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Conversations With José James, Theo Croker, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Plus An Exclusive From Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy

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MATT SORUM'S FIERCE JOY'S "FOR THE WILD ONES"

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According to Matt Sorum, "I wrote the song 'For the Wild Ones' using the song as a voice for wildlife and animals worldwide. My love of animals has always been there but now I am using my voice to try and protect the endangered and abused."

About the video, Matt continues, "I came up with the concept for the video to show the destruction and human abuse of animals. Most people don't want to look but the suffering is rampant, but I also show the beauty of these magnificent God-given creatures to try and get people to think. There is a polar shift in animal activism. Barbaric practices of circuses and cetaceans entertainment needs to end. People need to think about where their food comes from. This is about humanity and a healthy planet in harmony between man and animals."

"For the Wild Ones" is available now on Stratosphere, the new album from Matt Sorum's Fierce Joy


Directed and Edited by Rocco Guarino

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A Conversation with José James

Mike Ragogna: So your album While You Were Sleeping comes about a year after No Beginning No End. Loving this creative run?

JJ: Absolutely, man. I wrote this album while I was on tour for No Beginning No End and I'm doing the same while I'm on tour for this one. I find that the more creativity, the better. The best time to do it is when I'm in it, not when I'm out of it.

MR: What was the difference between how you created this album and the last album?

JJ: Well for me every new album is a sort of summary and a reaction against the previous album. No Beginning No End there were like twenty musicians, we recorded in five different studios in three different countries, there were a lot of different bands, it was really exciting, it was really about me experimenting with different players and different songwriters. What I realized was that I really wanted to have more control over the sound and the production. This is really like a band album, it's the same guys in the same studio in Brooklyn creating a diverse array of arrangements and sounds, and what that allowed me to do as a producer was really focus on performance and songwriting, which I feel is a personal evolution on this album.

MR: You had Kris [Bowers], Solomon [Dorsey] and Richard [Spaven] as your core group, and I understand you all had equal say on what went into the record.

JJ: Yes, up to a point. I really wanted everyone's involvement, I thought it was really important. I wouldn't have been able to create this album without them for sure.

MR: Also, you had Brian Bender overseeing it.

JJ: Yeah. I really trust him, we've made a lot of albums together now, for myself and other people. We have a great rapport, especially as a vocalist you really need to trust whoever's on the other side of the glass because sometimes you might be tired, singers can get inside their head and that's a very dangerous place to live, so he's good for getting you out of your head.

MR: And you have a newbie, Brad Allen Williams.

JJ: Yeah, he's a great guitarist from Memphis, he really brings that Memphis soul, blues, gospel feel but he's also thoroughly trained in jazz and plays in rock bands. He's pretty much an amazing genius of guitar, he can do anything you ask him to.

MR: It must be nice having these multi-talented/multi-genre artists adding to your already blended music.

JJ: Absolutely. They're all, like myself, trained in jazz, so a lot of the communication with us is very easy, like shorthand. It makes it really fast. We especially needed that on this album because every sound was heavily curated, especially all the guitar and synth stuff. We had a lot of arguments about which direction to go in terms of the sound. Minute things, really nerdy things.

MR: From a musical perspective, is that the mission? To line up the foundations you learned in jazz and take it outward from there?

JJ: Absolutely! I've never forgotten how excited I was hearing Off The Wall by Michael Jackson. To me that's his best album and to me the reason behind that is Quincy Jones. Some of the best pop music has been made by jazz minds. All the Al Green stuff I like with Willie Mitchell production, all the Motown stuff, every single Motown single that we love is played by jazz musicians. For me it's all got to feel good and the musicianship has to be high. That's really why I love jazz musicians, because they have the same level of musicianship as a classical player, but the freedom of an artist.

MR: The lyrics of "Angel" present the concepts of wanting to hook up and also wanting something deeper.

JJ: Yeah, I feel like we always want the best, ultimately when you're attracted to somebody it's often because they're cute or you think they're sexy or whatever, but really in your heart you're looking for love and you're looking for a partner and someone to elevate your life and give you some sense of purpose. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't and that's the endless search that we're all into. We act like it's not important sometimes but here we are doing it over and over and over again. I think we're looking for something.

MR: With "Bodhisattva" you're hinting at your spiritual side. How deep does that go, and how does it play into creating new music?

JJ: You know, it's really everything. I feel like that's where the music comes from. I was listening to a lot of Alice Coltrane, later music she made after she quit the record business which is really fascinating. Hearing a musician make music that has no commercial intent is pretty amazing. It feels different. I kind of wanted to tap into some of that energy and bring it on the album. Hopefully in a small way it's there.

