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Not Your Father's Smooth Jazz II: Conversations with Earl Klugh, David Sanborn, Jonathan Butler and Euge Groove, Plus a Bo-Keys Exclusive

11/08/2013 12:00 am ET | Updated Jan 08, 2014

MORE SMOOTH JAZZ CRUISE ADVENTURES

2013-11-08-IMG_1929.JPG Photo credit: Mike Ragogna

Here are some more interviews conducted on Entertainment Cruise Productions' Smooth Jazz Cruise from a couple of weeks ago. This time out -- with the assistance of recent jazz school grad Jonnie Cohen -- I grill David Sanborn, Earl Klugh, Jonathan Butler and Euge Groove.

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A Conversation with David Sanborn During Which I Don't Mention His Awesome Sax Break on The James Taylor Classic "You Make It Easy" Even Once

Mike Ragogna: David, you've been doing this for quite a few years. It's almost like by this point, this Smooth Jazz Cruise ensemble is a family, isn't it.

David Sanborn: Well, I think it certainly gets to be that way. When you see the same familiar faces, it's nice when you get a chance to play with the same musicians. You start to develop this shorthand so everybody knows where you're at and where you're going, but then again, there are always surprises. But the more people are comfortable with the material, the more free you can be with the music.

MR: You've had relationships with many of these people for many years, for instance your old producer, superbassist Marcus Miller.

DS: Marcus Miller and I, it's been close to forty years.

MR: And you worked together on many albums. David, while performing, I noticed when you go into a horn solo, that's a different kind of vibe and a different kind of head than when you need to step back into a horn section, playing whatever the arrangements demand. But it seems like you have as much fun doing that as you do being the soloist or featured artist.

DS: Yeah, because it's not something that I do very often. I'm very rarely, these days, part of a horn section, but it's always fun to do though it's not something that occurs in my life very often.

MR: Mainly, at a setting like this cruise or festivals?

DS: Yeah. There was a situation the other night, specifically with Tower of Power, where we were all stumbling over each other trying to figure out what the hell was going on. But it was great, we kind of felt the situation out.

MR: Something came up the other day that I didn't really bring up in our previous interview that sort of shocked me, and that was your relationship with Benny Carter. Basically, the sax torch was passed to you, huh.

DS: Well, I don't know if it was. I certainly think that it was quite an honor that he even knew who I was, let alone said such nice things about me. I don't know if I'm comfortable with the idea that I'm the standard bearer now, that I would pick up where she left off. I'm hardly at that level, but I appreciate the acknowledgement that I got from her and the support and the encouragement. I think that was very good.

MR: I know you're a modest person.

DS: I don't think I'm modest so much as I'm realistic. I know what I can do and what I can't do. I know what I am and more importantly I know what I'm not. I'm not really a major innovator; I don't know if I contribute to the language of the saxophone or of jazz. I don't consider myself an innovator of jazz. I've just got a distinctive voice.

MR: I just had a conversation before you with SmoothJazz.com. They have been involved since The Wave format and they've also known a lot of the artists in what was designated as "smooth jazz." To me, I wouldn't call it "smooth" anymore unless you want to redefine the word "smooth" to include funk and R&B and hip-hop.

DS: Yeah, I never understood why that was the particular marketing. It all seemed to me that we called it smooth so people wouldn't get scared. "Don't worry, we're not going to upset you when we play." It's kind of jazz but not enough to hurt you.

MR: Is that sort of the stepchild of something like "easy listening"?

DS: Well, it is in some ways. It is easy listening. The thing is there used to be a radio format that required more. It wasn't only R&B, there was jazz in there, too. You'll find cuts of Miles Davis that were ballads. You could make a case that that's smooth jazz because it's very contemplative, very introspective, late night moody. In that respect, yeah. But then there comes this evil battle for a certain format. You can't build a career on just doing that. I think that the fact that most of what they consider "smooth jazz" is really instrumental R&B music. It's that simple.

MR: All right, but would you then consider folks like Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Bad Plus, Herbie Hancock or Chick Corea, when they're being innovative, more true to what "jazz" is?

DS: It's always difficult to define what jazz is or what jazz isn't. To me, the only definition that I can think of is it's music where a lot of different elements are played at the same time. The harmonic, the melodic... You're pushing the boundaries on every level. That could be true of rhythm and blues as well. I'm a musician.

MR: And others are genre-fying.

DS: Yeah, they're the guardians at the gate.

MR: Where I was going before with SmoothJazz.com, they attribute you as being one of the founders of the format.

DS: I think it's probably because of stations like The Wave. When it became a radio format, it became a focus for certain artists to say, "Okay, I'm going to make music that's geared to that specific genre, that market, those people on this radio format." As an artist, it seems a very limited vision of what they're doing. If you're making records specifically for a certain radio format... I make music and then figure out what it is. I've never done it any other way. I've never been comfortable saying, "Okay, we need something to fit into this format." I don't know how to do that. I just write music I enjoy making and someone will fit it into something.

MR: Then do you consider yourself jazz?

DS: Once again, I don't really think about that. I listen to music that is clearly and historically known as "jazz," Sonny Rollins, stuff that has that kind of feel. You mentioned The Bad Plus and Medeski, Martin & Wood. Is it jazz? Yeah, I would say that it's jazz. All of these people, whether they're making funk records or whatever, they use the language of jazz. I think if you incorporate the language into your music and that comes from the jazz tradition, then yeah.

MR: Then what do you call the music that's being played on this cruise? Is it an amalgam that is yet to be named?

DS: To me, it's mostly instrumental R&B. People call it "smooth jazz"--and I'm not belittling that title to anybody--but I think most of the artists on board that are making music would agree it's "instrumental R&B."

MR: And there are artists like Dave Holland and Gary Burton who have projects that skew towards this "instrumental R&B" but certainly keep their roots in "jazz." It's funny, it's almost like jazz is evolving, now looking at itself, saying, "What the heck am I?"

