Gretchen Parlato: On All Things Lost and Found

Photo by Angelika Beener

“Everyone has a story to tell, and it’s not about trying to sound like anyone else,” singer Gretchen Parlato said to me on a pleasantly balmy fall afternoon, as we sat under a colossal tree in my neighborhood park.  We talked about life, love and embracing it all, the good and the bad.  When she said those words to me, they resonated particularly deep, as such is true no matter what your career or path may be.  It’s a simple statement, but just like we discerned for ourselves that day, the older we get, the more those sagacious sayings take on real meaning.  For Parlato, her true understanding of those proclamations has been manifested in her latest work, The Lost and Found.

Her most personal and poignant project yet, Parlato has lived a lot more life, and it shows.  The Lost and Found is a story of vulnerability, heartbreak, endurance and revelation.  And as in real life, there is no resolve per se; the goal is not to necessarily make sense of it all, nor is it about wishing away the things that we’d rather not go through.

It’s just life.

“It’s actually braver to be vulnerable and let it all out,” says Parlato about the true meaning of courage, a quality she called upon most during her writing for the album.  “It’s moving through all kinds of emotions and tapping into love and life philosophies and…this process was all very healing.  There are stories behind every song, and yet some people will never know what it is I’m really talking about.  [We can be] kind of hesitant about how much we should expose of ourselves, but I think when it’s done in a productive and artistic way, but still kind of mysterious, people can really resonate with that. Nothing I do is really thrown in your face.”

Which brings us to the second part of Parlato’s initial philosophy; she certainly doesn’t sound like anyone else, her voice as understated and enigmatic as her story-telling phraseology.  There is a quiet intensity which is as captivating and resounding as voices three times her size.  She is a singer who doesn’t proclaim to be someone she’s not.  The flip side is that she doesn’t have to; who she actually is measures up.  “When I was first coming up, my repertoire was standards,” recalls Parlato.  “Swing or Brazilian standards…and so this is like fifteen years ago, or something.  People were like ‘Oh, you should do a standards album,’ and I always resisted that. I felt like I don’t know if I have a lot to say with that.  So from the beginning, I’ve been off the beaten path with that, so no one is assuming that I’m going to fill this traditional singer role.  Maybe that’s because of my natural voice.  I don’t really have this Sarah Vaughan or Dianne Reeves kind of jazz singer voice.  That’s not my calling and I think I always knew that’s not where my voice should be.  And it kind of makes sense to just find what is natural.”

Photo by David Bartolomi

Parlato was afforded priceless space to explicitly discover what her calling indeed is.  Born into a long line of entertainers, the arts were ingenerate and commonplace.  “Everybody…literally everyone in my family is a musician, or in the entertainment industry, or they didn’t pursue art as a career but they’re talented people,” explains Parlato.  “My dad, he’s a bass player and my mom, she played piano and violin, and now she’s a web designer.  And then her dad was a recording engineer; he built a studio in L.A. and recorded Ella [Fitzgerald] and Louis [Armstrong], and the Beatles, so it’s in the family.  My mom’s mom had a radio show in the 40s…kind of like a “Hollywood Gossip” kind of thing, and on my dad’s side his dad was a singer and a trumpet player.  So I just grew up with this knowledge that art was a part of everyday.  So it’s also cool to learn early on that it’s a valid profession.  There’s no one saying like, ‘You need to get a real job.’ No one was on anyone’s case about making money; it was always just about finding your passion.  No one was pushing art on anyone either, but my sister and I happened to both go into art.  She’s a graphic designer.  So it was just a nature/nurture thing that’s in my blood, and from birth, it was in me.”

As with any jazz musician, growing up listening to the giants is unquestionably influential and essential, but it was an introduction to the music of Bobby McFerrin which would change Parlato’s understanding of how a jazz musician could be perceived and defined.  “[From] very early on, I’ve never been a traditionalist, as far as what jazz has to be,” says Parlato as she credits this impressively matured discernment to her childhood experiences hearing McFerrin.  His one-man-band performance for The Cosby Show opening theme was particularly impressionable on her young musical pallet.  “I heard Bobby McFerrin use his voice in an instrumental way early on in my life.  Hearing him, I learned we can do anything with our voices. He shifted my definition of a jazz singer.”

The amalgamation of broad-minded perceptions about jazz and a distinctive approach to those perceptions produced an infectious musical styling, which is signally hers.  Sure, there have been other light, airy, velutinous voices that have enchanted us before, but just like Astrud Gilberto, Meredith D’Ambrosio, and Blossom Dearie, Parlato has set herself apart, developing a following that is as vast as her repertoire, and has critics predicting big year-end recognition for her latest album.