MR: You mentioned Al Green before, and you cover "Simply Beautiful." That trumpet solo is beautiful, too. That was by Takuya?

JJ: Yeah, Takuya Kuroda. Al Green is a legend, man. I love him, I've had a chance to meet him briefly, he's a gentleman and amazing and I've loved that song ever since I first heard it. That's one of the songs that just blew me away as a teenager. I was introduced to Al Green by way of Pulp Fiction, by the way. That puts me in the nineties. I just felt like, "Wow, this is a way to end the album in a very sensual, soulful place. I really want people to connect the dots between all the different styles that we're doing on the album.

MR: Yeah, at times, you even rock out on this album. Is that a way of getting out all your endless energy?

JJ: Absolutely! It's just fun. I wanted to have fun, I wanted the band to have funa nd most importantly I wanted the audience to have fun. We played Holland last week, we were playing "Every Little Thing" and there are people dancing and jumping up and down, it kind of gives people permission, "Yeah, go crazy if you want to and have a great time." Some of my work has been seen as a little over serious, people are shushing people in the audience like I'm some great artist that you have to listen to with reverence. I'm like, "No, no, this is just music to have fun to."

MR: You mentioned Holland. You have an international following, don't you, in addition to the united states?

JJ: Absolutely! I'm always touring.

MR: How do they react to you overseas versus America? What are the differences and similarities?

JJ: Well I've found that over here the genres are further apart. That goes to venues, too. What I'm faced with is, "Which room do you play?" In New York and LA I can get away with it, we can play at the Roxy in LA and we can play at the Highland Ballroom in New York, but in other places like Minneappolis where I'm from it's like, "Are you going to play at First Avenue? Vincent's Gold Club? The Dakota Jazz Club?" There isn't really an in between. Europe seems to have room for stuff that's in between. Jazz people will go to a non-jazz room to see Branford or myself or someone like that play. That's really the major difference. I feel a lot more free. In Europe and Amsterdam, for example, we play in the same place that D'Angelo plays, and we can play jazz there. I've done a Billie Holiday project there, at the Paradiso.

MR: Is D'Angelo an inspiration to you?

JJ: Absolutely. I think everybody would agree with me that Voodoo is like the definitive R&B album of my generation. I'm dying for the next one. It's been a long wait but it's going to be worth it if and when it comes out. We're all going to be blown away again.

MR: Your album includes "Dragon" with Becca Stevens. You two go way back, right? What's the history?

JJ: We met at the New School here in New York. She was just so ahead of everybody else, she's an amazing guitarist, even back then she was writing solely her own stuff. Most people were learning about standards and stuff like that and she already had a band and she was writing her own music and she was super badass. We became friends but I moved around a lot and got caught up in my career and she got caught up in hers and we were in and out of touch but when I was working on this album one of the major albums is Stereolab and I love the way that they do their vocals and I really wanted more female artists on this album as writers and performers, so I called her and she came down and she totally killed it, and then she wrote "Dragon" based on the other songs that I had recorded in the studio.

MR: She got what you were doing and then made her own contribution. And It also doesn't hurt that since you know each other she knows where you're coming from , rather than some songwriter coming up and saying, "Hey I've got a great song for you!"

JJ: Yeah, it's like a meal and then she brought the dessert.

MR: [laughs] That's sweet. You're another amazing Minneapolis musician. What's in the lakes that's creating this?

JJ: [laughs] A lot of fish. I think what's great about Minneapolis honestly is there's so much room to experiment, when I look back on the first thing I did I'm blown away, I was able to really work with some pretty radical experimental jazz guys from Chicago and also do theater and straight ahead jazz, there's a great hip hop scene there, there's obviously a great rock scene there, and people are super open to new artists there in a way that they definitely are not in New York.

MR: I don't think there's even such a thing as "breaking" in New York anymore.

JJ: I know what you mean. You get to the top of your place and then you come to New York and then New York breaks you.

MR: [laughs] That's a nice way of putting it.

JJ: But you really have to earn it here, that's the thing. Everybody up to Lady Gaga has to put the time in. I think that's a good thing. The more time you spend on the music the better it is.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

JJ: Focus on the songs. I think a a lot of new artists get caught up in the production or writing to the production, but if you look at Adele for example, those songs could have been produced any number of ways and still been huge hits. Those songs could have been performed by any number of artists and still been huge hits. I think it starts with the song, always.

MR: There's something scary about "Rumor Has It." That song could have been written in any era. It could have been a girl group record in the sixties, a keyboard, new wave thing in the eighties... A good song is a good song, isn't it?

