Like Shakespeare, many people know the story or the lines, but many people go to the theater to hear an artists interpretation of it.
PA: I have an injury to my left hand and have found that the limitation may have helped me to paint with a different color on the guitar and not fall into the trap of playing the same thing everyone else.
Kazu: Yeah, because of my limitation I never really go for the technique. I never wanted to play faster or jazzier, it was never fun for me. But at the same time, the music depth is so wide and deep, even with the limitation, one can go very far. There is an analogy to Indian Raga scales here. I have tendency to go to a theatrical emphasis on the music. I always like going into some world or different dimension or other world.
PA: think that’s evident for you, as well as your production of your wife Keiko Matsui’s albums. I’ve seen your stage shows and there is definitely a sense of cinema or theater there.
Kazu: Yeah. I like to create imaginative stories with the music. The music as a journey.
PA: You have had the opportunity to play with some of the finest and best trained musicians in the world. Explain how you marry your sense of “street playing”simplicity with their trained virtuosity.
Kazu: Well, as I said, I am a visual player. I can’t explain to them in western harmony what to do. But often I ask them to use their imagination. For example I’ll ask them to imagine an elf sitting on a mountain top. Good musicians understand this and they can bring out their own creativity to adapt to this. We both create an atmosphere.
PA: So there is an openness to those musicians you play with
Kazu: Yes. Their ability and knowledge of theory will not inhibit their use of simplicity.
PA: So, if a well schooled musician modulates to a different key because he wants to make change this is a problem?
Kazu: Yeah, I’m not a fan of this. I appreciate their vocabulary but it may be that keeping things simple within the key may be necessary for what I am doing. I am looking for emotion. Limitation helps to create space. Sometimes when I produce Keiko, I tell her to cut notes. I ask her to listen to silence. I want to feel the silence between the notes. I think I have a problem when a jazz player uses too many notes.
PA: find there’s an analogy w/ pop music - say Rap or Hip Hop - music simple in form. My problem is that there is no space. Everything both vocally as well as rhythmically is constantly busy. I think they and their producers realize that all this activity does all the work for the audience. It doesn’t force them to use their imagination. It almost grabs you physically and pulls you in - it does all the work so to speak. What’s your feedback on my little theory?
Kazu: Simple music is popular. Some Rap is very creative. Sometimes I just want to listen to the groove but I can’t hear the words.
PA: Lets take a turn. Here. You took up with the Shakuachi flute when you were younger. What pop music influenced you when you were younger?
Kazu: When I started to produce my own album, I asked others to tell me what I should listen to to get a good example of contemporary music. I was told to listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I listened to them hundreds of times. I listened to Quincy Jones' productions.
PA: Ah, Here we are back to the visual cues of music
Kazu: Yeah, I imagine visuals of watching the moon or traveling through the jungle. If you listen to Stone Monkey, it is very visual. It all comes from my travels. Twenty years ago I drove from England to India and this left a deep impact on me. All these experiences come back to me and I want to express this in my music
PA: Stone Monkey is very cinematic. I am thinking of the Cirque Du Soleil.
Kazu: Yeah I love them.
PA: When you were a very young man, what other music did you listen to?
Kazu: Well, like in high school I listened to Santana, Coltrane, The Doors and anything theatrical. Anything that told a story.
PA: Tell me about your interest in Coltrane
Kazu: Others introduced me to him. I especially like the simple work as on Love Supreme. Sometimes he played many many notes but he used space very well, You can feel the silence behind it. I don’t know how he does it (Laughter). I liked him more than other jazz musicians
PA: Isn’t it great to live in a time with this digital chip? At one time people argued that it was evil, but it can be a marvelous tool.
Kazu: Yeah, those people don’t understand. Like, I love the use of the drum machine. I believe these digital tools have spirit. I believe everything has spirit, and should be seen as this. Sometimes machines makes more sense. I don’t like it if a live drummer doesn’t feel or connect with the visual aspect. Sometimes these machines can express what we want to say. They are part of the universe.
PA: So, it’s how we USE those machines that makes the real difference as to their validity?
Kazu: Yes, to use them, you have to feel as if you and the machine are part of the universe. There is a relationship there. The creative mixture of human and machine is the way to go. After all, nature, the universe, includes the computer
PA: So if it’s here, it’s part of nature, otherwise
it wouldn’t be here?
Kazu: Yeah, (Laughter). Exactly. Certain people block themselves into a narrow interpretation, but sometimes a narrow thing can go deeper.