Photo by David Bartolomi

The Lost and Found combines jazz, Brazilian and pop aesthetics in one of the most organic ways I’ve ever heard.  Parlato credits co-producer Robert Glasper for helping to realize her vision.  “I thought, Robert and I have already collaborated on arrangements, and the band is like family to him, and he’s gonna understand what we’re trying to do, and he’s gonna enhance that and I wanted to work with him on some arrangements and collaborations, so I said let’s just see if he’s available, and it ended up working magically,” recalls Parlato.  She also enlisted the super-talents of pianist Taylor Eigsti, bassist Derrick Hodge, and drummer Kendrick Scott, musicians with whom she has long-standing musical relationships.  The album also includes guest appearances from saxophonist Dayna Stephens, and bassist Alan Hampton, who would contribute the warm and folksy “Still”, which featured Hampton on lead vocals and guitar.  “We really did it in two days.  It was a smooth-running, stress-free session just because everyone was really focused and everyone respects and loves each other and they all were there for the same goal of let’s just make beautiful music.  And Robert took on that producer role like a complete professional.  He would say, ‘Let’s get together maybe just with Kendrick and work on beats.'”

Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

It is this mutual musical vastness that has resulted in some of her most surprising and beautiful covers.  Parlato’s nostalgic affinity for 90s R&B unlocked a treasure chest of possibilities for the modern jazz vocalist, when she covered SWV’s hit ballad “Weak” on her sophomore album In a Dream.  Glasper initially thought the idea to cover the song was a joke, but after Parlato put the lyrics to the lush “Glasperized” re-harms that are so distinguishably his, it was no longer a laughing matter.  “Weak” catapulted Parlato into the current soul music scene, introducing her music to a wider, younger, Blacker audience.  On The Lost and Found, Parlato struck gold again with the “Stevie Wonder-esque” Mary J. Blige classic, “All That I Can Say”.  But it was Glasper’s suggestion to cover a more pop-leaning song that would result in the dynamic album opener, Simply Red’s “Holding Back the Years”.

“When Robert suggested ‘Holding Back the Years’, I thought, ‘Hmm…really?’  It’s such a song that everyone knows,” Parlato confesses.  “But he was like, ‘Exactly! Let’s do something that everyone knows, something that everyone will have a connection to.’ So he started playing his “Rob G” chords and immediately transformed the song.”

The song begins with Scott laying a drum groove; it sounds far away and vintage…kind of like when you can hear someone else’s music through their headphones (it’s actually from a cell phone recording).  As it fades up, Eigsti and Hodge join in with a gorgeous progression.  You can hear Glasper’s voice saying ‘Yeah…yep,’ warmly approving and encouraging the vibe.  Parlato is last to come in, interpreting the classic with a breathy angst.  One thing signature to Parlato’s performance throughout is that she’s never singing on top of her band, but always seamlessly intertwined.  It’s no accident.

L-R Dayna Stephens, Alan Hampton, Gretchen Parlato, Kendrick Scott. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato.

“I’ve always enjoyed being a part of an ensemble,” says Parlato.  “When I was really young, there was a time when I was realizing that I could sing, but I was really shy as a child, and it freaked me out because I was like, ‘I don’t like all this attention.  I don’t like being the center of everyone.’  So there’s always been a part of myself that likes to be part of a team, that’s the first thing.  But then I realized being a singer is not about being in front of a band…it’s a band…it’s a team…it’s a joint effort.  It’s sounds and space and interacting, and you’re not alone there, so there was always this sense of we’re in this together and I like the fact that I could use my voice as a texture and not just out front.  And then beyond that, I was getting into trying to play percussion and get into locking into the rhythm of the ensemble too, so I think when you do that you have no choice but to back up and listen.  I can’t just get up there with my shakers and not listening to what the drummer’s doing, you know?  It’s about this whole collective sound, and every single person up there is very important and needed and I like giving people their space to be themselves.”

The album is journey provoking, and the songs flow without a glitch.  Musically, there are few ensembles that can match this one’s cohesion and finesse.  Lyrically, Parlato is so resonant that it’s hard to conceive that the songwriter’s pen has only recently hit the paper.

It was under the tutelage and encouragement of mentor Terence Blanchard that Parlato first tried her hand at writing lyrics.  While a student at the Monk Institute, her fellow classmate and friend Dayna Stephens suggested that the ensemble perform the Wayne Shorter masterpiece “JuJu”.  Blanchard, who served as Artistic Director, working closely with the band, assigned Parlato to the lyrics.  She rose to the occasion with a beautiful proverb-like mantra.  Now, on The Lost and Found, Parlato not only wrote much of the music, she also wrote almost all of the lyrics, including those to the songs contributed by the band.  In addition to “Still”, Parlato wrote the lyrics to the title track, a composition written by Stephens, who previously recorded the gem under his own name on his stunning debut.  She also graced trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s gorgeous “Henya” with hauntingly ethereal poeticism.

