A Conversation with David Sanborn
Mike Ragogna: David, let's get into Then Again: The David Sanborn Anthology, your new doubledisc anthology. You participated in the track selection?
David Sanborn: Yeah, I actually selected all of the tracks that are on this particular collection. So what I did was I went over all of the CDs that I made at Warner Brothers or Elektra, which is all part of the Warner group over the last twenty years, from '75 until sometime in the mid-nineties. What I tried to do was make this a little bit different from some of the other collections that had been put out because I didn't really have much of a hand in putting together those collections. What I wanted to do on this particular one, when they came to me and asked if I would be interested in doing it, was to try to represent not only the chronology of the records and the music and the evolution from '75 on, but also to kind of give the listener a sense of what I consider to be representative of the particular period from which the songs came. The first song on the CD is a tune called "The Whisperer," which is also the first song on my first CD, so I thought that was kind of fitting. It kind of represented where I was coming from at that point, and kind of what led me to make my own CD, which is some of the people I was playing with at that time who were on that particular tune; Mike and Randy Brecker, and a piano player named Don Grolnick, who also wrote that song. I believe Steve Gadd is on that tune, and Will Lee's playing bass. These were all people that I was playing with, with The Brecker Brothers in New York and in other situations in other cities. I think what this collection represents is that chronology, plus some things that had not been on other CDs--either things that had been alternate takes or, in particular, the second song on this collection, which is a tune called "Benjamin," which is on a CD that is now out-of-print. But I thought it was such a great tune that James Taylor wrote for that particular CD. I thought it was a great representation of not only where I was at musically at the time, but I was also working as a side-man with James Taylor while I was also doing my own thing.
MR: Ah, you fell into my James Taylor trap! My favorite recording in the world is "You Make it Easy" by JT, on which you play an amazing sax solo. I brag about it virtually to everybody, including his son Ben Taylor, and his mother Carly Simon, who revealed that "You Belong to Me" was written in response to "You Make it Easy." I love how all of you have been so interconnected creatively over the years.
DS: Well, that's great. Thanks. As you pointed out, that's kind of what was going on at the time.
MR: David, you've been "the sideman" and I hate that term, because the sidemen add a lot of the front and center "hooks" and meat and potatoes to records. Your saxophone playing, your particular style, including on others' projects, is so identifiable, like you're the featured artist, when you add your part to those records. How do you do that?
DS: Well, that's a hard question for me to answer because, in the first place, it's very flattering that you say that, but in whatever situation it was, I was just responding to whatever was going on around me musically. I was just reacting to that, and however I responded to that is just a reflection of how I saw my role in that particular song and kind of the nature of the way I play. I came out of the blues tradition, and I grew up in St. Louis, so that was a very strong aspect to my playing. When I hear the various things I played on as a sideman, I kind of hear a consistency of my approach to playing music in general, with just some slight adjustment to whatever the time, feel, or stylistic realities of the song are.
MR: What I mentioned earlier about your signature sound? There's L.A. Law, where that sax could have only been David Sanborn. Not every musician can achieve as synergistic a relationship with their signature sound that you and these artists, whose projects you play on, have created.
DS: Thank you. In most of the stuff that I've done over the years as a sideman, I wasn't really a session musician, because to me, a session musician is a guy who makes his living in the studio, and I never really did that. Most of the sessions I played on were with people I was already working with on the road, people like James Taylor, or people related directly to that, like Carly, and Linda Ronstadt and David Bowie and people like that. So it was kind of a natural outgrowth of being in live situations with them. Having the benefit of that added familiarity with their music and kind of how they dealt with their music on a day-to-day basis made going into the studio with them no great stretch for either James adjusting to me or me adjusting to James, because we had already developed a kind of language about how to do that. Fortunately, most of these people I was either on the road with or people who called me just to do whatever it is that I do.
MR: Let's get back to the anthology. It's a double-disk set that finally covers much more territory than previous collections, and it shows the artist from the artist's perspective--in this case, yours.
DS: Well, it's a little bit closer. I could've used one more CD, and then I could've covered some of the other things that I really would have liked to cover. At first I thought, "How am I going to fill two CDs?" and then I thought, "Holy crap, what am I going to have to leave off?"
MR: You have nice, healthy helpings from a few of the albums, and you even include things like your work with Bob James.
DS: Yeah, yeah. There was a lot that had kind of escaped off to the side and people didn't really catch notice of it. I wanted to remind people and myself how really nice some of those tunes were. When I make records, I never listen to stuff after it's done. Ever. So unless it's by accident, some of these things I hadn't really heard since I did them, like the stuff off the first CD. I hadn't really listened to "The Whisperer." I kind of had a memory of it. I remembered it being a good tune, but when I got a chance to go back and actually hear it, I thought, "Wow, that's not bad, that's actually really good."
MR: Nice. By the way, let's remind everyone you've also been a guest member of Paul Shaffer's band on David Letterman's show. You've had an amazing career, David. So what advice do you have for new artists?
DS: Well it depends on in regard to what? In regard to music, or in regard to the business?
MR: Let's take music.