PA: Once you put up rigid judgment, there is an opportunity to miss something. This takes me back to what you said about time and space in music. Of not playing. Those moments can allow deeper penetration what you have created
Kazu: Yeah, and people should judge from what they hear and not be negative about what tool was used to create the music. There are times when I even use sample CD’s to cut and paste into the music I compose (Many top musicians have out CD’s containing grooves they have played - allowing you to paste them into your project)). AND, if I do this, it is almost like I have involved this musician in the album. It’s like having another player easily accessible.
PA: So, even though they are samples, you are still communicating with him
Kazu: Yes. I spoke to a number of well known musicians that have sample CD’s of their work and phrases. They assured me that using their samples and phrases was OK.
PA: in Stone Monkey you have a lot of mixes with grooves that involved a bit of sampling.
Kazu: Yes, I was helped with the project by Hajime Hyakkoku who was able to paste many musical statements using the Macintosh computer. I didn’t want to use JUST drum machine, but to mix all the elements together of machine, sampler, and live individual voice. I am influenced greatly by this new technology
PA: Yes, you might say it is like being a sculptor - working with clay. You can place your sound, stand back, take some away, add proportions, ad infinitum. It’s a joy
Kazu: Exactly, and these techniques are there for everybody. For a few thousand dollars you have your own studio. This is a time that so many people - who didn’t have a chance to be in music - can now create. Anybody who is interested can create music. It’s a great time
PA: Everything we do can be done in the living room. We can exchange files with others, and the creative process unfolds.
Kazu: Yes yes! Actually I am now making a documentary about the Dali People in India. I can shoot - edit - and do everything by myself with hi digital quality. This is the first time I have made a film - apart from Keiko’s DVD’s. Again, I can do it all myself.
PA: Well you have an album that is much like a story or film. You’ve been talking about theater and as I previously remarked, your music is very visual.
Kazu: Yeah, I love our imagination
PA: I’ve been taking your album with me on my journeys to the river where I lay and allow my imagination to flow. I find the varied elements to be calming - even in their most dynamic sections. As I said previously, you threw everything in this album but the kitchen sink.
Kazu: Yeah but you know - some of the critics say I went too far (Kazu is laughing as he says this), I was not as New Age as I was supposed to be - but why not (More laughter)?
Kazu: the music industry is doing so bad right now and everybody is trying to chase the same rabbit. Everything sounds all the same. It’s OK to try to make a living, but the industry is killing creativity because they don’t budge. Sometimes artists produce work that doesn’t reach full appreciation in their time
PA: Yes, that means we need a day job
PA: An interesting irony here. As I said earlier, perhaps it’s the guy who is somewhat unsuccessful, that is more successful. He doesn’t have the bound duty to produce for the market. His day job allows him to paint his pictures the way HE see them
Kazu: Right . And many times, people have quit music because of the business difficulty. Well, because of the new technology, they can now come back and continue to produce. We don’t have to rely on the money from the record companies. AND, they don’t have the money anymore anyway. What we have to do is to find a market on the internet - I don’t know how to do it - but we need to develop new marketing strategy
PA: I’m really glad we had this time to talk. I feel a connection with your creative process because you seem to be drawn to the idea of making passionate interesting music, rather than just commercial music that can get boring and lackluster over time
Kazu: Yeah Yeah Yeah. And I hope XM radio will do great (Referring to the new satellite radio subscription services like XM and Sirius that are not as bound to the same play lists as commercial radio)
PA: OK, AND THIS LEADS TO THE QUESTION: Where does your album Stone Monkey fit? In what genre is it placed? New Age, World Fusion?
Kazu I’m not sure. Narada is a good label and well recognized. I just hope everybody will, get further into this subscription radio and listen to music that is good
PA: This leads to some of the new internet stations like LIVE 365
Kazu: Yes, I am hopeful to see how these stations develop
PA: Again, they don’t have the same constraints as commercial radio.
Kazu: YES exactly As long as people have choice. If they choose me or they don’t choose me that’s OK. I just want them to have choices available. I want to see stations available that will offer something different
PA: When will you be done with your current work on the James Horner soundtrack ?
Kazu: I will go back to Japan next week.
PA: What was it like working with James?