Gretchen and Esperanza Spalding. Courtesy of Gretchen Parlato

Parlato’s growth, like all of ours, is always birthed from treading uncharted waters; rising to an occasion when an opportunity presents itself.  For women, especially in jazz, those opportunities are not always so abundant.  I wanted to ask Parlato about women as we relate to jazz.  Ironically, even as a woman myself, I was careful not to come off sounding cliché, or more importantly, with a patronizing air.  It’s a presentation that I am really sensitive about, as I loathe the often condescending attempts at discourse regarding women’s roles in jazz that often result in the most meaningless and stupid suppositions ever.  Parlato welcomed the topic, almost seemingly waiting to embrace the opportunity to talk about it.  She is at the forefront of jazz singers today, and part of a growing group of female jazz artists at large who are showing women as collaborators.  Working frequently with singer/bassist Esperanza Spalding, and a member of Tillery, a vocal trio collaboration with singers Becca Stevens and Rebecca Martin, Parlato is making a huge statement about community, through her collective-minded approach with women, despite the all too convenient clichés about women – especially jazz singers – being catty and diva-like.

“Some people are like, ‘Singers are so competitive.’  It’s a game though,” says Parlato dismissing those banal traps.  “If you don’t participate in the game, it doesn’t exist.  I got that from my third grade teacher.  I remember, her response when another student complained, ‘Johnny is always chasing me at recess!’  The teacher said, ‘So, just stop running.’  The whole thing of being competitive in art is really so simple. Just stop. Don’t participate. That’s not acceptable to create a vibe where we’re against each other because this is a community. Think, what if we support each other and join forces, instead? And with the women I’ve worked with there have never been any issues.  With all these women, it is always complete love and let’s just come together and make music. There’s something much bigger and much deeper taking place when I sing with Esperanza, or Becca or Rebecca.  It’s just this woman nurturing thing that is kind of unexplainable, but as a woman you just get it.  It’s this whole enveloped ‘Blanket of Love’, as Rebecca says.  And it’s just very sisterly and completely dedicated.  It’s saying I’ve got your back in life and in music, and no one is trying too hard to prove themselves.  That’s what is needed in the music.”

Agreed.

Amidst all of these silly “Jazz Is Dead” conversations (that are thankfully getting old), there is a surge of modern and daring jazz which is free from the anchors of fulfilling nostalgic expectations, while remaining authentic.  There are excitable artists who are completely themselves, and continuing the momentum of their predecessors.  Parlato is among them with all certainty.

“I think for the most part, people have accepted what I do.  I’m sure there, of course, are those who don’t like it, but I believe there’s room for everyone.  Ultimately, that’s what art is and what it does. It causes a response and reaction. Good or bad, it makes people think and feel something. It triggers, inspires…allows us to reveal.  There’s always an audience for each specific artist, so we’ll be cool, we’re all fine.”

In other words…everyone has their own story to tell.  Right on, Geeps.♦

Gretchen is part of Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Listening Party series this month.  Join her at JALC on Thursday, October 27 at 7:00 PM as she discusses her latest album.  Admission is FREE.  For more details, click here.

Marcus Strickland: Triumph of the Heavy

Triumph of the Heavy CD release party THIS THURSDAY, 9/29 at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge.  Details here.

Photo by Angelika Beener

Musician, composer, producer, label executive and visionary, Marcus Strickland is a powerhouse, on and off of his instrument.  And on his seventh album as a leader, he’s more confident than ever.

Triumph of the Heavy Vol. 1 & 2 is jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s fourth release from his Strick Muzik record label.  The double album features two of Strickland’s ensembles: his long standing trio of drummer and twin brother, E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams, and his quartet which features the afore mentioned musicians, along with the fairly recent addition of rising star pianist David Bryant.  Scheduled for release this August, Triumph is Strickland’s second double-album; a necessity of format if you’re trying to keep up with the musical multifariousness that has become his signature.

Strickland, who has led trio, quartet, and quintet bands, produces hip-hop beats, and has an affinity for singer/songwriters, attributes his versatility to the partnership between his creativity and the boundlessness he has established on the business side.  “I’m always doing many things at the same time; making beats at the same time I’m writing jazz music.  And also I have my own record label, which kind of allows me to record whenever I want to.  So I don’t really have to go about it in a systematic way, as most artists have to do when they’re on a label.  I can be as spontaneous as I want to, with that freedom in place.”

Having created a brand for himself partly out of necessity, in a climate where major labels are shrinking, that freedom has produced four vastly different projects from Strickland, with four different bands and highly developed concepts.  He’s covered huge territory from Jacques Brel to Outkast, acoustic to electric, with spoken word artists and hip-hop production in between.  A prolific writer, he is undoubtedly going to have tremendous impact on future generations from a compositional standpoint. On Triumph Vol. 1, Strickland brings it back to his roots of the classic quartet, with what Strickland calls “a fresh approach to the piano’s role in the group” and a whole new set of originals. “David [Bryant] is like the first person since Robert Glasper that I played with and felt like ‘Wow this cat knows the art of comping.’  It’s such a lost art these days.  Comping is so important.  So on top of the fact that he’s an extremely incredible musician, he’s got the sensitivity that I’m looking for.”