JJ: Exactly.

MR: Are there any songs on this album that you knew right when you finished writing them that they were the highlights of this record.

JJ: Absolutely. For me it was the track "While You Were Sleeping." That to me is the synthesis of what I've been trying to do as a writer, because it has the jazz harmony and it has the simplicity. It combines singer-songwriter, blues, folk even with jazz in a way that I haven't seen in a modern way but I've definitely seen in people like Carole King or Joni Mitchell. Obviously they're much better examples of that, but this is my step towards that synthesis. I was really, really happy to have stumbled upon that.

MR: So the singer-songwriter genre was also very influential on you in addition to jazz and some of the funk and electronic stuff that you like?

JJ: Absolutely. That really came from writing on guitar. People like Joni Mitchell or Neil Young or Bob Dylan, the guitar is such an important part of their writing. And Kurt Cobain as well. I think of him more as a singer-songwriter than as a rock god because it's really personal, it really comes from him. You can't really cover Nirvana.

MR: Yeah. "Come As You Are" seems like the best illustration of that.

JJ: Exactly. He probably would've saved his voice doing unplugged for the rest of his life.

MR: And since you said Joni Mitchell, what period Joni MItchell is your favorite?

JJ: Oh man, that is impossible. I mean, I love Blue, that's the record everybody loves. That's so tough, man. She's one of the rare artists, maybe her and Stevie Nicks where you just can't pick a period. They're just geniuses, man. It's just impossible.

MR: And speaking of Minneapolis, Prince said The Hissing Of Summer Lawns was one of his favorite albums. He got the experimentation she did with that one.

JJ: Absolutely.

MR: You mentioned Quincy Jones before. Is he a fantasy producer for you some day?

JJ: I don't know about that, but his autobiography is like the musician's bible, man. I've read that thing like thirty times. For me what's great about musica as opposed to other art forms is if you want a lesson with anybody you just put their record on, man. If I want to learn how Quincy did it, it's all there. That's the genius thing about records, it's like time capsules as opposed to dance or something where it's just gone.

MR: Quincy Jones recorded and arranged from a jazz perspective, yet he produced Lesley Gore who doesn't sound anything at all like genres you'd associate with him. At the time, I don 't think anyone would have been able to predict that Quincy Jones would produce something like "It's My Party."

JJ: That's the thing about jazz musicians: It's all in them. As long as they have that opportunity, and I think Robert Glasper's a great one of today who's doing that, they're going to dazzle you.

MR: What do you want to do? What's your ultimate goal? Where are you heading?

JJ: Honestly I think when I started on this path I said, "I want to be known as the jazz singer that can do it all, I want to be able to go on tour with Mccoy Tyner, I want to be able to sing with Jazz At The Lincoln Center Orchestra, I want to be able to work with Flying Lotus, I want to be able to do all of it." For me, I think I'm so restless I kind of have to be able to do it all. Next year is Billie Holiday's hundredth anniversary so I'm going to do a tribute to her because she means a lot to me. I'm still going to keep writing on guitar, I think it's really fascinating, and there's definitely another album in that direction as opposed to piano. I'm going to keep experimenting. Right now, I'm having a great time just playing and experimenting with the band and unfolding the music every night.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Theo Croker & Dee Dee Bridgewater

Mike Ragogna: Can we start at the beginning where Theo meets Dee Dee for Afro Physicist?

Theo Croker: Dee Dee and I met in Shanghai in 2009 at a jazz festival. I was playing in a big band behind her. We met in person and proceeded to link up, go to lunch and hang out, and I kind of became her guide to the city while she was there. After the show, I had a show at one of the sponsoring venues with my band and Dee Dee came down and sat in. We kind of stayed in touch after that. That was the start of it.

MR: Theo, this is a different kind of album for you. What was the creative process?

TC: The creative process... I think it all got sparked when Dee Dee said we weren't not gonna make a jazz record.

Dee Dee Bridgewater: I'd heard Theo playing in all kinds of different musical genres, and I just didn't want to make yet another straight-ahead jazz album. I knew he was doing all kinds of music, I knew he had some great compositions and I thought, "This should be the way to go." His tastes are eclectic and his music reflects his tastes and I liked it.

MR: Theo, as far as writing the songs, how did it work?

TC: Creatively, when I was living abroad in Shanghai, there seemed to be a wider category of what they considered jazz. It encompassed a lot of things that, maybe here, we would have more categories for, like R&B or hip-hop. There, all of that was just considered jazz. So I think it allowed me to open up my mind a little bit, and start to not really worry about what style of music I was trying to play. And I think was the first step to how this project became the way it is; how creatively we started to deal with these different genres, grooves and influences. Really just learning to open up and hear things differently and blend them together to create the Afro Physicist sound.