Kazu He is great. AND, he knows how to work with “street Players” which is what I consider myself. He uses ethnic players very well. When we did Legends Of The Fall (Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins.), James brought in many folk players to work with the symphony. AND the orchestra members really appreciated their talents. The good composers let the street players play (Within their styles). And the blend of the folk and orchestral traditions add a great deal to the overall sound of the music
PA: Well, thank you for the interview. It was so good to talk and hear you speak of the unique approach of blending technology and street playing, with schooled and traditional orchestra. Your album Stone Monkey is truly daring and I think one of the most adventurous albums I’ve heard in a long time. It is a melting pot of the worlds sounds and traditions. I think many will appreciate your courage in making an album that truly pushed boundaries
Kazu: Thank you
The last 3 pictures are by Jun Sato, used with permission. Thanks Jun!
An Interview with the founders of the band about their latest CD, to be released April 26, 2005, by Heads Up International
Beverly J. Packard
Hiroshima’s contemporary jazz music is not simply music, but is also a significant contribution to the world. Significant because Hiroshima has a unique ability to lift us to spiritual places. To celebrate that which is worth celebrating and to encourage us to be wise about each other. Diversity is their middle name, and the varied cultural and religious influences that form the heritage of the band itself only enhances their credibility.
With a name like Hiroshima, none of us can be surprised that the music they make reaches deep within us and has so much to say. To come ‘up from the ashes’ is perhaps the longest journey to be made, and to associate one’s music with that concept would easily cause it to resonate with meaning. Their latest CD, to be released April 26th and entitled Obon, is no exception, with its deeply rooted meaning, timing, and style. It is offered as a tribute to the musicians, places and events that have inspired the band.
Obon continues the tradition of giving something back to the world, both in its commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans, as well as in its tribute to the loss of relatives fighting as American war heroes in Europe. In addition, it marks the contemporary jazz band’s own 25th anniversary of their recording career. And it happens to celebrate the debut of their very first instrumental album in those 25 years. So this album is a blend of reverence and joy.
In an interview with Dan Kuramoto and June Kuramoto, founders of Hiroshima, they explain it best:
BJP: Congratulations on 25 years of Hiroshima’s recording career! Dan, you’ve mentioned that Obon represents a new beginning for Hiroshima. Would you tell us what is involved in this new beginning and the factors that led up to it?
Dan: Life is cyclical. This first 25-year cycle really represents several cycles within it. We have seen so many musical evolutions, and we have always tried to grow with each new change—yet stay true to our sound and our audience. We remember when we were first signed to a record deal, we kept hearing we’d never make it because we didn’t fit into any category. Now we hear that we sound too ‘distinctive and ethnic.’
June: So we are full circle—BUT we keep growing and discovering, and “Obon” reminds us to pay tribute to our ancestors as well as to celebrate.
BJP: This is the first instrumental album you’ve made. Can you tell us what went into that decision?
June: Yes, Obon is our first instrumental album. Like life itself, it was part situation, part inspiration. Our lead vocalist and good friend, Terry [Steele], had decided to go solo. These kinds of changes used to devastate me, but as I started growing up, I realized change can be made for the better, like the legacy of the city of Hiroshima—up from the ashes. It becomes a perfect situation for us to SIMPLIFY. In particular, we wanted to feature our keyboard player from Hawaii, Kimo Cornwell. Having played with so many top acts, including Frankie Beverly and Maze, Al Jarreau, and on and on, Kimo is phenomenal. WE have an exciting young taiko drummer, Shoji Kameda—and we decided it was time to make Dan take some time between writing and producing to play more sax and flute. Having less gives more breathing space . . .air . . .life. There is a beauty and new energy in that.
BJP: I am definitely enjoying the greater use of Kimo, especially his piano playing and of Dan on the saxophone and the flute! How did you arrive at the concept of Obon for this new CD? Would you share some of the highlights for you of this past year or two as this project evolved?
June: Dan actually came up with the concept of “OBON.’ Reflection and celebration. It represents so many things to us—25 years of recording, the 60th year anniversary of the imprisonment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II-- along with the 60-year anniversary of the passing of my Uncle Katsu, who died an American war hero fighting in Europe to rescue the ‘lost’ Texas battalion—while my father’s family was still incarcerated. And virtually every song has a story. An in-depth explanation of the songs can be found on our website, www.hiroshimamusic.com.
BJP: The word ‘obon’ is a fascinating one – it makes sense that in the reverence for those who have died we must allow ourselves also to celebrate their lives, their example, their legacy to us -- is there anything about the original meaning you want to further explain?