DS: It's always done that. When big band swing came along, there were people who said, "This is it!" Then when Miles came on the scene, they said, "That's not jazz!" They assumed they'd lost their minds. They said, "What is this s**t?" Then Charlie Parker came along and Cab Calloway. It was like, "Don't put that Chinese music s**t on here."

MR: With Stravinsky's Rite Of Spring, they went nuts at its debut.

DS: If you think about what we're doing as an act, then all the limitations you put on it turn into boundaries because, "It doesn't fit into the definition that I have of myself." But that's wrong! You have to follow where creativity leads you and that can lead you into some pretty strange places unless you're unwilling to follow it. Then you're just back where it's safe.

MR: You don't play it safe, right?

DS: I have a certain temperament, a disposition that I think lends itself to not playing outside the lines that much. But I do test the boundaries, certainly, and break one or two of my own. Some people are mystified by it, but not me.

MR: Are there areas of jazz or any kind of music that you still want to hit or even push boundaries on?

DS: It's not something I think about. I do pretty much what's in front of me, I work on pretty much whatever is right in front me. I try to put myself in situations where I have as much creative freedom as possible, which is why I don't do a lot of sessions for other people.

MR: But it's always coming from a passionate place, right?

DS: Yeah. You've got to maintain that. It's got to be more than a job.

MR: Do you feel, in some ways, you reached saturation playing on a lot of other artists' records?

DS: No, I feel that it's a natural evolution as more things were out there and I figured out more and more ways to do my own stuff. I wasn't being called to other things, those things kind of fell out of favor. So I played on a Lenny Kravitz record six or seven years ago and Lenny told me he took the records to a radio station and they said, "We won't play anything if it has a saxophone solo in it." They wouldn't even hear it. These are the people who you're worried about? Do you have time to worry about some arbiter of taste who's made a pronouncement like that? For a while, there were some radio consultants that were consulting to record companies. They talked to the stations and pretty much cleared the music for the radio stations. They were the arbiters of taste. Pat Metheny told me a story. He said they brought one of his records to a consultant and they did their little field test, whatever they do--they hold it up to electrodes, I guess--and they came back with it and said "Well, we'll play this record on a station if you edit out the guitar solo." Okay. It's a Pat Metheny record that they'll play as long as you don't have Pat Metheny on it.

MR: [laughs] What do you think about that? If it was David Sanborn's choice, what do you tell these guys? Coming back, once again, sorry, how do you feel about that thing called "jazz"? What would you have the meaning be?

DS: Thank God I don't control it. I think it's going to follow its own voice. My wish would be that everybody was free of those kinds of self-loathing ways of thinking about how they can't do something because it's not "this." Just do what you're going to do. Write a polka if that's what feels right to you. Just write. Just make music that feels right.

MR: That's beautiful. That also fills a bit for my usual question, "What advice do you have for new artists?"

DS: Follow your instinct, follow your heart.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

2013-11-07-IMG_1896.JPG left to right: Norman Brown, Earl Klugh, Marcus Miller photo credit: Mike Ragogna

A Conversation with Earl Klugh

Mike Ragogna: Earl, we've spoken many times before, so let's try something a little different. Let's have new artist/jazz guitarist Jonnie Cohen, a recent graduate of the University of Iowa's music department, chat with you first.

Earl Klugh: Okay.

Jonnie Cohen: Thanks so much, I really appreciate it! Earl, do you think Yoga has affected your music at all? [note: Jonnie just finished participating in Earl's Yoga class]

EK: I kind of think that it has. We do a lot of traveling and airplane travel is the worst because you're sitting down so many hours and when we're on tour every day--we spend four, five, six hours on the plane--that gets really hard. Most of the guys who are out on the circuit with us, they kind of feel the same way. I try to keep myself going as much as I can. When we get to the hotel, I try to go to the gym wherever it is so I can keep everything up.

JC: How does it affect your musicality and ability to play?

EK: Well, my hands and everything are fine. The biggest problem is doing an hour and a half or two-hour show and standing and playing all of that time. Your audiences want you to generally be up and around and very mobile. What really helped was when we finally got electronics where you didn't have to be plugged into an amp, it gave much more mobility and it made the show much more visibly better for them. So I'm very happy that things have turned around so well.

JC: So it's about bodily health.

EK: Exactly.

JC: One of the things I was really interested in when I was researching you that your mentors were Chet Atkins and George Benson. I was wondering if you could tell me how somebody like Chet Atkins picked you up and how that effected your playing and your ability to learn better.

EK: With Chet, I was very lucky because I signed a record deal very early and Chet Atkins was always one of my favorite guitarists. He and George Benson were my favorite players. Being able to spend time with Chet Atkins and record with him, and from a very young age, see all of the opportunities and possibilities, I think Chet just probably got a bit of a kick out of me because I enjoyed it all so much. So we became good friends. The same thing is true with George Benson. I met George in Detroit before he got very famous. Every two or three months, he played in a club in Detroit, Baker's Keyboard Lounge. That place was a turning point for me because at that time, I was a really great player and that was the only place in Detroit that had a real jazz presence, so I got to meet everybody--Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon, Les McCann, Grover Washington. Just from watching the shows and learning everything about the artists who were really, really on top of things and the artists who were partiers but great players anyway, it showed me a really wide, wide spectrum of the acts.

JC: So you hung with Chet from a young age.

EK: I was sixteen when I first started working with Chet. That was a complete, lifelong thing after that. We'd both do shows from time to time. He'd call me up--Chet is so matter of fact--but he'd call me up and say, "Earl, what you doing?" I'd say, "I'm not doing anything, I think I'm going to go to the movies tonight," and he said, "Man, why don't you cancel that and let's go play over at the so-and-so club?" It's all the Nashville heavyweights and wannabes. It was a nice initiation into that world.

JC: Do you consider yourself a serious musician?

EK: I've always considered myself a really serious musician, but not serious to the point where you must understand my music. I get a kick out of it, I really enjoy it, I just wake up and pinch myself. I've worked a long time for this, but it's still a bunch of fun for me. I can't imagine doing anything else.

JC: What's been the high point of your career to this point?

EK: Right now, really. I really feel that way. When I started out, I was just fresh and now I'm getting older and people are starting to give me lifetime achievement awards. I'm not that old, I'm like, "No, please!"