DS: In regard to music, I just think that it's always best to have an attitude of being a perpetual student and always look to learn something new about music, because there's always something new to learn. Don't dismiss something out of hand because you think it's either beneath you or outside of the realm of where your interests lie. I have pretty ecumenical tastes. I'm interested in a lot of different kinds of music, so I don't listen with a jaundiced ear to music because it's in a certain category, whether it's country or opera or hip-hop or bebop or whatever it is. I listen to it without prejudice. I just hear it for what it is and if it moves me, it's irrelevant what genre it comes from. That's just kind of the way I came up as a player and the kind of people I was around when I was growing up. That sensibility really shaped who I am as a player. I believe that it's an important thing to keep in your mind, to always be learning something. Always be inquisitive. Always believe there's something else to learn.
MR: Is that the advice you would give to the young David Sanborn who was part of Paul Butterfield's band?
DS: Absolutely. And make sure you work as much as you can on playing the piano.
MR: It does seem to be the backbone.
DS: Well, absolutely. It's the foundation of how you learn how to write; it gives you the ability to kind of visually see how chords move, and understand voice-leading. As a melody instrument player, it's all about getting from one note to the next, and those intervals and how you navigate your way through these vertical structures of chords. You realize that everything's moving forward and it's all linear.
MR: Is that what you did when you worked on the Lethal Weapon movies?
DS: That was primarily because of a good friend of mind named Michael Kamen, who was the principal composer and arranger on all of the Lethal Weapon movies. He brought Eric Clapton and myself on to contribute thematic stuff. The way that movie was structured musically was like an opera, where Eric played the part of Mel Gibson and I played the part of Danny Glover. So when Danny's character was on, it was me playing. That was the thematic element to it, and I worked on Danny's melodic phrase, as did Eric on Mel Gibson's.
MR: There are players you've recorded with over the years such as Marcus Miller and Steve Gadd, regulars in your musical circle.
DS: Absolutely. With somebody as talented as those guys, it's hard not to go back to them, because they provide you a musical foundation that allows you be free about what you do, because they listen to you, they respond to what you're doing, and they're such strong musical presences that it's a kind of situation that allows you to breathe and to leave space. And whenever you can feel confident enough in the forward motion of the music to leave space, that's when you know you're in a good situation.
MR: Now you've received a few Grammys of your own. Were you surprised when you won them?
DS: I was surprised by all of them. I was very grateful and very flattered to have received them, and I think that it was very comforting to know that I reached enough people in the musical community to warrant them saying, "We'd like to acknowledge you."
MR: Is there one album where you look at it and say, "Wow, I've really created something special here."
DS: There's never one whole album that I completely feel is representative. I think that there are certainly cuts that represent what I was trying to do at that time. In that sense, if I did a song and it came out more or less how I envisioned it, or better, I would've felt pleased, not necessarily that it was the best thing I'd done in retrospect, but it was what I set out to do and it was a close realization of what my intent was.
MR: You have like twenty-nine songs on this collection, fifteen on the first disk and fourteen on the second disk, and you end the project with an interesting song that I relate to, having grown up watching the children's classic, Hans Christian Andersen.
DS: Oh, so you know that movie, too!
MR: Oh, yeah! I heard "Anywhere I Wander," and I thought to myself, "Oh, that...right!"
DS: That one was a sentimental thing for that very reason--I'm sure you understand. When I was a kid, that movie had a big impact on me, and it was the music that really did it. Tunes like "Inch Worm" and "Thumbelina" and "Wonderful Copenhagen" and "Anywhere I Wander." That particular song was so moving to me, because it just had such a bittersweet yet hopeful quality to it. Somehow it really hit me deep, that song.
MR: David, I love how you referred to the song "Wonderful Copenhagen." It was the most touching pieces I remember from that movie.
DS: Yeah, and "Inch Worm" was a great song.
MR: What a beautiful movie, we could talk for an hour on it.
DS: You know who wrote the music for that? Frank Loesser, the guy who did The Most Happy Fella and Guys and Dolls, all that great Broadway music. He was a Broadway songwriter.
MR: Yeah. I'm afraid that Hans Christian Anderson has fallen out of the culture.
DS: Well, yeah, and it was not a big hit when it came out, and I don't think it was Danny Kaye's favorite movie when it came out. I'm so emotionally attached to it that I can't really evaluate it with anything close to objectivity.
MR: Me too. There are certain movies like that for me. I tend to love sci-fi as well, but that's another discussion. I don't want to keep you, because I know that you've got things to do.
DS: That's alright, I'm enjoying this, so we can hang for a while longer.
MR: [laughs] Excellent! Let's go to a big question. What do you think of the state of jazz these days?
DS: I think it's better than people think it is, and the reason is that there are so many great players now. Everybody's searching--people like Robert Glasper, people like Roy Hargrove, that are looking to reach beyond the boundaries of what has traditionally been called "jazz," and that these guys, while being accomplished jazz musicians that can certainly play the repertoire, are also influenced by music outside of that particular culture, like pop music, hip-hop, rap, everything that represents the culture. I think a valid approach to being a musician is to take all of the experience of your life and filter it through your personality and send it back out there and that's what art is. It seems to me that if you're living in America in 2012, it's pretty hard to ignore other kinds of music that are going on, that have currency not only with the public, but also have some musical value and depth. It can't all be crap. If you isolate yourself in some kind of vulcanized vision of what music is and jazz is, this precious thing that if you breathe on it too hard it'll blow away, I think jazz is the final evolving art form and while you need to pay attention to tradition, you really need to pay attention to the other side of the tradition, which is growth and change and evolution.