June: Our Japanese roots are so rich and we are always trying to learn about them. Obon is a buddhist observation. In our band we are baptist, catholic and buddhist—it’s all about the spirituality of life. We move forward in the steps of those who came before, to guide and inspire us.
BJP: The CD truly does have more of a ‘celebratory’ feel to it as compared to the more ‘reverent’ nature of much of your music I have enjoyed so much. How do you think fans will react to this change?
Dan: We like to think our fans really appreciate our commitment to what we do—and that we celebrate diversity and variety in our music, as we do in our lives. We often explain our music by using food as an example. And we do love food! No one wants to eat burgers for every meal. We like to think every record we make has its own journey. The departure to a more upbeat project is really like our earlier work.
BJP: That makes sense. I’m most familiar with your more recent music, since I discovered you last year just before you came to perform at the Berks Jazz Fest ……..Is there a message in creating the album around a concept of Obon at this time in history? For instance, partly in response to recent events/tragedies/loss of life in the world?
June: It goes back to the Tao—the yin and the yang. It is the timeless cycle of life. When we endure tragedy it makes us more grateful for what we have, and who we can share that with.
Dan: OBON is taking the time to observe all of these things, and to learn to be positive and always have compassion.
BJP: I see the tour begins on the East Coast on May 1st -- the day of the concert at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.) – is there any significance to beginning the tour in that location?
Dan: May is Asian-Pacific Heritage month in America. We are very proud to be part of this celebration. It is in itself our OBON!
BJP: I know from visiting your website that cooking is a favorite activity for you both (and perhaps others in the band, too!) Your recipes look very good and I just may try some of them! I noticed one of your songs, Swiss Ming, is inspired by Chef Ming Tsai on television. Can you tell us more about how he became part of this song?
June: Dan did the theme music for Ming’s emmy award–winning food network show, “East Meets West” and his other show, “Ming’s Quest.” Subsequently they became good friends, and Dan wrote the music for his current hit cooking show, “Simply Ming,” on PBS. The band played the music for all the shows, and last year had an extraordinary dinner at his restaurant near Boston, Blue Ginger. We often plan our tour around cities where we have favorite restaurants!
BJP: Diversity is a great word to describe the various people, events and places that have inspired you. Thinking over the last 25 years, can you describe the vision, or world view, that has been the heart of Hiroshima and that is expressed in your music?
Dan: I think ultimately that it’s about ‘valuing’ every human being. Thank God for all the things that make us different. Our whole sound is based on that notion, about creating a new mix from song to song and CD to CD. It makes everything filled with discovery and passion. That we will never compromise.
BJP: Please share with us the ancestors that have played a key role in inspiring who you are today, those whose lives you include in the celebration that is Obon.
June: For me, it would have to be my mother who passed on quite a while ago, but since OBON encompasses living as well, it would include my daughter Lani, my bandmates, my musical mates, family friends and our fans. I’m so grateful.
Dan: We are ‘sansei’ which means third generation. It doesn’t matter what your culture, its about respecting and enhancing your heritage—which is the title of the last track on “OBON” and I think it addresses the question far better than I can describe in words.
BJP: I couldn't agree more! What a great song that is! June, could you please tell us why the koto instrument has such a special appeal? It seems part piano, part harp, part violin, all wrapped up in one. There's a soothing or calming effect that seems to be associated with it. Does it seem to affect many people in that way?
June: The (o)koto (as in the first "o" given in Obon to give honor), is an ancient Japanese instrument that came/imported to Japan from China around 700 AD. It was strictly a court instrument until introduced to the public in the 17th Century. The koto is approximately 6 feet 3 inches long, about 10 inches wide and 3-4 inches deep. It has 13 strings with 13 moveable bridges. It is hollow and made of kiri (paulownia) wood. The kiri tree is only grown in Asia with heart-shaped leaves.
When I first heard the okoto (played by my teacher Kazue Kudo), I fell in love with the sound. I believe a lot has to do with the instrument was a connection to my homeland Japan; but I also believe that because it's made from wood, it's strongly connected to Mother Earth. There is something very special about trees -- their roots anchor this beautiful creation to Mother Earth and can hear what's going on around the world but at the same time the branches spread to the sky embracing spirituality. So with this combined with the koto being long and hollow, a sound of deep resonance and reverberation is the outcome that soothes the ears and sometimes heart and soul.