Photo by: Dave Kaufman

In true Marcus Strickland fashion, he is also reaching beyond just musical versatility, introducing yet another set of skills, playing alto saxophone on almost half of Vol. 1.  “I’ve always yearned to play alto again because I started on alto when I was eleven years old, and by the time I got into high school and it was time to get a professional instrument, tenor was my main love because everybody I listened to was on tenor, so that’s when I switched to tenor.  But I always wanted an alto.  I have really been concerned lately with just the instrument itself.  The whole story behind the saxophone is just incredible.  The inventor of it, the many things going on sonically when the saxophone produces sound…it’s just incredible.   The pure execution on the instrument, that’s what I got more into.  So, I really started shedding on that; classical etudes, my own etudes, really getting into the sound, the harmonics, overtones and stuff like that. But you know, recently I got a saxophone endorsement, and one of the first things I asked them was to give me an alto.  And soon as I got it, I just started shedding it.”

Vol. 2 captures Strickland’s trio live at Firehouse 12, a studio in New Haven, CT.  “It may be that the only thing more powerful than a strong triangle of musicians is one that has performed for an extended period of time,” says Strickland of his seasoned trio.  “I was like man, I’m about to go back to quartet, but I wanted to capture the trio after touring so long.  It’s just a strong triangle.  That’s a strong sound there; just the bass, drums and the saxophone.  It’s just a very significant sound.  So I really wanted to capture that, but in a different light.  On Idiosyncrasies (the all-trio album released on the Strick Muzik label in 2009), we did a lot of covers and on this one I did mostly originals that I wrote as we started touring and everything. I started coming up with different vehicles so I wanted to get those down.  And to get it down in front of a live audience, that was great.”

Jelly & Stricks

Few of today’s jazz musicians have had clearer visions for themselves as artists than Strickland.  At 31 years old, Strickland’s career has already spanned a decade, gaining him leaps of perspective.  “I’ve recorded three records outside of Strick Muzik so that makes a total of seven so I think this is a point where who you are as an artist really gets tested.  Because you now have a body of work.  It’s not just one hit album that you’re trying to make.  It’s like, ‘OK I’ve had several records that have been very successful, what am I going to do next?’  When you get to a point where you have a body of work in your past, it can either take away ideas from you, like ‘Oh I’ve already done that, I don’t know what to do next.’  Or, it can give you more confidence than you’ve ever had before because I know that this is gonna be great.  I know that I’m capable of putting out some great music that’s very relevant and very important.  And that’s exactly how I felt when going into the studio.”

For Strickland, his substantial recording catalog is the result of his professed growing process which includes the need to document each phase of his course.  “I have to make it into a product in order to really get past it, and I really want to get past it because I’m always yearning for the next step, the next plateau.”

Named “Rising Star, Tenor Saxophone” in Downbeat’s 2010 Critic’s Poll, “Rising Star, Soprano Saxophone” in DownBeat’s 2008 Critics’ Poll and “Best New Artist” in the JazzTimes 2006 Readers’ Poll, Strickland has long commanded the attention of both fans and critics.  He released his first album, At Last (Fresh Sound) in 2001, and placed third in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition the following year.  He has been an integral part of bands of heavy hitters like Roy Haynes and Jeff  “Tain” Watts, and has a long resume of features, recording with Robert Glasper, Charles Tolliver, and countless others including Dave Douglas, another long-time employer.  With the release of album number seven, the “next plateau” may bring about endeavors characteristic of the symbolic number.  Strickland’s experience and savvy from a business perspective makes him a sagacious ally for the future of jazz recording artists.  “I think I want to step back a little bit after [this release] and look into trying to do some things for other people that, you know, many major record labels are not really interested in.  I really wanna take my time and think that through and get a very good plan for it.”

Inspired by his girlfriend’s epiphany about the substantive quality of jazz versus some of the dictates of popular radio, Triumph of the Heavy is appropriately titled; a testament to Strickland’s musical caliber, robust tone, and his rightful place as a titan of our time.  Whichever way you spin it, Marcus Strickland comes out on top. “I’m always taking chances, but I’m no longer afraid to do it,” asserts Strickland.  “I know I’m gonna be good on the other side.” ♦

 

Drum Composers Series Finale: Johnathan Blake

For decades, Philadelphia has boasted one of the most burgeoning jazz scenes in the world.  A thriving commorancy to legends like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, the Heath brothers, and Philly Joe Jones, to name a few, the City of Brotherly Love has been the backdrop to one of the most essential eras in jazz.  Philly remains a cornucopia of jazz heritage, producing the likes of Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Derrick Hodge, Rodney Green, Orrin Evans, Ari Hoenig, and Jaleel Shaw.  Drummer Johnathan Blake is at home among this esteemed group, becoming one of finest talents on his instrument, and now making his mark as a leader.