JC: How does that feel? Getting lifetime achievement awards?

EK: I'm not old enough yet! But it's cool.

JC: So going back to the relationship with Chet and George, you would describe them as mentors, right?

EK: Yeah, they were both very much mentors.

JC: So what defines a "mentor"?

EK: Gosh, that's a very good question. In my case, I was very shy but I wanted to get information from some of the players, so I tried to be really nice. There were a couple of artists who were really great. Once I was eighteen, these two men will remain nameless, but I got them to listen to my record, I gave them some alkie-hol, and they were friends to the end, boy.

JC: That resulted in a record?

EK: Yeah, that's when my first album came out.

JC: Why do you think people want to mentor?

EK: I think in the case of both George Benson and Chet Atkins, George was really fascinated with me playing the classical guitar and not the electric guitar. He thought that I was going to be a great acoustic guitar player because there weren't many. He said, "If you keep going in this direction, you're going to be the best guy on this instrument." We did some shows together. I did some shows both with Chet and with George and then we did some shows together, all three of us over time. There's a lot of video on us. I think we just had a mutual admiration.

JC: So you came up with your classical guitar style, you weren't trying to sound like anyone else and they liked that.

EK: Exactly.

JC: Do you have any advice for new artists?

MR: Hey, that's MY question! [laughs]

EK: Some people like jazz or blues or country. With me, I really try to embrace all of those styles and find something that I like out of all of them. When I first heard country music, I was like, "Oh, I don't like this music." But then I go to the record stores and I check out the albums and I buy a couple of things and almost every time, you find songs that you love. That's what kept me moving on, trying to find more repertoires and more ways to play.

JC: So, one, you had your own sound that they liked, and then two, you also pushed yourself to learn other styles and other peoples' sounds.

EK: Exactly.

JC: Are they both very important?

EK: They're both equally as important as the other. That's very definite.

MR: Earl, how does an artist keep growing, in your opinion? What are some actual fundamentals for an artist to keep growing?

EK: Well, for me, after a while I kind of knew what I liked, the type of music that I embraced. I'm very passionate about Brazilian music, and I did a lot of country stuff with Chet. On the CD I have up now, I did a song with Vince Gill. So I try to keep all of those things going on in my career because it's very interesting. You never know who you're going to meet and people that you can collaborate with.

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MR: What's also interesting about your latest album Hand Picked is that the material ranges from Burt Bacharach to Vince Guaraldi to "Betcha By Golly Wow." Loved your solo performance of that, by the way. It was shockingly touching. Do you keep teaching yourself the basics by going back to those songs you loved, maybe now looking at them differently than you did back then?

EK: Oh, absolutely. That is completely it. A lot of songs I played twenty or thirty years ago, I'm returning to now because I've found new ways to make it happen. Just like when you were talking about "Betcha By Golly Wow," I happened to hear it on the radio while we were in the airport. I had no designs to do the song, but I worked it out in my room and then I thought, "This will be a good one."

MR: It almost made me cry, and it was a sweet ending song to a pretty full concert. Who would have thought to do that song and who would have thought to rediscover its emotional depth?

EK: Yeah, yeah.

MR: What practical things can someone like Jonnie do at this point his young music career?

EK: Gosh, I don't really know. To me, it seems that there are so many new jazz guitar players and saxophone players, I think we could topple this boat with them, I'm telling you! And they're all great! It's really amazing. When I was a kid, there weren't that many great players. We had Stan Getz and Dizzy Gillespie and Grover Washington. It's all changed up so much.

MR: You grew up in Detroit, which obviously is partly musically defined by Motown. Was there any time growing up when you thought you wanted to be a part of that whole scene instead of jazz?

EK: Oh yeah, I love the music. But by the time I really got going, I really saw what I was trying to do and where I wanted to go musically. So I'm really blessed for that because a lot of people were great players and sometimes, they just don't see the possibility. There's this guy, he's an unbelievable pianist, but he had some bad habits and it never really came around for him. He was too busy drinking. I'd try to take him on the road and the first couple of weeks were pretty good, but the next thing you know...

MR: That's unfortunate, especially when "breaks" don't come that often. Earl, what comes next for you?

EK: Gosh, I don't know what to tell you. I've been doing it for so long I just really enjoy what I do, playing in shows and touring around the world. We did a ton of touring all around the world the last few months. We've literally gone to Africa four times, full-blown country shows four times in two months. We do these shows and then I come back home and they want more shows. I'm like, "Okay, it sure doesn't happen like that in Detroit!" They love the music. I was kind of thinking that maybe I need to cut them down a little bit because they'll get tired of me coming over, but then I talked to my agent and he said, "Oh, don't worry about that. They do that all the time. You're not going to go away."

MR: It's one of those things where it almost feels like you as an artist are being very benevolent, like how you're giving us this interview and you're playing for them because they want you so much.

EK: [laughs] Exactly, yeah.

MR: All right, we took up a lot of your time and I appreciate it.

EK: No, this is great, this really helps me wind down. They're killing me over here. [laughs]

MR: [laughs] Yeah, I'm afraid of that!

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

2013-11-07-IMG_1946.jpg left to right: Jonnie Cohen, Earl Klugh photo credit: Mike Ragogna

INTERMISSION: THE BO-KEYS' MINI-DOC EXCLUSIVE

2013-11-08-THE_BOKEYS_PERCY_WIGGINS.jpg Photo credit: Nathan Black

According to The Bo-Keys' Scott Bomar...

"The Bo-Keys and myself want to share a behind the scenes look into the recording of our new singles. Since the release of our last album, 'Got to Get Back,' the band has been performing live and recording with former Atlantic and RCA recording artist, Percy Wiggins, as the featured vocalist. Percy and his brother, legendary soul singer Spencer Wiggins who recorded at Fame in Muscle Shoals and for the Goldwax label in Memphis, are both held in high esteem by their contemporaries. Former Stax Records artists Carla Thomas and John Gary Williams of the Mad Lads often recall the how highly regarded and influential the Wiggins brothers vocal abilities were in Memphis in the 1960s. Percy and Spencer Wiggins are featured on a new series of 45 rpm vinyl/digital singles from Electraphonic Recording."