MR: To that point of your taste being ecumenical, I feel the same way. I guess maybe it's because maybe I grew up in the same era you did, but I feel that's the way it survives. Like you said, jazz can't be ignoring what's going on across the board musically, but it also seems like a natural process. And then I would throw in groups like The Bad Plus and Marco Benevento as examples of all that. There are people out there creating experimental jazz that, in a strange way, the genre hasn't done before. It seems like when jazz experimented earlier on, for the most part, it became fusion or fusion-ish.
DS: Yeah, well, I think that was one period. Bebop grew out of swing music, and when bebop started to be ascendant, people were decrying in all of these publications the death of jazz, that bebop was killing jazz. They said the same thing about swing music in relation to Dixieland. "Swing music is killing jazz, it's gone, it's losing the thread, blah blah blah." Everyone's talking about how jazz is dead. Well, I'm sorry, I don't agree with that. There's room for all of the music. You need to preserve the great music of Duke Ellington and certainly Louis Armstrong, but it can't stop there. It's got to keep growing and changing. Some of that involves, if a musician is so inclined, to incorporate elements from music that other people consider to be outside of the canon of what they consider to be jazz. "That's not jazz because you've got a real backbeat, or a hip-hop vibe or whatever."
MR: I think also people defer to the jazz stereotype, which would be that everybody has to be the descendants of Miles Davis or John Coltrane.
DS: Yeah. There's nothing more boring to me than hearing a tenor player who can play the s**t out of "Giant Steps," but sound like Coltrane. It's like "Yeah, okay, now what?" That's great, but what do you have to say? Who are you? It's about telling a story. You've got to tell a story. If you've got no story to tell or you're telling someone else's story, you're just an impressionist and, okay, great, but how many impressionists do you need?
MR: Exactly. That's the main advice I would say as far as vocalists, too. A lot of the "pleasant" vocalists out there are one thing, but when you have a vocalist who's actually connecting with whatever the lyrics are and communicating whatever's going on in the music as a story, that seems to be the most effective and the most...not authentic, but...
DS: ...well, it's authentic if you're committing as a player, as an artist, as a singer, and you're committing 100% to that moment. It's all about living 100% in the moment, and when music does that with a level of expertise, at a level of technical competence, that's really what it is. And then an interesting story to tell. That's really what this whole thing is all about.
MR: Right, and everybody is, of course, a different kind of storyteller.
DS: Absolutely, and some people are more interesting storytellers than others. Some artists draw you in. You want to inhabit their world with them. You want to get inside those landscapes of Van Gogh. Get inside the situation of people in Rembrandt paintings.
MR: That's why maybe the singer-songwriters are so endearing. You're able to climb into those worlds they've created.
DS: Absolutely. But there are instrumentalists like that. Miles Davis was certainly one of them. Bill Evans is certainly one of them. Cannonball Adderley, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong... They create this world of their own that's welcoming and inclusive.
MR: Absolutely. David, what are you listening to these days?
DS: There's no one particular thing that I'm listening to, I listen to kind of everything. Right now, I'm being very random about what I listen to. I'm very random. I go to my CD collection and just reach in and grab something. The places that I visit the most often are early sixties Miles Davis and that Sonny Rollins period. The late fifties, early sixties Sonny Rollins, that's always a great place for me to go to. James Brown of that same period, the sixties. "Cold Sweat" and songs like that are really always engaging to me.
MR: And also, the levels of improvisation. I think, to this day, you can still feel the "unexpectancy," which is not a word, but you can always feel how the next phrase comes out. It's always so...
DS: Yeah, it makes you laugh. One of the aspects of early rock 'n' roll that I like... People like Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard, you felt this element of danger, like while you were playing, at any moment, you felt there could be gunplay.
MR: [laughs] God, that's the perfect way to say that. "You felt there could be gunplay."
DS: And that edge, that little, "What the hell is going on here?" Elvis, Big Joe Turner, Mama Thornton, all of those people. Ray Charles! There was just really great edge to the music, but yet comfortable at the same time.
MR: And on the other side of that, you have artists like Dave Brubeck, who are more intellectual in their approach.
DS: More cerebral.
MR: Right on, more cerebral, and then you see his musical dynasty that ended up including artists like Donald Fagen.
DS: I think that especially with Paul Desmond, a lot of his brilliance escapes a lot of people, because maybe they were turned off by his sound. Maybe it was too light and airy and they thought it was too non-committal. But if you listened to what he was playing, it was just so inventive and creative and intelligent. That's what I mean. I come from more of a blues-based tradition, but I love Paul Desmond because of that lyricism and that intelligence in his playing. It's very different from the way I came up.
MR: What do you think is the major evolution from the seventies 'til now in David Sanborn?
DS: It's hard for me to really put my finger on. Hopefully, I've gotten a little more concise about what I do, but it's really a hard question for me to answer because it's almost an objective question, and I can't give you anything but a subjective answer. I can't step outside myself to really say what that is. I can say what that is internally, but I can't really give it much meaning. It has to do with expression and phrasing and just kind of trying to space things a little bit differently and play with a little more confidence.