Blake will release The Eleventh Hour (licensed by Sunnyside Records) at the top of 2012.  An extraordinary debut, Blake exhibits both his breadth of chops and his uncanny compositional skills.  The all-star ensemble includes saxophonists Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw, pianists Robert Glasper and Kevin Hays, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Ben Street, and Gregoire Maret on harmonica.  The Eleventh Hour is a fine album that is splendidly unfeigned and musically abundant.  This dynamic cast of players, who are all leaders in their own rights, synergize to produces one of the best straight-ahead jazz albums I’ve heard in a very, very long time.  Blake credits the long-standing brotherhood of his band members.  “What’s great is that most of the guys that are in the band are on the record, so we had been playing together for years,” he explains.  “Rob and I have been playing together since maybe the late 90s, so he’s played mostly all that music.  Ben Street, Jaleel, Mark Turner…my homeboys.  The only newcomer was Kevin Hays.  We had played together a couple times, so for him most of the music was new and it was nice to have him be a part of this project because he brought a different sound to some of the older music, so it kind of helped us gain a different approach to our playing, so that was good.”

The Eleventh Hour is not only a well-cast, brilliantly executed album, but the repertoire is striking and distinctive. Blake penned most of the albums tunes, with the exception of a few.  The band covers Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune” from the tear-jerker movie classic Awakenings.  Written for Dexter Gordon, who appeared in the movie and passed away before its release, Blake’s band captures the feel and memory of the saxophone great, with Mark Turner’s gorgeous take on the thoughtful melody.  Blake also recorded Glasper’s “Canvas”, a moody, mantra-like beauty in 5/4 that features a vibrant exchange between Maret and Glasper, with Blake’s tasteful grooves elevating the experience and Mark Turner blazing the vamp.  The album also features a blithely swinging number entitled “Blues News”, written by Blake’s long-time employer, Tom Harrell.

Blake’s compositions are equally outstanding, full of  versatile virtuosity.  Blake began writing music very early, egged on by his youth ensemble director.  “The instructor of the program pretty much required us to all write music, and we all had to bring in a tune.  When we first started out, [we were] playing standards repertoire and some Horace Silver, some John Coltrane, but then I would say when I was around twelve or thirteen, he said, ‘I want you guys to come in with a tune,’ and so that’s how I first got into it.”

Born into a musical family, Blake began his musical journey modeling after his father, John Blake Jr., a renowned jazz violinist.  Young Johnathan began playing the violin as well at age three, before moving on to piano, and then landing most assuredly on the drums.  The ASCAP Young Composers winner would benefit from his formidable years as a multi-instrumentalist.  “For me, I think starting out with violin and piano kind of helped me be more aware of melodies.  I was talking to a couple different drummers who were also like that.  Like, Brian Blade is one that comes to mind.  Oddly enough, he started on the violin also and he said that kind of helped when he’s hearing melodies.  He also takes the guitar on the road when he travels, so I think there’s something to that…when you have that luxury of being able to play a melodic instrument.  I mean, the great thing about playing piano is that you have the percussive side but also the melodic sides, so it’s like a full orchestra.  It’s pretty amazing.”

Blake acquired the tools early on, but a push from his Dad undoubtedly developed his confidence as a composer.  Blake recalls, “I remember like the first one or two compositions, my dad would help me with the notation.  Then he was like, ‘You got it…you have to figure it out.’  And that was great.”  Blake also credits the willingness of his employers to wholly share the stage, and welcome new music.  “I think the other thing that happens too is that a lot of leaders, like in Kendrick [Scott’s] case playing with Terence Blanchard, Terence is open enough where he allows the other members  of his band to start composing, so that’s another way that allows side men to start getting their composer chops up and eventually getting them on records.  I think that’s kind of helpful too, and gives that extra little push to hopefully continue this [trend].  I’ve had the luxury of working with Kenny [Barron].  I’ve had the opportunity to bring in some tunes, so it’s really great to have a leader who’s open like that, where you don’t have to necessarily play all his or her tunes.”

Blake’s compositional aptitude and superior drum skills made for a natural progression to record as a leader.  “I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] our role is a more supportive role, like you know, backing the band, and pushing the band or whatever,” says Blake of the recent emergence of drummers who have become front men.  “So you’re never thought of as leading a band or writing your own music.  With this music, we always have to try to reinvent ourselves so to speak, and really try to push the envelope, and always try to grow.  So I think out of that came this idea of having drummers thought of as not just sidemen or as background support, but more as like, ‘Let’s see what this guy’s doing.’”