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A Conversation with Jonathan Butler

Mike Ragogna: Jonathan, what do you think about the smooth jazz experience you had this week on the cruise?

Jonathan Butler: I think it's getting better, it's getting more and more exciting. It's a week of people's lives where something is happening at sea that's not happening on land. It looks like there's more happening at sea than on land. There's an experience happening to people. They save up for their whole year, some of them are retired some of them don't know who Jonathan Butler is or was and they come up and they're new fans. They're maybe sixty or eighty years old, but they're new fans. It looks like there's life for us musicians, we can still be out there doing it.

MR: And you not only have the interaction with the fans on the boat but also interaction with other musicians.

JB: Right. That too. The cool thing of that is how many times do you get a chance to play with Earl Klugh or share the stage with Oleta Adams, just amazing musicians onstage. David Sanborn and Marcus Miller... Everybody's collaborating with each other and getting along with each other.

MR: And sharing creative experiences, right? Do you think everybody's learning from each other on these trips?

JB: Well, one of the things I enjoyed last night was sitting and watching Earl Klugh. I think as an artist, it's important for us to take a minute out of our schedules to kind of pay tribute to and honor our fellow musicians and sit through a show rather than watching it on TV. You get to learn some things that you might be able to put in your show, some things that make you say, "That's kind of cool, the way he introduces the band." I watched a guy in Mozambique, a great musician, and the way he sent the guys off stage when he finished the show was he had each guy do an amazing solo and as they take the solos, they leave the stage until it's just him left. I thought, "Hmm, that's a really interesting way to close the show." You learn something. On this cruise, you sort of go from room to room and catch a glimpse of everybody's shows.

MR: And as you were saying before about Earl Klugh, one of his performances ended with just him playing "Betcha By Golly, Wow," possibly the best version of it I've ever heard.

JB: He played it in the dressing room for me!

MR: It was touching, the way he ended his show with the starkness of it.

JB: You don't always have to end with a bang. It should start with Earl Klugh and it should end with Earl Klugh. That's how it should be.

MR: Jonathan, "No Woman, No Cry is a Bob Marley song, of course. But you get associated with virtually everything you play.

JB: I hate that part! I have so many albums that if I had the time, I would do "Sing Me A Love Song," I would do "Surrender," I would do "Song For Elizabeth," I would do "Do You Love Me," "Lost To Love," "Carry Me." But you get sixty minutes to entertain, so you really just kind of pick the fun songs. For me, I'm an emotional guy so I pick songs that can carry that part of me across.

MR: I'll bet you have an even harder time picking material because you have knowledge of international music as well, expanding your potential material exponentially.

JB: That's the crazy part! First of all, I'm South African, so I want to take people on that journey and educate people that this is world music and it's cool. I'm in different genres of music all the time, but I like to take people on the journey and sometimes that means I need three hours. When I play in South Africa, I play three hours. When I play at home, I have to play at least three hours. And then I've got to pick gospel material for the gospel show, which is different. That's where I feel really deep emotion and can find the songs that will minister to people and speak to their hearts and speak to their situation. Gospel is good music anyway, so I want to make it fun, I want to make it happy, I want to make it so people can participate. That's what it's about. If we can collectively participate in the song, you kind of create a presence.

MR: You said the word "minister." I thought that's what I was witnessing when I went to your gospel show.

JB: Yeah.

MR: It was Jonathan Butler coming from yet another source of inspiration as you sang to and about God.

JB: Yeah, it's like I'm outside of it, I'm just directing it. I'm just leading worship, so to speak, and then bringing people to a quiet place where they become introspective and it becomes time to just think about where you are. I think these cruises are kind of crazy because every year, I get more and more testimonies from people telling me that they came on the ship with cancer and they're back again and they healed. I've heard stories on this ship of people talking about things that have happened to them, and the gospel, it just changed them. Something happens. I think it's more spiritual than it is entertainment. There's nothing entertaining about it, I think it's more of a spiritual connection with each other on that level.

MR: Are those two separate things with you?

JB: It's the same thing for me. I can never be separated from my spirit, you know? I could never be separated. If so I would just be JB the entertainer, I'll give you hits, hits, hits. Just yesterday, Earl changed up his set a little bit and I think that's what happens sometimes, I'll walk in the room and think, "Maybe I need to do something different, maybe I need to approach the show differently." For instance, Candy Dulfer will come in and it will be all funk and I come from a completely different place, so let me calm things down and then build things back up again.

MR: Do you think that's important to people?

JB: It's important to me because the people who've never seen me would have never seen me before Candy came on. That's why I always start with something very small, very intimate like "Fire And Rain." It also gives me a chance to warm up, a chance to fix any mic level problems or problems with my guitar. It's just me and the engineer for that first song. "Dude, I'm giving you my voice, I'm giving you my instrument, they can't be too hard to fix."

MR: And that's a beautiful and unusual guitar you're playing.

JB: That's an awesome instrument. I like it.

MR: Is there a history to it?

JB: I'm starting to play instruments made in South Africa by South African guitar builders. Some of these guys are amazing. I actually have another guitar in my closet here that broke on the way to the cruise. The bridge broke off. But it's an unbelievable design. I'm kind of mad that the bridge broke because I was trying to help a lady on the plane push a bag and I think as I pushed her bag, I must have cracked the bridge.

MR: Oh man, sorry. Hey, can we talk about your Jonathan Butler Foundation?

JB: We just launched the Jonathan Butler Foundation in South Africa. We deal with music therapy, music education, drug addiction prevention, poverty, and violent crime in the communities of South Africa, so we have a lot of urgent things that we are dealing with. We're funded by the government, we are self-sustaining, we have a lot of cities like Capetown, Johannesburg, Pretoria, and Durban involved and we are also going to start getting the Jonathan Butler Foundation established here in the States so that we can send Earl Klugh or someone to Capetown to do clinics. We are fully operating as we speak. It's been an exciting year for me so far. I'm a patron of the Tshwane School Of Music in South Africa. We have about fifty students from age six and up. We are starting to see the freeborn South Africans emerge and create their own legacies and their own history so to speak. They don't come from the old apartheid era hangups, so the foundation is allowing these kids to create their own legacies now. We just got started and we're already up and running, people can go to my http://www.jonathanbutler.org website. We should have it up already, we're working on the website.