BJP: And I believe that is a good way to characterize the experience of listening to the music of Hiroshima -- it soothes the ears, the heart and the soul of so many of us. Thank you so much, Dan and June, for sharing your thoughts during this important time and most of all, thank you for your music. Every time I listen to Obon, I become more enthused about it. This album is another masterpiece of creativity and spiritual emphasis.
Hiroshima will perform at a free outdoor concert at the Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. on May 1st, and will also perform May 2nd at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. Please visit www.hiroshimamusic.com, to see their complete touring schedule and to learn more about them.
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photo compliments of Heads Up International
Tom Grant will soon be on his way to Reading, Pennsylvania, home of the Berks Jazz Fest. Four nights of dinner shows at the Wyndham Hotel gives fans the opportunity to hear this wonderfully talented performer/composer sing and play acoustic piano. Dinner shows will be Wednesday, March 16th, through Saturday, March 19th. He will also join the Berks All Star Jam at their annual concert to be held on Thursday, March 17th, at 10:00 PM in the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom.
With a musical career that spans more than 30 years and the release of his 20th album last year, Grant has had a lot of success in the smooth jazz genre with songs that have topped the charts. His latest album, Nice Work If You Can Get It, is his response to requests of his many mainstream jazz fans. So now I would bet that everyone is happy!
I can’t wait to hear Grant perform live, and had the opportunity to talk with him as he prepares for his trip to Berks from his home state of Oregon. But first I have a confession to make. Just a few months ago, I didn’t know who Tom Grant was.
It was the day Brian Soergel, writer for this site, mentioned a contest Tom Grant had set up, a contest where fans could submit to him some ideas for lyrics to a song yet unwritten. If your lyrics were chosen, you’d get a free CD, and if your lyrics eventually became part of a released song, at the very least you'd be listed on a real CD! Thinking it would be great fun to try my hand at writing lyrics, I went to Grant’s website, listened to some song clips to try to get a feel for the kind of music he plays, and off I was, writing lyrics. I sent them to Grant and, realizing he lives in the Pacific Northwest, I remember telling him that I suppose he doesn’t get to the East Coast very often, but that I hoped he would someday!
Imagine my surprise when it was announced recently that he was a major new headliner to be added to the Berks Jazz Fest! I couldn’t believe it! Now I would have a chance to meet him and get to know his music first-hand.
Having whetted my appetite with song clips, I began my search for the album that I thought might best introduce me to his music. The first one I acquired is the collection album entitled, Hands. One listen from the beginning to the end of this album was plenty to convince me that more CDs need to be on the way to my door. And they are! As is often the case, I'm way behind many of you who've been enjoying Tom Grant's music for years.
Hands is filled with great compositions, wonderful melodies and most tracks include something delightfully unexpected! Joined by Paul Jackson, Jr. on upbeat Hang Time and Najee on funky Bernie's Groove, I have a number of favorites already from this one CD, which I'll feature this month for the Smooth Jazz Vibes In Our CD Players column.
Grant's was a musical family. An early start in his musical career was influenced greatly by his father, who had been a vaudeville tap dancer, and was in movie chorus lines, including Ziegfield. The elder Grant also owned a record store, and had Tom playing the piano at age 4. This led to playing drums at around the same time, and ten years of lessons followed for both Tom and his brother.
In addition to the influence of his father and brother, Grant had an especially good classical teacher who was trained in Vienna, which resulted in his having technique that was always strong. He liked pianists like Erroll Garner, Dave Brubeck, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and other instrumentalists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane, from whom he learned the value of being ‘lyrical’ as an instrumental musician. He felt that horn players seemed more lyrical than the piano players he was listening to.
As time went on, Grant played with Tony Williams and Joe Henderson and other big jazz names. These players helped him along to gain skill, perspective, and confidence. As he explained, “The people that you play with help to shape your sound and your style. I played with my idols by playing along with the records, and later in life I got a chance to actually play with these same people on stage.”
I asked Grant to talk about the various genres of music he’s played and how he would characterize the music he plays at this point in his career. He answered, “I studied classical music for about five years and still play some these days. I’ve been a jazz pianist since earliest memory. I’ve played in rock bands in college and beyond and I’ve played country, folk, rock, Irish, and whatever I’ve been called on to play. My first love is jazz.”