With the decision to record out of the way, the challenges of independently financing a record in the current industry climate loomed.  Blake welcomed the task, setting up a successful campaign to help raise the funds.  Blake used IndieGoGo to get his audience’s attention and implore his fans’ support.  This new way of using funding platforms like IndieGoGo and KickStarter have proved successful for other jazz musicians like drummer Otis Brown III, and guitarist Mike Moreno.  “I think the empowering thing is really just connecting with some of the fans,” says Blake about his campaign.  “We travel all around and you don’t even think about certain people that you meet and exchange emails with and become Facebook friends with, and you go on KickStarter, and it’s like man, this person from Spain who I met ten years ago just gave me money.  So, for me, I really like that kind of exchange and connection with some of the people that I’ve met along the road, on the journey, so that’s great.”  Like that early push from his father, Blake would now have to push himself on the business side.  “Some of the challenges were…I’m not the best salesman so it’s really hard to get in that mode.  You have to push yourself and get the word out, so it’s a challenge.  I’ve really been trying too, because I’m kind of on the shyer side, so it’s hard to be asking some people [for money].  I really appreciate everybody that’s donated so far, and even the ones that can’t, they’ve really just been sending encouraging words, which is really helpful for me, because it helps me to know that I’m on the right thing.  And slowly I’m saying that OK, this has allowed me to get out of that shell and really not be afraid to sell myself so to speak, because you have to be your own manager, your own sales person and stuff like that.  So it’s like, I have to learn how to do it some time, and now with this record coming out, this is the better time than ever.  So I’m really digging it, and really reconnecting with a lot of friends that I haven’t seen since junior high or high school, who have sent money.”

As the music industry shrinks and record labels continue to fold, it has become increasingly difficult for jazz musicians to present their music, no matter how impressive their talents and credentials may be.  However, the upside to the current circumstance is a leveling of the playing field for artists who aren’t in the small pond of jazz musicians signed to major labels.  “I think there was like a period where after a lot of these record companies went under and a lot of artists – especially jazz artists — were like ‘What are we going to do, how are we going to get our music out there?,’” says Blake.  “It’s not like the “Young Lion” movement where all these cats were getting signed to Verve, and stuff.  So we caught the tail end of that but it’s like, what’s my direction now?  For me, it’s kind of like a full circle moment.  There was a movement where like people were selling their own CDs out of the trunk of their car or whatever, and marketing themselves, and I think it’s getting back to that.  I really think this is a good time for us, and I also think that because of that, it also then showcases music that we want to play, which is allowing us to be writers.  Allowing drummers to come out and write because we have this outlet.  We don’t have to necessarily play the music of Billy Strayhorn; we can play the music of E.J. Strickland, or the music of Antonio Sanchez.  Now we kind of have a say.  It’s been a long time coming.”♦

Check the Chops!

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦

Remembering Michael

“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”

Michael Jackson

It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death.  After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it.  But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many.  I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound.  The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime.  I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.

I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan.  Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X.  America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes.  But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours.  (I’m guilty).

Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that.  One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not.  But thankfully, neither did Black folks.  Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media.  The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.

That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means.  It surpasses any sort of quantification.  In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected.  There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced.  Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them.  Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at.  Enjoy.

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“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
Ambrose Akinmusire

“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton

“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world.  His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date.  Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image.  And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was.  It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno

“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity.  So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul.  Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection.  He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something.  That’s what art should do.  I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will.  No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato

“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion.  You undeniably feel every word and every dance move.  So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
Casey Benjamin

“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer.  No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent.  This is evidence of something much larger than fame.  It is evidence of what is possible.  Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent.  It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world.  His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
Marcus Strickland

“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has.  Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change.  He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own.  Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
Robert Glasper

“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.
– Marcus Gilmore

“MJ was an extension in the evolution of Black entertainment.,  He pulled from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Wilson, making him the greatest in his time.”
– Jesse McB
ride

“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist.  He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott

“MJ is the epitome of timeless.  His influence on my generation is profound.  From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket.  You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike.  And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold

“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out.  One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him.  He knew many genres of music and appreciated them.  I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube.  The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did.  Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world.  He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought.  Three, he was all about moving forward.  If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
Jaleel Shaw

“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music.  His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III


I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani

“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer.  He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma.  He was always striving to better himself as an artist.  He never took his talents for granted.  He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake

Thank you, Michael.

Kenneth Whalum III: Beyond the Hype

Photo by J. Shotti

It’s no secret that while jazz has always been high on substance, it offers fame and fortune to but a few.  Ultimate freedom of expression comes at a high price; a double-edged sword for many jazz musicians who sometimes struggle to enjoy financial fruits that can parallel their artistic ones.

Saxophonist Kenneth Whalum III has performed, recorded and toured with some of the biggest names in music.  From Puff Daddy and Jay-Z, to Maxwell and Mary J. Blige, Whalum is emerging as one of the most in-demand horn players in Black popular music.  He is also the nephew of smooth jazz recording artist and eight-time Grammy © nominee and 2011 recipient, Kirk Whalum.  When deciding to record his debut album, To Those Who Believe, it would have been easy for Whalum to rely on his impressive Rolodex of platinum-selling musical associates, celebrity mentors, or wildly successful family members.  But Kenneth Whalum III has boldly stepped on the scene as a man who walks to the beat of his own drum, deciding that greener pastures aren’t always necessarily found in the comforts of the status quo.