MR: Are you going to be making regular contributions to keep it lively?

JB: Constantly. The concert stuff will all be part of it.

MR: And I'm imaging there'll be musical creations from the students.

JB: The hope for us is that purpose kills addiction. The kids that are out in the street will now have a place to go and learn. We already have drug rehabilitation places that we are able to send kids to and then also to reintroduce some of these kids who come from very, very difficult lives into employment, working in school. So our premise was really awesome, we were just given a building by the government of Pretoria. This is a thirty year old prayer realized today.

MR: Beautiful. And you're concretely adding to the positive aspects of their lives.

JB: I call it taking our kids back. Taking our kids back and giving them purpose.

MR: Nice. So you've got a new Christmas album.

JB: I'm excited! I just did my very first Christmas record. After all of these years, I've been touring and on the road with Dave Koz. I finally got off the ship in January; I think it was a Saturday that I landed in LA, and by Sunday I was in the studio. I actually recorded the record in one week. I had it done, I had it mixed, we came up with this concept, an album cover done with a collage of photographs of things that I like. It's a great album, even if I have to say so myself. It's a great record. I think it's probably the most intimate I've made. It's more guitar and voice than heavy production.

MR: Do you allow yourself to enjoy your own material? A lot of artists find that hard.

JB: I do. I have a couple of favorite albums that I like to play. I like to play Surrender and I like to play Story Of LIfe. There's something about those two albums. I had a great time making them and I had a great experience with all of the songs. I remember who influenced the songs; Richard Bona from Cameroon influenced "Many Faces," "Pata Pata," Jerry Hey did the horn arrangment, and Paulinho Da Costa on percussion. I was in heaven in the studio. Then I did Story Of Life, which was a more singer-songwriter type of record.

MR: You have your fingers in a lot of pies creatively.

JB: Well it's about being creative and not just sticking to "smooth jazz." It's just a bit too limiting for me. I could never live in that box of the smooth jazz genre. I think my palette is too open.

MR: To be honest, I think that "smooth jazz" isn't couldn't live in the smooth jazz box anymore.

JB: I think so. Hopefully, artists will take the lead here and direct traffic instead of having program directors decide what songs are their favorite thing to play when your heart and soul has been in the record since Day One. Your heart and soul is in it and they say, "Okay, this is the one we should play," and yet the album is full of awesome material. So hopefully, we can take the lead. If I was to speak out about that, that's the only thing I think has been missing the last ten years, the artists have played it safe. We didn't take the lead.

MR: I agree totally. And this Smooth Jazz Cruise in particular seems almost like a cradle. I watched moments ago when Brian Culbertson came up to you and said, "Okay, I have this part for you on my new album."

JB: Yeah, he offered me the part because he's heard me sing world music. We've been working together, so he understands that I come from that South African world music background. To me, I like that. Besides, this is a "smooth cruise" cruise, but you've got Marcus Miller, you've got Sanborn, Adams, it goes beyond that.

MR: Well, whatever this smooth jazz evolution is, it especially seems to be happening on things like this smooth jazz cruise.

JB: There's something happening at sea, I suppose, that's not happening on land. It's not that I'm not sure, but I like to touch the ground sometimes. I like to get off the ship and walk down the street. We're starting to have new careers floating at sea.

MR: [laughs] Speaking of new careers, I'm an advocate for new artists and I'd like to know what your advice is for them?

JB: Man, stick to your guns, you know? Stick to your guns. Go sing in the coffee bar. If you're a songwriter, take your guitar to a coffee bar or a little hole in the wall and try to turn people on to your music. I've heard this a thousand times, "If you sell two hundred records you have two hundred fans."

MR: Jonathan, you're going right from the ship to South Africa Saturday to host your third annual safari.

JB: I'm teeing off golf from a rhino's back.

MR: [laughs] What?

JB: [laughs] I'm going to jump on the rhino's back with my golf clubs and hope I hit an elephant on the head! Just kidding. This is my annual safari and we take about twenty-five or thirty American people from wherever. It's a very enlightening, once-in-a-lifetime experience, much like the cruise, but it's a different experience because I'm your host every day. You see me, I'm on the bus with you, we're in the wild and the lions are right here. The jeep just stops in the middle of them.

MR: Wow. Any close calls?

JB: No, these game reserve guys are so well trained and they know the animals' behavior, everything is safe. It's a five-star experience.

MR: How long is the safari?

JB: It's about two weeks. We start off in Capetown and we show people where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, we go to Robben Island, we go to Table Mount and we go to the wine regions, so we do a lot of my hometown first and then I fly people out to Johannesburg and then off to the wild.

MR: Cool. It's a safari of many things.

JB: Yeah, and it's an expensive one, but I hear people here saying that next year they are fully ready to come and join me. It's my break, really. It's a time when I just kind of plug into the wall and get reenergized and reconnected.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Euge Groove

Mike Ragogna: You've explained it a billion times to every other interviewer. But now, it's my turn. How did the name come about?

Euge Groove: The name that's on my birth certificate is "Steven Eugene Grove." Euge is just a corruption of Eugene. Instead of calling me Gene, I got nicknamed "Euge." That started when I got married; my wife's family started nicknaming me that. They're from the South, they nickname everything in the South. "Groove" is just a mispronunciation of my last name, "Grove." I was doing a lot of touring in Europe and still do and they see G-R-O-V-E and pronounce it as "groove." So Euge Groove just came out of that.

MR: There a story out there that the fans were chanting "Euge Groove" and that's why you call yourself that. All lies, huh.

EG: Yeah, that came later. On the first Smooth Jazz Cruise, some people saw me for the first time and they'd go "Why are people booing you?" But they're not booing me, they're going "Euge! Euge!" So that kind of came with it.