MR: What I was going to say was that my observation would be that it's "phatter," and also more assertive.
DS: You mean now as opposed to then?
DS: Well, possibly. I guess that's possible. I would characterize it more as just confidence, rather than assertiveness, but I guess if assertiveness is confidence, then yeah, I would tend to agree with you. I think that because I've played so much for so long, I'm more comfortable just kind of letting go and responding to the situation. I have enough experience of being able to hear things and where things are going that in those few seconds or a minute before I play, I tend not to think, "Okay, how am I going to enter into this?" I don't spend any time like that, because I have no idea what's going to happen at that moment that I enter. The less I think about that, the better.
MR: Then it's a form of improv, every time you're going in and doing this.
DS: Absolutely. Every moment is, if you're doing it right.
MR: So are you working on any new David Sanborn projects?
DS: Well, I just finished putting together the CD collection and I'm kind of in between things. I hesitate talking about what I'm planning because I don't want to jinx it, but I've got a couple of things I think are really kind of exciting that I'm going to be doing next year. As far as this year I'm doing a couple of different things. I'm continuing playing some shows with my group. We're going to be in the States in October and November, and then we're going to be going to Southeast Asia and Japan in the end of November and in December, and then back at The Blue Note in New York in early December. I'm also doing a TV special with Don Was, who's putting a bunch of artists together to play this concert for the Dalai Lama. I think it's going to be a TV special. We're going to do that in October, and I'm playing a tribute concert for James Moody in October in New Jersey. Things like that, things that are interesting to me. I'm trying to do more things that are like, "Wow that sounds like a fun thing to do," and picking and choosing. I've always been a little picky about stuff, but I think even more than I used to be.
MR: Well, over the years, every time you listen to a David Sanborn record, no matter which one it is, or David Sanborn playing on others' projects, a theme song to a television show or whatever, it always brings a smile. You're that player.
DS: I'm glad to hear that. That certainly is the intention or the hope.
MR: Anyway, please, if you would, continue to be thoroughly awesome?
DS: Well, thank you very much, and I really appreciate your compliments. It's very flattering.
MR: David, again, this has been a pleasure. All the best, and good luck.
DS: Thank you.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Lee Ritenour
Mike Ragogna: Lee!
Lee Ritenour: Hey, how you doing, Mike?
MR: Pretty good, how are you?
LR: Just fine. Just fine. I'm excited about the new project that's out there for all of my fans.
MR: I know, and look at the talent you wrangled for Rhythm Sessions. Considering the material, as far as the compositions and writers, your playing and also the guests and arrangements, this is a pretty ambitious project.
LR: Yeah, I think I'm close to forty-five albums now and it seems like I used almost all my experience from all the previous years to put together these projects. Not necessarily that they start out that way, but with my producing experience and arranging and guitar playing, it gets me excited to put together something fresh that challenges myself and challenges my listeners. So, in the case of Rhythm Sessions, the new record, I wanted to really explore all the different ways that the piano, bass and drums are used in today's modern world, especially in the jazz-oriented world. With that in mind, I covered some straight ahead jazz, I covered some ballads, I covered more funk, more progressive...I really go quite a few different places with my guitar being the center of it and using the piano, bass and drums as almost the colors for exploring all of this stuff. In the process, I invited so many fantastic, almost legendary-type guys on the project.
MR: Yeah, for instance, on "The Village," there's you on guitar, of course, but there's also George Duke on Fender Rhodes and synthesizer and Stanley Clarke on the bass. There's Chick Corea's "Children's Song #1," with Chick Corea guesting, and you've got Peter Erskine on drums. By the way, nice spin on the phrase "rhythm section" with your album title, Rhythm Session.
LR: Yes, exactly. Challenging myself in the studio and hanging and playing with all great players and younger ones as well, but especially the established ones, the level of the music just goes up. Ninety percent or maybe ninety-five percent of the album was recorded live in the studio together, so it was great in that sense.
MR: How do you feel about recording with musicians vibing together in the same room versus overdub, overdub, overdub?
LR: Well there's nothing like it, especially when it comes to interacting and recording, playing with other players, and especially great players. The interaction can never be programmed by using loops and machines. Trust me, I'm a total techno geek and I have been there and even on this album if you'll notice the colors, I used acoustic rhythm sections almost throughout the entire album, and almost everything you hear is recorded playing together and playing off of one another. But then I also do put a modern, fresh approach, there's a lot of ambient, electronic sweetening done on the project after the fact. We didn't use synthesizers to pretend we were a horn section or any of that garbage, but we used different kinds of colors to enrich the experience, always keeping my guitar and the rhythm section in mind. But I think you're right in the sense that a lot of players, and actually even some younger players, who have rock bands, singer-songwriter type groups, soloists, and certainly jazz people already went through the phase of using machines and loops and have opted to go back to the beauty of people interacting. You can only take Pro Tools and Logic Audio and all these programming things so far. I work with some of the top programmers in the world and they can do amazing things with a single laptop computer, but you can never program what happens between four or five people in a room playing off of one another with that spontaneity.
MR: Wonderfully said. Lee, let's have a little history lesson for everybody. So your new album is for Captain Fingers Productions and I think maybe that's how we get into your history. Captain Fingers, of course, a nickname from The Mamas And The Papas days, right?