I wondered if Grant has pondered what his music means to him in the overall scheme of his life. He has. Music brings him a sense of calmness and well-being. He hopes that he transmits that to the listener. “There is joy in music for the player and for the receiver. I play music because it is my calling in life. I hope it conveys a joy and benevolence that people can apply to their own lives and thus improve, if only in the tiniest way, the quality of life on earth,” he added.
What goals does Grant have for his future as a musician? “I’d like to play in new venues, meet new musicians, and grow as a musician and as a person,” he said. I’m certain the staff of the Berks Jazz Fest as well as the fans would be honored to play a part in his moving ahead toward reaching some of those goals.
Already I know Tom Grant to be very gracious, friendly and well-loved as an artist and as a person. Like so many artists I have met, he’s willing to communicate not only through his music, but also his words. To me, this is the essence of what keeps fans coming back to our music. We have artists who allow us to connect with them as people and in turn, we allow artists to connect with us as real people, too. We don’t have screaming, out of control melee scenes with our musicians (well, sometimes we might approach that at the end of a show!) but rather,in most cases, there is an easy, mutual and respectful friendship. If it’s even half as satisfying to the artists as it is to the fans, then I’d say we have a great thing going.
So while you’re in Reading, be sure to Meet Tom Grant: a player with so much talent for singing, playing, composing -- able to adapt to the changes in the music scene while remaining true to his first love of music – jazz. Soulful and down to earth, willing to reach out to fans and include them even in developing the lyrics for his songs, I believe he’s going to make an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of Berks Jazz Fest fans during this exciting 15th season.
For more info on Tom Grant and his music, visit www.tomgrant.com
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Having the opportunity to talk at length with artists is one of the most rewarding things about being a music fan, no matter what the genre. Here at Jazz Personality, you can look forward to seeing interviews with artists who've given me more of an inside look at their music and their lives.
I hope you enjoy the first of these monthly interviews, and I hope you'll write to me with your comments or suggestions for other interviews!
Berks Vibes Columnist
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
The resemblance between father and son is striking. One look at 14-year-old Gianluca Minucci tells you who his father is. And if you look a little closer, you’ll see that Gianluca resembles his father not only in looks, but the resemblance is broadening to include the heart and soul of his dad, the musician.
That Chieli Minucci is a multi-talented figure on the music scene today is not news to anyone paying attention to instrumental music. He’s a gifted composer and guitarist, both in Special EFX since the early 80s and on his own solo CDs more recently; he’s an Emmy award winner and consistent nominee for his musical contributions to daytime drama; and his talent reaches to the hearts of children with his Latin score written for Dora the Explorer, recently on Broadway. That his son, Gianluca, has already begun his own musical career, not only playing, but also composing, may not be so well known, however. He’s already a working musical artist!
When Chieli agreed to an interview featuring father and son, I was thrilled. As Chieli explains, “I’m not one to do this kind of interview often.” In the two years that I’ve known Chieli, I’ve found that he is, indeed, a private person who knows how to stay focused on the things in his life that are most important. Not one to seek ‘stardom’ and all that goes with it, he’s still getting accustomed to the fan/star phenomenon. And so I feel very privileged to have spent time with both of them to bring others an inside look at this musically talented father and son.
I first met Gianluca at a Connecticut show Chieli was playing. Gianluca responded enthusiastically to the interview, and I was struck immediately by his articulate and professional manner. He began his study of music at the piano at age seven, taking lessons until about ten years old, when he became interested in the bass guitar. Says Gianluca, “ I was in my Dad’s studio and took the bass guitar home to try it. I didn’t even know what it was.” But the bass guitar captivated young Gianluca and he began lessons right away. “I really liked how the bass sounded after a couple of days of playing it. I quickly found myself playing pretty well, and I enjoyed learning bass lines. I do see myself playing bass in the future... for a career, I'm not sure.” By age 13 he was clamoring to be in a band of his own. And by now, at age 14, his ‘ska band,’ The Malibu Boyscouts has recorded its first CD!
Gianluca’s friendly personality and warm smile shine through as he talks about his experiences, his eyes twinkling with the excitement and enjoyment of his life and music. One of the first times I saw the fun part of his personality was when Gianluca suddenly showed up on his dad’s website, posting his own message which said, in effect, “Move over, Dad, I’m going to challenge you with my awesome talent on bass guitar.”
A bright, personable, and serious-minded young man with a good sense of his values, Gianluca already seems to understand the challenges that go along with a career in music. He knows there are compromises that must be made in order to be successful. As he said, “Besides talent, you must sense what is going to be popular, which means there might be some compromise in what you would really rather do.” Gianluca shows a grasp of this way beyond his years, even forming his own opinions of which of his father’s creative ideas he would prefer to be chosen by the record company for a new CD.