MR: What's great is when Earl Klugh ended his show, everybody was going "Klugh!" and if you weren't listening closely, it could've been "boo," like at Bruce Springsteen's concerts.

EG: [laughs]

MR: What are you thoughts on you're playing on Smooth Jazz Cruises?

EG: This'll be my tenth year of doing it, I was on the very first one. We were kind of reminiscing about this the other day. There was Andre Berry, one of the bass players on the ship, and Randy Jacobs, and the three of us are the only ones who were on the very first smooth jazz cruise that started in 2004. It's awesome, I try to do them once a year. I don't want to do any more than that because I think it kind of takes away a bit from them being special. But it's great to be up close and personal with the fans, which I think is why they like to come. They get to hang with everybody and see what they're like.

MR: You have a pretty large demo.

EG: A Euge demo?

MR: Dear God. Yes, a "Euge" demo!

EG: Sorry.

MR: No, no, please do more of that, that was good. Your fans seem to be from their twenties to their eighties. How do you explain yourself, sir?

EG: I think you're being a little kind in saying it starts in the twenties. I've got kids in their twenties and it's not so much their music. They hear it and stuff, but the core audience I would say is more late thirties and up. For me, the music that I try to write and love and kind of where my inspiration came from is the R&B of the seventies and contemporary gospel music. Message aside, that's my favorite genre that I listen to these days.

MR: Ah, R&B, the recurring theme. Who are you listening to these days in contemporary gospel?

EG: Oh, guys like Israel Houghton, he's definitely one of my favorites; Tye Tribbett...there are a lot of other guys in there. That's the music I listen to. I'll turn on Watercolors [on Sirius XM] or turn on the Praise channel and listen to that. Again, message aside, I'm not trying to preach to anybody, but the music is incredible.

MR: This young person over here--let's just call him Jonnie Cohen--his favorite show of the cruise was the gospel brunch. What is it about smooth jazz that makes it so expansive to include genres like R&B, gospel, funk, hip-hop, etc?

EG: I think smooth jazz had its heyday as far as popularity in sync with radio, probably in the late nineties, early two thousands. As radio stations turned away from smooth jazz, I think that opened things up, in my perspective anyway, because people weren't trying to conform to what they thought radio was about. You'd get great artists who would come out with these killer albums and it didn't fit the mold of radio and radio wouldn't play it, so radio didn't grow. I think they kind of killed themselves with that. I think you had a lot of artists who were listening to what radio wanted and that's how they were making their records. So once radio became completely inconsequential to them, they started doing what they wanted to make. I think, musically speaking, that's really helped the format grow.

MR: I'm with you on that. I think the machine itself would've rejected anything outside of whatever they defined as the "Smooth Sound."

EG: Yeah, I've worked with big labels and small labels. My first two albums were with Warner Bros. and I never got anything from them as far as, "You need to make a record this way or we're rejecting this." They always stayed out, which was kind of a cool thing. I've always done well with radio because I think that's just how my ear goes. But you'll hear guys who are arguably more straight-ahead players, they're trying to shape something for radio and it just never works. It seems insincere.

MR: A lot of your songs became staples on the smooth jazz format. "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" is one of those. It seems like the roots of smooth jazz are in the seventies. For instance, the Phil Ramone records, the pop records of that time such as those by Phoebe Snow or Paul Simon--or even "Midnight At The Oasis" by Maria Muldaur--had elements of smooth jazz in there. For players, it seemed like that was the platform for what ended up becoming smooth jazz, because those artists had to play somewhere. Then you had David Benoit and all those cats who started coming onto the scene.

EG: There's more of a new age thing, too, with them. You know, the bands that you mentioned, those were instrumental to me growing up. I grew up near DC and Baltimore and I would go see these bands come in and cover songs with a big horn section and the B-3, and that just shaped me forever. Once I heard these guys play live, I knew I wanted to do that. It's my favorite music to listen to and subconsciously, I know that's where I pull all of my writing from. It's not necessarily like I'm trying to write in that way. That's just how I hear things, I hear those progressions and how they used diminished chords and that kind of thing, and it comes naturally to me.

MR: The words "groove jazz" come to mind.

EG: For my last name?

MR: [laughs] Exactly. No for the genre.

EG: Traditionally speaking, the artists who have done the best have had more of an R&B and groove jazz kind of vibe to them. That's what I like to listen to, but also popularity-wise, those are the guys who have been the best for whatever reason. It's interesting if you historically follow music and you're really nerdy and geeky about the numbers and that stuff.

MR: Nerdy and geeky. I'm in.

EG: [laughs] Yeah, I'm in, too. If you watch the transition from AM to FM in the seventies--we were one of the first formats to go over to FM--it was the higher quality music. Easy listening and jazz-influenced stuff, those were the formats that went into FM because it sounded better. Now I think we're seeing that with smooth jazz in the digital revolution even though the traditional FM stations are what they used to be in any format, not only jazz. Every format's getting crushed. The ones that are doing particularly well on XM and Sirius are the smooth jazz stations. The digital stations, their biggest formats, are musics that actually have a higher production value to it.

MR: Yeah, pop music took a hit when flannel came in, alternative and indie introduced an intentional lo-fi sound whereas jazz hasn't gone that direction. But it could also be that people who listen to smooth jazz are also a little bit more concerned with sonics when it comes to their music.

EG: Yeah, I think they are. Going back to the geek inside me, I also do my releases on HDTracks.com where you can download 24-bit 96k versions of the masters. It's stunning. To come on a ship like this, you have to come from some money. These cruises aren't inexpensive. Some of these people, I've been to their houses, they have amazing sound systems so for them, being able to listen to the higher-quality stuff is important.

MR: So that's where all the high-end sound systems have been hiding.

EG: Yeah, exactly. It's fun for me when I make my records. I have a killer system in my studio, so I try to make that translate for anybody who wants to geek out that much, I guess.

MR: Euge, with your records such as "Chillaxin," you're obviously employing elements of different genres, your variation of "smooth jazz." How do you approach recording your albums creatively?