LR: Well, I started very young as a studio player and I was lucky enough to get some sessions when I was very young, one of them being with The Mamas And The Papas when I was about sixteen, and then later, I got to work with Peggy Lee and Lena Horne and Tony Bennett--I was about eighteen then--and then Sérgio Mendes, and from there on, I really started a studio career that was pretty flourishing by the time I was twenty-one. I was very lucky living in Los Angeles and having a lot of training and getting started. Sometimes, when I used to do live gigs, it was like any youngster with a lot of technique; you tend to show it off, so some fans started calling me "Captain Fingers" and that's how that stuck.
MR: What actually is The Mamas And The Papas story?
LR: That's a funny story. I was in kind of a crossover rock band at the time, trying to crossover jazz and rock and--this is really dating myself--but I was just a kid and it was the late sixties, and John Phillips from The Mamas And The Papas had agreed somehow to produce a demo or two on this group. So we went up to his studio in Bel Air, and it's his house. In his mansion he had this incredible full-run professional recording studio. That was seriously impressive for me as a teenager to see that. The demos with the group never went anywhere, but he asked me to stay and do a session with him and a couple of other studio musicians who ended up being Lee Sklar on bass and Ed Greene on drums, who both went on to have amazing studio careers. I looked for that track for years and years to see if it came out and later, I heard that John used to just record constantly. Maybe years later, it came out, but it wasn't one of the big hits or anything, but it was exciting for me to be on a session that young with that famous of a band.
MR: Yeah, it's sweet to have been part of LA's musical scene.
LR: Oh yeah, that was a great time in LA. A lot of fantastic music was being made.
MR: I want to throw out there what most already know, that you were influenced by folks like Wes Montgomery, John McLaughlin and Kenny Burrell. When you look at Lee Ritenour now and the way he's playing and maybe how you started out, what have the major turns or growth spurts been to get you to Lee Ritenour now from where you've started?
LR: It's interesting that you ask that, because in 2010, I did an album called 6-String Theory, which was all about the guitar and that almost evolved into a little bit of the same approach that I took on the latest record, Rhythm Sessions. In 2010, I did this guitar album where I paid homage to the guitar, and I covered six styles of guitar playing--jazz, rock, blues, acoustic, country and classical, and I'm going to answer your question in a second about the evolution thing. But I invited so many legendary players on that record to celebrate the guitar--B.B. King, George Benson, John Scofield, Slash, Steve Lukather, Joe Bonamassa, Robert Cray, Keb' Mo', Taj Mahal, on and on and on. In doing that record, I brought together, really, all of my experiences as a guitar player. When I was a kid, I loved anybody that could play the guitar great, so I was checking out Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burell, Joe Pass, Barney Kessel, all these guys. But then, this guy named Jimi Hendrix comes along and Eric Clapton comes along and Jeff Beck comes along, and at the same time, in Spain, the most famous of guitar players, who the normal fans don't know, Segovia, was just turning the classical world upside down with the guitar. I ended up studying serious classical guitar with a great classical guitarist, Christopher Parkening. I was also checking out Chet Atkins, I was checking out B.B. King. If you could play, I was listening to it. So, forty years later, I'm still using all those varieties of styles and all those things I dived into that sort of define who Lee Ritenour is, which is sometimes, I'm the chameleon of all chameleons. I think that sort of has to do with my studio background. There's definitely a Lee Ritenour style, and people who are my fans know what that is, but it's kept me fresh and kept me young and kept me moving through a long, long career because I had the education and I had the variety and I had the love of music in general. I didn't just stick with one thing.
MR: You just said that you took music lessons from Christopher Parkening?
LR: Yes. Yes, I studied with him and then went to USC and studied with Parkening there and ended up teaching at USC as well after I left the school.
MR: Lee, the group Fourplay is no stranger to you, you being an original member. How did Fourplay come together?
LR: Bob has probably told the story many times, but Harvey Mason, the drummer, worked a lot with Bob on a lot of recordings, and I think I probably met Bob through Harvey back in the earlier days, and I worked a little bit with Bob, and he worked a little bit with me, but he was back on the East Coast and I was on the West Coast, so we didn't work together that much. Finally, Bob was doing his album called Grand Piano Canyon, and he invited me and Harvey, and Bob was wanting to come out to LA to record. He said, "Who should we call on bass?" and Harvey and I recommended Nathan East. So the four of us got together for Bob's recording and it was just magic from the moment it happened. Bob, who had a very high position at Warner Brothers Jazz, said, "Hey I have the opportunity to do something if I want to bring a project to the label. Why don't we do one group album?" This is a sort of reminder to everyone who starts a band in the way music should be made. It was a confluence of things that happened where I was in between my contract over at GRP Records and Harvey and Nathan were free. Bob had his deal at Warner's and so the deal came together very quickly, and we made the record from the most innocent and positive perspective you can. We all agreed, "Let's write a bunch of songs. We'll get back together in Los Angeles in a couple of months and rehearse and everybody bring as many tunes as they can and we'll all pick the tunes that we thing work the best." We got together with Nathan in his house in the living room one day, and I had done probably the most homework. I think I wrote seven songs and quite a bit of my tunes ended up on the first record and Bob wrote a lot and Nathan was always traveling so he wrote a little less and Harvey wrote quite a bit. We ended up with this great combination of songs, and the first album is history and it was platinum and I believe the second album was gold almost platinum, and the third album did very well as well. I wasn't able to stay because it got very complicated with the labels, unfortunately, and the politics of the music business kind of interfered later. But the beginnings of that band probably still resonate for Fourplay today.