But let’s back up to the beginning of Gianluca’s musical career. I asked Chieli if he assumed Gianluca would become involved in music. Though Chieli did not pre-plan a musical path for Gianluca, he was, of course, responsive to Gianluca’s interest in music, and provided him with learning opportunities. As he put it, “I introduced Gianluca to music as I would a new sport, or any other subject. His regular, daily schooling hasn't really included a diversified music program, so I started him with classical piano lessons when he was around 7 years old, much like my own father did for me. It hasn't ever been too much of a concern of mine if he chooses music as a career...as long as it is he who wants it, then I am all for it, and will provide the education, if I can...as long as his interest is truly genuine.”
Having grown up with a father (Ulpio Minucci) who wrote songs for the likes of Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby, Chieli had certain opportunities himself, and passed these on to Gianluca. Among them were the opportunity to record the music of The Malibu Boyscouts, and also the chance to accompany Chieli on a cruise where Gianluca played bass on one of his dad’s songs.
How does Chieli view Gianluca’s choice of the bass guitar? “I feel the same as I would about any other instrument. I am not picky, or prejudiced regarding instruments....even though I am a fanatical guitarist... it was his choice to try the bass, and once I saw his interest was genuine, I followed through. I've seen enough cases where a person received an expensive instrument and never really pursued it. With Gianluca we started at the bottom. He wants an electric guitar now, but we're going to wait a bit...”
Chieli added, “So far, apart from 'regular' schooling, he's studied piano for 2 years, and electric bass, going on 3+ years. His lessons also include a jazz combo and Big Band. During the summer he's played bass for the big band at his summer camp, here in Long Island. All in all, Gianluca has saturated himself with music! I regularly provide him with rides to rehearsals & gigs, as well as do all the maintenance on his instruments and gear...I am a good roadie/tech! I have shared with him the same 'basic' exercises for the fingers which I have done all my life...the rudiments of playing stringed instruments.”
What does Chieli think it will take for Gianluca and other young musical artists to ‘make it’ in today’s music scene? He answered, “Strong perseverance, and as much background as possible. The more musical styles one listens to, the more books young people read, the more plays they attend, the more ballets they watch, the more of everything they observe....all these things will give them a varied foundation, which is a must in today's world...”
And how is the world of music different for Gianluca now than it was for Chieli at his age? “It's very different, “ says Chieli. “New styles exist, and there are more demands on the musician, in general. There are more musicians around nowadays who can play, record, write, engineer, edit, etc..... In other words, most folks today wear many hats. It's very competitive. In general there are simply more people, which means more musicians ... also, it seems to me that the standards of musicianship have dropped sharply in the realm of stardom. There are indeed many fantastic, versatile musicians and writers out there, but the industry has permitted the bar to be dropped a lot, so that nowadays there are a lot of well known artists out there who are really not musicians at all, but have benefited directly from technological advances in music production. It is alarming.”
In addition to piano and bass guitar, the saxophone also held Gianluca’s interest, though he hasn’t had lessons on that instrument, at least, not yet! Gianluca is not sure whether he will continue mainly with bass guitar, or even in the field of music (in the ‘not too distant’ past, he considered becoming a lawyer), but these days, he loves playing and composing. His greatest thrill is to see others listening to his music and enjoying themselves, especially by dancing. He loves the fun aspect of music and wants others to have fun. And just by listening to him, it’s obvious that he knows how to have fun and bring fun into the lives of others.
Ever since I heard from Chieli that Gianluca is in a ‘ska band,’ I have wondered about the full meaning of that word, ‘ska.’ Chieli demonstrated it to me once, feigning the holding of a guitar, strumming vigorously for a while and singing along with no words, then, slowing it down slightly with a less intense beat for awhile before returning to the vigorous pace. It reminded me of Frank Zappa, which, interestingly, is one of Gianluca’s favorite artists from the past. When I asked Gianluca more about the meaning of this ‘ska’ term for his band, he had no trouble explaining it. This music, dubbed ‘ska music,’ he says, “is simply dancing music.” Hence his band is a ‘ska band.’ A band that plays music to which people can dance. Ahhhhhh, now I get it, being a dancer myself!