EG: A little bit of panic sets in because I have to sit down and get the task at hand down. It's always difficult to shut out the outside world and get into that writing space. But again, I don't think I'm trying to go in any particular direction. It's hard to say where an inspiration comes from. With the song "Chillaxin," I had just gotten a brand new keyboard called a Nord Electro and it's a really organic keyboard. It only has organic keyboard sounds in it for an electronic instrument, and I know that's kind of weird, but it's like a real piano, a real Fender Rhodes, a clavinet, and an organ. It's sick.

MR: How close do the samples get?

EG: Well, it's a digital sample of everything, but it's a digital sample of only organic instruments. You won't find synthesizers in there or those kinds of sounds, it's just an organ, a Fender Rhodes, a Wurlitzer piano and a clavinet. Six sounds in the thing and I was so inspired by the rawness of the sound I wrote this one little chord part of a song and I tried to put other instruments with it and they didn't fit because they sounded synthesized and this sounded real. I was like, "Okay, I'm going to have to overdub another sound from this." I started layering all these sounds, I used the organ for the bass, and before I knew it I had written the entire song on just this one keyboard.

MR: That does kind of make you complete the process by using electronic drums and bass.

EG: Exactly, the bass came from that and I just put a simple live-sounding drum groove with it and that was really the song. But that's where inspiration comes from; it can sometimes be a sound, it can sometimes be panic.

MR: How much of the music you record is you, where you arrange it that way and keep that through the final project?

EG: A hundred percent. When you do the writing nowadays with computers and virtual instruments and things, you can get pretty daggone close. The way that I've worked my last several records is that I'd get the songs arranged exactly like I want them, all of the orchestral arrangements and everything, and then I go in and replace that with live players, so the live players bring in their little touches to it, the little twists and turns that you can't program, something that only the personality of a player can do.

MR: Who are some of your favorite players to play with? Make sure not to leave out anyone, considering you've lent your talents to Richard Marx, Elton John, Tina Turner...

EG: No, they paid. I wasn't lending. [laughs] Yeah, I was a sideman for many, many, many years. I learned from every one of them. The first big tour I did was Tower of Power, who were on the ship last night. At all of twenty-four or twenty-five years old I got the gig with them and then the Tower horns went out with Huey Lewis & The News and watched Huey and those guys in their prime playing in front of fifteen, twenty thousand people every night and you see how grounded they are and all of the work ethic and everything, I learned that from them. Richard Marx, what a great songwriter, I saw what he did with that; Joe Cocker, just a pure guttural performer; Tina Turner, a really classic hands-on everything, controlled everything. So there was a lot to learn from these guys if you kept your eyes open.

MR: And of course you have the Elton John experience.

EG: Yeah, just in the recording studio, not in the live situation. Elton was just some recording stuff.

MR: Do you have a favorite medium or are they pretty equal, live versus studio?

EG: It used to be all live for me. I didn't know anything about the studio until I started getting into doing my own records and I realized how difficult that was. I think I tried probably five different times and learned five different ways how not to make a solo album until I actually got it right. It's two different worlds and two different paths. When I get in the studio, I'm going to start to in January and I've blocked out a three-month period of no touring or very minimal stuff because I don't like to leave that world and switch hats because it's just a different headspace.

MR: Is the process you sitting down and then writing for the project or are new works springing from a collection of things that you've written already?

EG: I'll be sitting down and writing for the project. To be honest, I don't have one song even sketched out for this.

MR: Oh well. How about by then?

EG: By then? I work all the way up until New Year's. January comes and I'm going to shut the door and turn off the phones and that's what I'll do.

MR: What kind of touring schedule do you have?

EG: I'm out every week between now and and New Year's.

MR: What kind of places?

EG: The cruise lands back in San Diego and I have to take a ferry out to Catalina Island the night we get back, then I'm home for a few days and then I go to Buffalo, I play at a performing arts center there. The next day is Phoenix Jazz Festival, it's going to be outside. Then I fly to South Carolina doing the Earl Klugh Weekend Of Jazz. He has a thing he does out there every year, so I go to that and then it's Vegas, I've got two weeks in London coming up...what am I forgetting? Oh, Dayton, Ohio, Columbus, Ohio, Chicago, Texas.

MR: How about New York and the East Coast?

EG: Already did it. I was there for two weeks in September.

MR: Do you enjoy getting on stage and jamming with the other musicians?

EG: Sometimes. Sometimes not. It can be a little bit of a cacophony every now and then, too many elements going on. But when you get like-minded players and it's the right situation, there's nothing like it, being able to feed off each other and kind of listen to what the other person is doing and shape your solos around each other which is a blast. I know for the finale night they have Sirius Watercolors Hall Of Fame inductees, Richard Elliott and I are doing a Grover Washington song together to honor Grover. That's going to be a blast.

MR: You have a radio show.

EG: Yeah, SKY FM is the company. They were one of the early players in internet radio. It's kind of like iHeart radio where they have fifty different stations or whatever. I don't know how many jazz or smooth jazz stations they have, but I do a weekly show every Thursday on Smooth Jazz 24/7--that's the name of that channel. It's the only channel that has DJs or presenters as they call them. I do a two hour show every week and I get to talk about and embarrass my friends with the inside knowledge that I have.

MR: Do tell. What kinds of things do you say?

EG: I don't know, I haven't put my stuff together for this week yet. Just knowing their families and how they are with their kids or playing their horns jumping in the pool, that kind of stuff.

MR: So it's very personal.

EG: Yeah. Obviously I know most of the guys, it's not that big of a genre so I can put little stories in there. Richard Elliot, for example, has a song called "Panamera," that's because he has a Panamera car. He bought the Porsche Panamera, so I can share the little bit of information that Richard Elliot is ridiculously rich because he has a Porshe Panamera car. Things like that.

MR: Say, didn't you replace him in Tower of Power? And why did you ever leave Tower of Power? How could you do such a thing?