MR: Lee, you have a The Pink Floyd connection with the album The Wall, specifically, the song "Run Like Hell." And you're also an uncredited rhythm guitarist on "One Of My Turns." Will you go into that story ?
LR: Yeah, that was in my studio days. Because of the variety of my playing we were speaking about earlier, I'd get called for Motown R&B sessions, I'd get called for film days because I was a good reader, I'd get a call for the occasional rock 'n' roll dates as well as the jazz dates, so all of a sudden, I got a call from this very famous producer, Bob Ezrin, and I'd worked with him a little bit before and he said, "Lee, we're doing a Pink Floyd album and we need a little help," so I said, "Cool." I went down there and I brought my big trunk of guitars and pedal boards thinking I was going to impress these guys, and David Gilmour at the studio had about fifty vintage guitars all lined up in stands all around the studio and every amplifier you can imagine, so I was the one that was impressed. But they were very sweet. They used a few studio people on that record, some background singers, I believe, and a second guitar, and on the original vinyl that came out for The Wall, I don't think any of us were credited and I understood that at the time because they wanted to keep it like a band thing. I think later on as CDs evolved, they redid the credits and all the complete credits came out. I remember them playing back David's solo on "Another Brick In The Wall" and they said, "What do you think of that ending?" and they asked my opinion about the ending and even had me try a couple licks to see what my thoughts would be about an alternative ending, knowing that they weren't going to use my part but to kind of get my thoughts. Later, when that solo came out on the vinyl version, I felt like there was hint of maybe a couple of my licks in there.
MR: I love that story. I also love the track "Run Like Hell" and I'm always frustrated that every time they put out one of these compilations of Pink Floyd, they leave it off, despite it being a roc radio classic. That got so much airplay in the old days, and you still hear it on Classic Rock stations.
LR: That's right. That is a great band and man, they did not mind paying a lot of attention to detail. They would spend two or three years making an album. It was amazing.
MR: Let's talk about another track from Rhythm Sessions.
LR: "River Man" with Kurt Elling on vocals, it's the second track on the record.
MR: I love the spot in the song where he's singing a note that is not in the key and because he's so subtle yet powerful with his delivery, he emphasizes it with such class and it works so well.
LR: Yeah, he's an amazing talent. This song has an interesting history as well. It's written by the English writer Nick Drake. Most people in the US still don't know Nick Drake that much. He was around just for a very short period in the late sixties and early seventies. He was a singer-songwriter, he had three albums out, he died when he was twenty-six, some people say of suicide or an accidental overdose, nobody's quite sure. There's only one photo of this guy. He's a very mysterious guy. He would disappear for weeks or months on end, but his records were just so amazing, and they sound so fresh even today. Some very sharp music supervisors started putting his music into movies a few years ago and a couple of other jazz artists have picked up on his tunes. I ended up getting exposed to his music a few years ago as well. I thought "River Man" could take another vocal treatment, but Nick Drake was so strong on his vocals and they still sound so current. I thought, "Who could sing this song and really get a fresh approach?" I immediately thought of Kurt Elling. I showed the tune to Kurt and he loved it and was up for it. Speaking of rhythm sessions, we did this track with Dave Grusin on Fender Rhodes, Nathan East on bass and Will Kennedy from The Yellowjackets on drums, and myself on acoustic and electric guitar. The thing is that Kurt couldn't be there when we did this recording, so listen to this great melody and vocal performance and check out the way Dave Grusin, on Fender Rhodes, surrounds Kurt Elling's vocals. He's doing that with not having Kurt there when he played it. It's a really nice track and Kurt did a fantastic job on it.
MR: Just to remind everyone, you are a Grammy winner for the album Harlequin, and you've been nominated a jillion times. Nineteen times more, so you're a regular at the Grammys?
LR: Yeah, pretty much!
MR: Lee, what advice do you have for new artists?
LR: Well, it's very challenging for new artists today. There's a lot more talent out there, there's a lot more people trying to do it, there's a lot more people coming out of the schools, vocalists and instrumentalists, all different aspects of music. There's less work because the internet has kind of swallowed the business to a degree, like so many other things. On the flipside of that, people, I think, are listening to music more than ever, so it goes with us constantly. It's in every establishment that we go in; music is such a huge fabric of our lives. If we didn't have music in our lives, really, this planet would be in sad shape. It's like the air we breathe, it's so important. I think the musicians that are serious about making music out there today have an incredible talent. With all that being said, I think you have to be very proactive of making your own voice heard, so to speak. The business has been deconstructed and reconstructed and it's not the same business as when I was growing up. You have the opportunity, if you have a vision of who you are and if you're honest and evaluate yourself and listen to other people that are close to you evaluating you of who you are and what your strengths are, then you can almost design your career to go down that path. The music business is so wide open now that if you're really sharp about promoting yourself and being sharp about the business and, of course, most important, being able to deliver the music and try to create an original style. All of those things can combine and you can make it in today's world. It's not easy, it's not for the weak of heart. You have to have leather skin. You're going to get a thousand rejections before you get one good one. It's not easy. I always say, "The music calls us, we don't call the music." If you're meant to be in the music world or be a musician or an artist or a singer or performer, usually, there's a reason for that. It's bringing you to this journey. So persistence and the other thing that I emphasize is that there is no insurance policy for musicians. The only insurance policy--I stole this bit of advice--is music education. The more education you have musically in every aspect, whatever your thing is, in every aspect, there's no kind of music education that doesn't affect you. Let's say you're a heavy metal guitarist and you study classical guitar, that can help you. If you're a conductor but you study jazz history, that can help you. It doesn't matter what it is. Music education can always make you better.