Starting out as a band called the Epic Skankers, the band evolved over a period of time to its present name and members. They began playing together in June of 2003, but became officially The Malibu Boyscouts in September of that year. The name appealed to them with its easy tie-in to costume ideas. With Gianluca on bass guitar, the other band members are Theo Padouvas and Vinny Campanele on trumpets, Ruben Marinbach on trombone, Alex Somer on guitar, Christian Madera on keyboard/sax and Phil Padouvas on drums. Gianluca praised the talent and contributions made by each member of the band, some of whom he met at music school and music camp.
The band went through growing pains, of course, refining its membership and coping with having no one show up during its first performance. But subsequent performances brought gradually more guests. Gianluca says, “We play best and enjoy it most when there are a bunch of people there dancing.” Currently the band plays once a month at the Red Zone, located on the border of Forest Hills and Ridgewood in Queens, New York. Other venues include The Knitting Factory and Arlenes Grocery in New York, and other venues on Long Island and in New York.
Music brings Gianluca a lot of joy and in addition to being a dedicated musician, he has a lot of favorite bands and musicians, both past and present. Included in his list are Reel Big Fish, Catch 22, The Aquabats, Return to Forever, Jaco Pastorious, Frank Zappa, Kemuri, Sum 41, ASOB.
And music isn’t the only area that brings out Gianluca’s dedication and joy. He is also quite serious about his studies. He is studying at a different school this fall, and is determined to do well in these next years of high school. In addition to music, he is interested in English and loves to write, especially mysteries. He spoke excitedly about writing a piece that was a final in a competition. He likes Stephen King, thriller kinds of books. It seems nearly certain that Gianluca will be writing, whether words or music, or both, in his future career.
I asked Chieli what it was like for him to have Gianluca on board and especially on stage with him during the Smooth Jazz Cruise 2004. He replied, “That was one of the great experiences, for both of us! Not only was it a proud moment for me, but as just another musician, Gianluca really played well! He played on one song, Speak To Me, and he played it without hitting any 'wrong' notes...and...he took a blistering bass solo! Standing ovation! In the end though, his willingness to just get up on stage was the real pleasure for all!” Gianluca adds, “At first I was nervous, with everyone looking at me. But then after that it was a lot of fun!”
Regarding musical talent, admiration goes both ways between father and son. Gianluca spoke about his realization of the talent of his dad, “I just grew up with Dad so I didn’t really know the talent he has until I was older and went to see him at one of his shows. Then I knew just how good he is.” Favorite songs of his are Cruise Control and My Girl Sunday. No argument there, with Cruise Control having topped the Radio & Records Smooth Jazz chart at #1 for 5 weeks, staying on the chart itself for 30 weeks, and My Girl Sunday (reaching #2 on the charts) being that first favorite of mine that led me to discover all the rest of the music of Special EFX and Chieli Minucci.
Likewise, Chieli is quite proud of the efforts of Gianluca and the Malibu Boyscouts in recording their first CD, entitled, Enlist Now! As he says, “Remember, these guys wrote it, sang it, arranged it, and started their own website (MalibuBoyscouts.com) as well as arrange for booking their own shows! All at 14 years old...”
Quite an accomplishment, indeed. Gianluca adds, “Our CD is doing fine. We have sold around 200 copies, and are in the process of making more.“
What would Gianluca like to say to all present and potential fans about the music of the Malibu Boyscouts? “It’s a fun performance – fun to watch! We have some songs, some great musicians! And a prodigy drummer (Philip)!”
When asked what he wants others to know about Gianluca and his music, Chieli answered, “Simply that they recognize his dedication...his attitude, which is that of someone who plays music out of love...like a hobby, not a chore, but because it's genuinely FUN! This kind of musician is priceless because he is naturally dedicated, as if it's an extension of himself...”
Chieli’s use of the word ‘extension’ made me stop and think. The way I see it, music has become a significant thread that bonds the Minucci men to each other, from Ulpio to Chieli, and now from Chieli to Gianluca. No doubt music fans of the past were grateful for Ulpio. We know fans of the present are grateful for Chieli. And I have a feeling the fans of future years will be grateful for Gianluca!
That’s Gianluca Minucci, with The Malibu Boyscouts! Check them out! Find out what they’re up to, where they’re playing, and how to get your own copy of their CD, all at www.malibuboyscouts.com! It’s a neat site where you can sit around the campfire with them and become a skanker yourself!!
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photos: Michael Packard and courtesy of Chieli and Gianluca Minucci