EG: [laughs] Well, because I was married. I had the first kid along the way and I had to support a family. I had an offer to go out with Richard Marx and it was a pretty lucrative thing.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

EG: What advice for new artists? Oh my goodness. I think diversity at first until you figure out exactly the path that you want to go down. When doors open, just be ready for them to open. I think one thing that I learned in music school is that if you're being hired for a gig as a player, it's a given that you can play. They already assume that you can musically do the part, but can you show up on time and do it professionally is the big thing. Once you do that, you're going to meet other people and doors will definitely open up, just be ready when the doors open.

MR: And who the heck opened your doors, mister?

EG: I had one door after another. They haven't stopped, fortunately. I went to school in Miami, I started playing in clubs down there, I hooked up with a DJ that saw me play in the club, this guy Lewis Martineé. He hired me to play on an album for this vocal group that was coming out, Exposé. I didn't know who they were, but the next thing you know, it was one of Clive Davis' number one girls acts and it was at the top of the chart.

MR: And you're wailing away on their hit.

EG: A number one Billboard Top One Hundred chart hit! So I'm living in Miami and a roommate of mine said, "Hey, let's move to California." I went, "Okay!" That's all it took. We moved out to California and I remember getting into to town and listening to my sax solo on the radio and going, "I've made it!" That couldn't have been further from the truth, but that kind of prodded me to move there and my roommate and I wrote this song called "Hearts On Fire" that Richard Elliot put on one of his earlier albums. He heard me play on that. He was leaving Tower of Power and recommended me to them, that's where that connection came from. So I worked with them for a while. Richard Marx's manager Hermie played with Tower of Power, recommended me to him and from there, I met another musician who was playing with Joe Cocker and he goes, "Hey we need a sax player over here," so again, one door just kind of opens into the next.

MR: And you were with Joe Cocker.

EG: I played with him from '94, the last time I worked with him was about 2003 or 2004. I actually got to open for him the last time I went out there. That was interesting, there were some venues where it was absolutely perfect and some venues where I wish there was chicken wire on the front of the stage. These people were rowdy and they didn't want any of that smooth jazz stuff.

MR: And even then, I bet you pushed the borders of the genre.

EG: Yeah, absolutely. I'm not afraid to get out there in front of anybody. I had guys in Boston flipping me off, so, okay, I jumped off the stage and started playing in their face and they laughed. It could've gone the other way, I guess they could've kicked my butt. I don't know.

MR: You look back at that guy who got his first job with Exposé, is there anything you want to tell that guy?

EG: Lewis Martineé?

MR: Uh, that would be you.

EG: Oh, me! Tell me? I don't know, it's never a dull moment, I can't look anywhere and say I made the wrong decision.

MR: Would it be something like, "Hey, it's going to be okay, don't worry?"

EG: I don't think I've ever been a worrier. If you're going into it worrying about where your paycheck's going to come from, where you're going to eat, the world of being a musician is not for you. There are ups and downs. Obviously, I have three kids and there definitely were times where we were going through a big glass jar for quarters to put gas in the car and get them to school. There are times like that you have to go through. Fortunately, things are a little better now. I've got great managers and agents and stuff in my life that help me keep the roller coaster a little more stable. But being a musician is definitely not for the faint of heart.

MR: What's the future look like for you, other than the album?

EG: That's another thing. We don't look too far down the road because you get scared, but that's the big thing for me. This was an awesome year, I did more touring this year than I've ever done in the last thirteen years of doing the solo thing. Hopefully next year will be just like that. I'll get into this ninth album and it'll go the way it's supposed to be. I can't worry about it because if you do, I'll end up in a corner somewhere wrapping a sheet around me drinking vodka.

MR: [laughs] If you'd like to test that theory, maybe you can do that on the ship.

EG: [laughs] Too many responsibilities.

MR: One last question, if you could be an animal...

EG: A zebra.

MR: A zebra, great. Wait, no, the question is what the heck do you think as far as the genre itself? One last thought about that which we lovingly and maybe temporarily are still calling "smooth jazz."

EG: Smooth jazz.

MR: Yessirie. Like, maybe we should get rid of that "smooth"? Should we start there?

EG: I don't have such a bad feeling about it as some do. I think it's just a name and I think it just kind of points people in a direction. Some people are vehement about it. You'll say, "I'm playing on a Kirk Whalum album," and they'll say, "I love that, but that's not smooth jazz!" I'm going, "Yeah, it is." For some reason, some people think that all the bad music in the genre, that's smooth jazz. Just like any genre, it encompasses great music and bad music. There's some absolutely horrible stuff out there where you put it in your car CD player and you don't want to change the CD, you want to change the car. But there's also absolutely incredible music out there, guys making amazing stuff. I mentioned Kirk Whalum. I think my favorite album of his was his tribute to Donny Hathaway he did a few years ago. The production, everything was just so organic and real. And it was really cut that way, with real musicians and real strings and not a hype sound, just an organic sound. I hear stuff like that and the guy's at the top of his game and then there's other stuff out there that sounds like it was made on a K-Mart drum machine through a Realistic microphone.

MR: Any closing thoughts?

EG: Closing thoughts? I hope you're enjoying the cruise. What do you do for music, Jonnie? What's your thing?

Jonnie Cohen: I just graduated from University of Iowa in jazz guitar and I play in an afro-fusion band in denver.

EG: Do you want to be a player? Do you want to write or have a band?

JC: Yeah, I kind of have my own project but I'm really interested in the studio world. It's really exciting to me.

EG: Yeah, we used to get called for studio dates back in the day. That's gone. I haven't been to an outside studio, even for my own stuff, in so long. You build it at home. If somebody wants a sax or horn section, they'll send me the file and I'll do it at home and send it back to them. That's just the way it's come.

JC: I also want to be more performance-oriented, being backup or touring with artists.

EG: Do whatever you can do. I think that was the thing with me, had I not been the sideman for Huey Lewis and Joe Cocker and Tina Turner, I would not be the artist that I am today. There's no way. I see that with some guys who missed that little piece of their education, where they didn't see somebody at that level do it and you see that they missed that little piece of the thing, it's almost like they're performing in a wedding band, almost. It's a different thing.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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