MR: Lee, what's you're guitar these days?
LR: Well, there are several. As far as the electrics, I'm a Gibson guy, I have been for a long time. They have two of my models at Gibson--the Custom L-5, my jazz guitar, and then my 335. There's a special edition down at Gibson that was based on my 1960 335. These days, I also play a Gibson Les Paul. So these are the three electrics, and my acoustics are usually Yamaha classical and steel string. There's a nice cut called "L.A. By Bike" that uses a new steel string acoustic on it, made by Yamaha, called The A-Series, that has these sampled microphones--talk about old technology and new technology--and the sound is really pretty cool.
MR: There'll be touring, right?
LR: A lot of touring, yeah. We're going to be going to New York coming up shortly. I'll be in Mexico, I'll be in Japan, I'll be in Southeast Asia, I'll be up and down the West Coast in late November, early December, so a lot of things are coming up.
MR: Thank you so much and let's do this again whenever you have something.
LR: Thank you very much, Mike, I appreciate it.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
A Conversation with Kurt Elling
Mike Ragogna: Mister Kurt Elling, thank you for this interview for Huffington Post and those who'll be listening at Solar-Powered KRUU-FM.
Kurt Elling: Everything is groovy when it's solar-powered, man!
MR: [laughs] That's almost like a station ID, thank you.
KE: You've got it.
MR: Okay, let's look at this list of songs from your new album, 1619 Broadway - The Brill Building Project. You start off with "On Broadway," written by got Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. It's one of the most famous hits of all time, and when you think of The Brill Building and all the talent at that address, God. Kurt, you expanded the concept of The Brill Building to the generations of writers that have come out of there, not just staying with the most sixties-ish hits and writers.
KE: Well, I didn't want to be didactic. I did and do want to celebrate classic Brill-era compositions. You mentioned a number of the songwriting teams there in your intro, but that era also means people like Burt Bacharach and Hal David, it means Neil Diamond, it means Gerry Goffin and Carole King, it means Doc Pomus, but I didn't want to be didactic in my treatment. I did want to, as you rightly note, lift up the larger history of The Brill. The Brill Building's been in existence since the early 1930s, and composers and songwriters have been working out of that building, publishers, people making demos... A lot of great performers had offices in there. They've been operating since the 1930s, and even to this day, the place is chock-a-block with media types and with studios that produce rap artists; Paul Simon still has his offices. So I really did want to cast as broad a net as I could, not only as a quasi-historical examination, but also because it allowed me to be led a little bit more by my own creative intuition and less by some kind of school report technique.
MR: When you look at this list of people who have come out of The Brill Building it's overwhelming. You also want to throw out names that don't necessarily fit into The Brill Building lexicon, like Duke Ellington and Jimmy Hamilton, Al Dubin and Harry Warren.
KE: Exactly! Johnny Mercer had his offices in there, and not only that, but Nat Cole had his management offices in The Brill Building for quite some time, and there was actually a jazz club there for about four and a half years. It's a music building. For me, as a jazz artist, jazz is, in part, defined by its ability to take into itself and transform any other kind of music that it desires, that it finds interesting, and make it into jazz material. That's a habit that's as old as jazz itself, people taking "How High The Moon" and writing their own Bird-inspired licks over it. That's as old as jazz itself. So, for me, it's just another step in the process and I hope and believe that I've been true to the integrity of my musical vision and that I've brought something lovely into the world.
MR: Kurt, you cover "Come Fly With Me," a Sammy Cahn and James Van Heusen song.
KE: It turns out Jimmy Van Heusen was a song-plugger when he was serving his apprenticeship in The Brill building for almost twenty years before he moved out to Lost Angeles. There are all kinds of connections and webs of connections.
MR: What are some reflections as far as The Brill Building?
KE: I think it's easy to romanticize a building full of musically inspired professionals and professional wannabes who exist to write hit songs and great music if at all possible. A lot of these people had really tiny paper-thin walls in really tiny offices with just enough room for a Spinnet piano and a little writing desk, and they could hear each other working it out. They could steal from each other, learn from each other, be awestruck by one another, and support one another and educate one another and then go out drinking afterwards and celebrate all of their mutual successes. If anything, it reminds me a little bit of the kind of conservatory or music school atmosphere that you'll find young people have these days where they hear each other in practice rooms and be gobsmacked by one another's talents and just try to keep up. At the end of the day, they come out of forming bands together and touring together and impressing and gobsmacking each other all the way to some kind of career in music.
MR: So what got you into singing?