“I wanna play music that’s true to me, and other lanes aren’t really for me,” Whalum explains about his decision to release a jazz album for his first recording as a leader.  I caught up with him last week in Brooklyn during a short break from his current gig with hip-hop superstar Ludacris, whom Whalum is currently working for as Musical Director.  “I can’t fake it, you know what I mean?  So, I just play what I hear and what is given to me and what just touches me. It could have been pop or R&B or whatever, but it wasn’t.”

On To Those Who Believe, Whalum enlists the talents of his musical comrades: pianist Robert Glasper, bassist Derrick Hodge and drummer Chris Dave (also three quarters of the Robert Glasper Experiment).  The four initially developed a musical relationship while touring with R&B crooner Maxwell.  Each band leaders in their own right, and each straddling between jazz and other musical aesthetics, this was an important commonality to Whalum.  “The fact is that I’m more comfortable with them because they’re not so set to one thing, and the truth is I’m not set to one thing…at all.  As a matter of fact, I’m newest to [jazz].  So, more than anything, we’re just all like…we have a great relationship. We’re just brothers, we act a fool, and I wouldn’t rather have anybody else in there, so I was blessed to have them to be able to do it and be willing to help me get my message out.”

Photo by Angelika Beener

Whalum’s message is one that is rooted in his faith, family, and his artistry, which developed in his hometown of Memphis, Tennessee.  The son of a well-respected preacher, Whalum began playing in the church.  “I just think growing up, there was a mix of the music and the culture and just the people…it really helped me to just become a well-rounded person.  A lot of times I remember things and different things pull on me artistically, and all of that comes from growing up there, playing on Beale Street, playing the blues all the time.”

Whalum transferred from Morehouse College in Atlanta, to The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City, where he began to hone his skills, taking the idea of becoming a professional musician a lot more seriously.  It is here that he also began playing jazz.  “[In Memphis] there wasn’t a jazz scene — period.  I can remember asking a cat how do you play double-time and he’s looking at me like…nobody knew [laughs] so it wasn’t until I got to New York that I really started to be able to grow in music.”

Whalum’s first professional gigs were backing up fellow Memphis natives like Al Green and Isaac Hayes, but a phone call from the musical director for hip-hop mogul P. Diddy, would change the course of Whalum’s career.  “Nissan Stewart called me.  He was the MD for Puff at the time.  For some reason Puff had fired his horn section, so we went in and he ended up liking us, and then from that we became really cool, so it was like the snow ball effect.  I would hang out with him aside from music.  He co-produced American Gangster, and he called me in to do some horns for “Roc Boys” and that was a huge hit.  So when it came time to do the video and shit like that, and for Jay’s tour, he brought me along as well.  Your credibility just goes up, regardless if other people have heard you or not, and people like me as a person, because I’m just chill or whatever it is.”

With an established reputation in the hip-hop and pop arenas, Whalum has since taken on the jazz realm, with the release of To Those Who Believe, which spent an impressive three weeks at #1 on the iTunes jazz chart.  Released independently, and self-produced (with Glasper as co-producer) Whalum is determined to get your attention without calling your attention to all of the pretty lights surrounding him.  “I don’t think I’ve ever introduced myself by my whole name.  I just have always been a kind of stubborn cat; I always wanna be myself.  I don’t want people to judge me based on anything. I’d rather be low key than be known for something that has nothing to do with me.”

To Those Who Believe is a superbly executed hybrid of a panorama of Black music; all of which speak to Whalum’s personal story.  The album opens up with a gorgeous hymn-like chant, with portions of one of his father’s sermons floating throughout.  Whalum also briefly showcases his vocal talent, which he modestly downplays, on a larger scale.  “I don’t feel like just because I can sing, I should; that’s not killing.  I like to respect everybody’s lane.  Like LeBron going to the Heat, and being like ‘Oh, I think I’ll get a ring now…’  But it never really works out well, because you have to have respect for whatever game you’re playing, whether it be music, acting…I just like to respect that.”  The hard-swinging “STS” is reminiscent of Coltrane’s “Mr. Knight” with Glasper delving into his inner McCoy Tyner and Whalum reveling in its blues-based form.  Much of the album has a meditative quality that speaks to Whalum’s spiritual foundation.  “My influence is one of my favorite records, which is [John Coltrane’s] Crescent.  That record never gets old to me.  Regardless to what kind of mood I’m in, I can listen to Crescent.  It’s so thoughtful.”

Stepping out onto new musical territory has proved a wise decision for Whalum, not only because of the certain promise for this rising talent, but also because his range of experience and ability can help continue to garner a younger, Blacker jazz audience — a sorely needed advancement.  On the sometimes sticky subject of the interfusion within jazz, Whalum offers some sobering advice.