MR: Jazz has always been an evolving art form, but now more than ever it seems to embrace so much more, even traditionally. Does that feel like you really weren't confined by whatever the definition of jazz is these days?

TC: Yes. That's exactly right. That's what it turned in to. Especially when I was living in a place where nobody really spent a lot of time trying to define what you're doing musically; they just like it or they don't like it. I think nowadays, jazz has become such a broad meaning, and I think that's a good thing because it's getting back to being about music and whether it's good or not, and whether people connect with it or not. I think that's more important than what we label it.

MR: Dee Dee, what attracted you to Theo's music, and what drew you to want to do a project with him this extensively?

DDB: I was attracted to several elements of Theo. I was very impressed by his entrepreneurship and the fact that he'd picked up and moved all the way to Shanghai. I could really appreciate having moved out of the United States, but for someone to move to Asia and to learn the language and be aware of the culture was most impressive. That's not a place where you would imagine a young musician moving to. So there was that. I love Theo's sound. I love the trumpet due to my father being a trumpet player, and hearing that instrument a lot. All of my jazz heroes and my first husband were trumpet players. I think of my voice as a trumpet. So when I heard Theo, his sound spoke to me. The way he played his horn, that he didn't feel the need to be brassy and impress with high notes or loudness. I really appreciated that. I thought, "Here's a young man who's sure about his sound, about his instrument," and I liked that he was playing in different vernaculars, too. I heard him in different settings and just loved that. It spoke to me. I felt like I was dealing with a kindred spirit. I'm very eclectic and that's my musical choice--even though I may not do that on stage because of my reputation and what people expect to hear from me. But since working with Theo, I'm doing all kinds of other stuff. 8:57 Everything about Theo spoke to me, even his aesthetics; his culinary tastes, his fashion tastes. Everything. I feel like Theo is a child of mine. It's very confusing; even my grandchildren don't understand what this relationship is. My oldest daughter manages him. I don't know, he's become part of my family. It's a little more than just the manager/producer thing. He's part of our family and I have Theo's band as my band this summer.

MR: Theo, who were your influences? Was Miles Davis one of them?

TC: Yeah, Miles was definitely an influence. He's eclectic, he's ever-evolving. He never goes backwards. I've read his book and have studied him closely as a person. He's definitely an influence, somebody that was always himself. Once he became himself he remained himself through good and bad, which I really admire. Another person who's an influence musically is Fela Kuti on the same vibe. I really like how he went from the highlife African music, and then developed his own sound with his Egypt 70 through being influenced by James Browne and really defining the Afrobeat genre with Tony Allen; and having a message in his music. I'm really influenced by that. And of course, all the great trumpet players; Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard... and even the young ones, Roy Hargrove, Nicholas Payton, Wynton Marsalis. I'm influenced by everything.

MR: I'd throw in Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson.

TC: [laughs] Certainly Stevie's a huge influence. I think that some of the general audience--people who hear Stevie songs on the radio--don't necessarily get how deep some of it is, musically, and even technically. Stevie's like the ultimate jazz musician; there's so much to deal with in one of his songs. You can spend years learning a Stevie song, but it's so accessible to people, yet they're so packed. A lot of times there are two or three drum grooves over one track.

MR: Your re-invention of "I Can't Help It" was a very clever way to approach it.

DDB: That's Theo's arrangement. All of the arrangements on the CDs are Theo's, and you've got all of his original compositions. That's something else I really love about Theo. In my opinion he's a wonderful arranger. Very talented, and I've asked him to do some arrangements on CDs I've always loved. So we do that now in our new repertoire. I thought that arrangement on "I Can't Help It' was so slick; throwing in the kind of Latin groove, and it had such a sophistication to it. And it's all basically Stevie. You really get the sense of the jazz, and I think that Theo's arrangement brought that out.

MR: And your vocals!

DDB: Yeah, well, that's just the way I sing. I listen to my voice sometimes and I think, "What a weird voice." I find it weird sometimes, but when I listen to an arrangement, I try to figure out what the best vocal sound it is that I can bring to that arrangement to enhance the overall arrangement. That song for me wasn't easy. The chorus section is kind of fast, so if you want to get all the lyrics in, you have to syncopate the notes a certain way and the words a certain way. It's a clever little challenge, and I've worked it out, but in the beginning it was difficult. And everybody says it's a Nancy Wilson song.

MR: Dee Dee, it sounds like there's a familial blend with you singing on the tracks.