“I think everybody needs to fucking relax because there is no money – period.  People fight to make themselves the only person in a certain lane, but that’s not really how it ever was.  That’s why back in the day you got all kinds of cats on one record, doing records together.  You don’t really get that anymore.  You may get Wynton doing records with country artists but I mean working together. Which is why I was glad to have Rob [Glasper].  Rob is a star, and he didn’t mind helping me…that kind of thing.  I think the fact that we understand that sentiment, helps us.  Not that we’re where we could be, but we don’t mind where we are.  Everybody’s got to relax.  I don’t mind what anybody’s doing.  The level of appreciation for everything can always lead you to a better place.  You’re thinking that this is the only way?  This isn’t the only way at all.  I just think we need to appreciate each other more.  We all have different things to say and I don’t think it’s fair to judge anybody.  Cats judge all day.  I think that’s the wrong way.  The older jazz head fans are slimming out, so now the message has to be straight up what you got to say and either people gonna like it or they’re not.”

Photo by Eric Johnson

Whalum’s perspective is well beyond his twenty-some-odd years; likely due to his early exposure to the music business and his rock-solid foundation.  And it is this security that is undoubtedly in-part responsible for his decision to play jazz.  When you’re not phased by the hype, you can hear yourself better and have a clearer path to your individual calling.  Moreover, so many of our Black musicians are confined to the church and popular music, and while there is absolutely nothing wrong with that reality, the exposure to the totality of our culture will produce more Black participants and a broader support system.  Whalum is a shining example of the endless possibilities.

“I feel really blessed to be able to be able to be doing so much work because I swear…I didn’t even do music.  I went to Morehouse and I transferred to New School.  So I was just partying and now to have all this stuff going on it really is something I never…I thought about playing but it was never serious. So now it’s really serious.  I go places and people know me.  This cat just recently walked up to me talking about how he liked my record.  So whether people know it or not, I really am happy to be here.  I’m really happy to be having this stuff going on.  I don’t take it for granted.  I’m really just trying to believe it.  God is good for real.” ♦

Kenneth Whalum III performs tomorrow, June 21 at the Apple Store (Upper West Side) in NYC as part of Black Music Month.  Personnel: Kenneth Whalum (Saxophones), Robert Glasper (piano), Burniss Earl Travis (bass), Marcus Gilmore (drums).  Showtime 7pm.

The Roots Bring the Late Night Jam Session to Late Night Television

If you’re at home, channel surfing after midnight, you just may see Chick Corea…or Herbie Hancock…or Christian Scott.  Not on PBS or Ovation – but on network television.  And you have The Roots to thank for it.

NBC’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is changing the look of late night talk shows, and the fresh-faced Fallon is just one of the differences.  The tradition of the late night band has been elevated under the direction of Ahmir ?uestlove Thompson and The Roots, as the house band for Late Night.   The show has brilliantly simulated the jam session, bringing in various notable musicians to sit in and play with the band, showcasing the interplay and spontaneity of a jam session at an after-hours jazz hang.  The Roots crew has brought not only their top-notch musicianship to NBC, but their ethics, too.  “I told him [Fallon] that there has to be the real trade off,” says Thompson.  Exposing musicians to a broader medium is a potential game-changer for jazz musicians who aren’t normally afforded (though completely deserving of) such a platform. Following Fallon’s opening monologue, he reintroduces The Roots and their special guest.  Once settled behind his desk, he promotes the guest, showcasing their album artwork or CD, plugs any upcoming shows they may have, and chats them up a bit — a major opportunity for any artist.  As a musician first, Thompson understands the importance of  this kind of recognition.  “We really wanted to have effective ways to, you know, to really maximize on that.  That one song in the last slot of the show [from the band actually slotted to perform on the show] could equal [the] spotlight at the top of the show plus all the commercials in between.”

Most recently, The Roots welcomed jazz pianist Robert Glasper to sit in.  Described as his “musical comrades”, Glasper tips his hat to the band for their stance.  “I’ve known Ahmir for a long time; it’s great to see them being exposed on such a major level. And for them also to be able to expose me and other musicians who wouldn’t get that kind of recognition on a normal basis is great and inspiring.  I don’t know of any other circumstance that a jazz pianist or any other musician in general that plays jazz would get that kind of spotlight on a regular basis and they’re making that happen.”

While this is not an entirely new idea (saxophonist Branford Marsalis’ powerhouse quartet was the band for The Tonight Show from 1992 – 1995, with Marsalis as MD, showcasing a plethora of jazz legends), the Roots are certainly bringing the brand power of “the band” to pop culture in an unprecedented way, and it seems to be rubbing off. For example, after my interview, they were rushing off to play for President Obama at a mid-town gala.   Pop, and even hip-hop artists are opting for the organic sonance of the live band instead of playing to track.  Artists like Ludacris, Lupe Fiasco, Nas and Lil Wayne are employing musicians with diverse musical backgrounds to deliver their songs.

Jazz musicians could not be happier, I’m sure.  “For the fist time in a long time I was actually nervous,” says Glasper through a hearty laugh, “realizing half way through my solo piano part that I was playing for millions of people which I’ve never done before on my own…promoting myself.  I’m playing my song by myself for millions of people. So, the fact that [The Roots are] still breaking ground in the music industry and for the good of the musician, it was an amazing situation for me to be in.”

Word.