TC: Dee Dee's and my relationship is very organic and it developed naturally. For the first two years of us knowing each other, I would see her in Shanghai, or I would find her if I was in the same country and she was performing there, and I'd get on the train on an off day and hang out with her. It wasn't overnight. We've been kind of working on the project for four or five years.

DDB: Emotionally and physically. This baby took three years. I produced it with my own funds, and then we had to shop a deal. I have a distribution deal with Universal and they turned it down, they weren't interested. Then we talked to different labels, and Wulf Müller, who I've been working with for years at Universal--he's been my confidante and also was a consultant after he left--was asked to work with OKeh Records when they were coming together. So he told me about it, and after everything was set up, he said, "Do you want to present your Theo Croker project to OKeh?" I said yes, and so I now have a second distribution deal with OKeh to distribute DDB Records, and Theo is on DDB Records. It's lovely

MR: What do you both see as far as the future and where you're taking this? Are you going to collaborate again, and where are your solo careers going?

DDB: Well let me answer collaboratively. I know Theo's working on new material and recording demoes. I of course would love to continue to work with Theo; I think we have a great musical relationship and a great understanding of each other, so I hope that this is going to grow. However, let me just say that, as a producer, I feel my role is to step back and out of the picture if that's what an artist needs to move forward. My role as a producer is simply to help the artist realize their musical goals. Anytime that Theo doesn't feel that I'm the one for him, I will push him and say "You need to go someplace else, you need to get somebody else. I will still be behind it in terms of the actual production of it." And maybe Theo will want to produce himself, or co-produce. But everything's open with us in that end.

TC: We don't disillusion each other. I see myself going in lots of different directions, and I'm sure many of them will be with Dee Dee and some of them won't be. Dee Dee's very clear about what she's down with and what she's not down with. So that makes it easy, and we don't have those hard feelings; we're like family. But also I'm very happy to be a part of Dee Dee's working band. That's something every musician kind of hopes for, to be in a band of someone who's a legend, who's been around a long time and been in the business, so you learn everything about traveling, touring, performing; everything about music. Really, when I'm in Dee Dee's band, I may contribute compositions and arrangements, but every show's a learning process for me, so I'm really happy to be a part of that, and I hope to stay a part of that as long as possible.

MR: That's beautiful.

DDB: At my age, Theo could be my child; he could be my grandchild! [laughs] But he could certainly be my child, and with most young musicians I just think of them as my children. It's just lovely to share the stage with your children. I'd share the stage with my second daughter China, and I just love stepping back and allowing the youth to take front and center. I'm an old broad, I've been out there a long time, so I don't need the accolades. I'm there to push somebody and then I step back. I'm there to help bring focus to the young person that I think deserves the attention. And I want people to understand that. I love working with Theo, I love working with his working band, with Irwin Hall, little Michael King, Eric Wheeler, Kassa Overall, etc. These are all young guys. I like sitting with them and listening to them talking about where they hear the music coming from. I like taking notes. I like being fed new and fresh ideas and new energy. I like that these gentlemen are not afraid to step outside of jazz, per se. I love that.

TC: And you have to be careful around Dee Dee because Dee Dee soaks up everything, and will twist it and put it out so fast; you start playing two notes, and Dee Dee takes those two and turns it into five and you're like, "Oh." Sometimes we look at each other like, "Uh-oh, we set her off, now we gotta follow her." You just need a slight nudge sometimes, and she takes you to the moon. We have these looks on stage sometimes where we give her a nudge and then we're taken on a ride. It's amazing.

DDB: Mike, It's so much fun.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

DDB: My advice, generally, is to learn as much as you can about your craft. Learn as much as you can about the business of your craft. And don't be afraid and don't compromise what you believe in as your music or your art. Because if you're going to go down with a sinking ship, it might as well be your ship that you built, that you nurtured and that you believe in, instead of going down for something that somebody's told you to do. That's horrible. So go down with a fight and always keep fighting, and never accept "No." That's what I say.

TC: Mine is kind of on the same line: really learn your craft. I don't mean just observe it. There's so much information about music and how it works, and a lot of young people overlook that, but you really have to develop your craft and decide that you're going to stick with this and continue to develop it. I really see Dee Dee and myself serving the music more than we serve ourselves. It's come to us and it has a calling. You really have to have a lot of integrity and study and learn and understand what the music is and is about so that you can reach the highest level artistically. The other is to be yourself, as Dee Dee said. I want to go out on my spaceship, not somebody else's and saying "Aye aye, sir." If I go down, or up, it's my ship. I think that's important. For me there's no end in sight for music and me.

Transcribed by Emily Fotis