KE: I was singing from an early age. My father was a church musician and he was leading the choirs and I was in the choirs even before I recognized that I was in a choir. I was just having a beautiful experience singing music. Whenever I would try to pick up an instrument, I really couldn't get that much of a sound out of it and I could always get a sound out of my voice. Most of my friends were in choirs and doing straight music. With my voice, it developed over quite a long period time, and then I got hooked on jazz and it was just a very natural fit. Obviously, there were twists and turns and I didn't really think of myself as a professional jazz musician, even in possibility, until that possibility was really upon me and I was already doing the job. But I'm happy that it's worked out the way that it has, and sometimes, I feel that it plays to a kind of peculiar set of circumstances, skills and talents that I've been able to develop over the years and some intuitive gifts that have been given to me. I know that I would want to be juxtaposing creatively pieces of poetry and works of literature and things that I read in the paper with some form of music in any event. It just happens that jazz is so ultimately flexible and that the life of a jazz singer specifically affords so many different creative outlets and ways of communicating with an audience. One can read a poem over music, one can improvise some form of a lyric with music, one can improvise some form of a lyric with music, one can improvise a melodic line, one can write a vocalese lyric over somebody else's great horn solo and learn to sing that and present that to people. One can sing a beautiful ballad if one has the technique and the skill. For me, I'm always trying to challenge myself and I get bored very easily and so there's always another kind of an outlet that I can throw at an audience, not to mention the magnificent talents and skills of the musicians who I'm fortunate to have surrounding me on a given night.
MR: Let's namecheck the musicians on this album.
KE: The musicians on this album tend to be cats that I've been playing with for some time. Laurence Hobgood, my great and esteemed collaborative colleague, is playing piano and B-3 and Rhodes piano and he and I got the lion's share of the arrangements together once I had picked out the compositions I was going to do. It's great to have his talents involved in the mix yet again. We're a great team together, I think, creatively. We're great friends and I'm very fortunate to have somebody of his caliber on my team. John McLean is the great guitarist that you hear on the opening cut and his sound is very unheralded in the world. He's mostly spent time in the Chicago area. He was with Patricia Barber for several years, but I'm very, very happy and fortunate to have him on the team with me now, giving his sounds to another signature occasion. The newest member of our team on this record is Kendrick Scott who's playing drums with us, and he really invented any number of grooves and situations for this recording that really are helping to give it its distinctive sound. He's just rocking it so hard that it really suits the concept.
MR: Yeah, and I have to tell you, I'm impressed that the album was recorded like instantly in May. "May 3rd through 5th," it reads.
KE: [laughs] I had to! There was a deadline with a bunch of touring dates coming up.
MR: I only bring that up because that's a hard thing to do.
KE: We didn't have a whole lot of time, and we had to get a whole lot of music made. Again, it's really thanks, in large measure, to the musicians that were on the record. We had just a handful of rehearsals together, and we just went straight into the studio and knocked the stuff out.
MR: Yeah. You did eleven songs on this project, but I know there are a couple of songs that are in the can, right?
KE: We've always got a couple of more things that are out there, and it's my privilege to be able to have a couple more than we need so I can choose the best possible cuts that are going to go out on any given recording.
MR: And, of course, that makes for a great rarities package someday.
KE: Uh, or Brill Take Two.
MR: Brill Take Two, which I would love, actually. In my head I've romanticized The Brill Building my whole life. When I was working with a young musical act, I took a series of pictures of the building to inspire him with its musical history and significance. Granted, I'm not old enough to have experienced it at the time, but to me, The Brill Building represents the beginnings and the essence of pop music's getting supersized.
KE: Yeah, well that's true! It was really the first time in history that a youth market developed, a youth market with spending capital of its own and a certain level of independence that really no other generation had had before, coupled with the ease of the technology--everybody getting their own little transistor radios and radios in cars and then having cars in which to listen to music and drive around. I mean, the whole culture was changing that way, and I'll say this. There was an interesting juxtaposition that came about that I was not aware of that Neil Tesser pointed out to me when he was writing the liner notes for this record, and he came upon the fact that "Come Fly With Me" was written the same year as "Heartbreak Hotel." Talk about the culture changing even as the music is being written and the music being written for a culture that's changing. I think that's really indicative of the kind of thing that we're talking about.
MR: In a lot of ways, I wish I was older and had really lived it personally, been part of The Brill Building experience myself. Hey Kurt, as far as your baritone voice, it's said to be four octaves. Is that true, sir?
KE: Yeah, more or less. Four and change.
MR: Four...and change. Nice.
KE: You know, I've been working on this for a while, and I'm extremely fortunate to have been given a voice that's flexible and that does, by and large, what I ask it to do, and I really think it's a thrill to have a lifetime in music and to be able to sing.
MR: Do you mentor or give voice lessons?
KE: Well, I do give individual lessons. I don't really have time for mentoring as such because I'm doing about two hundred nights a year on the road and that makes it pretty hard. When I come home, I pretty much need to be with my family and kind of sleep it off a little bit.
MR: Okay, you don't have time to mentor, but maybe perhaps you could give a little advice for new artists?
KE: Well, really, the only advice is for up-and-coming artists to give everything that they can to the music, to love it with their actions as much as they do with their mouth, and by that, I mean really get in there and wrestle with it and study it and really learn the history and really develop your own sound by being self-disciplined. Ultimately, one needs to at least try to be smarter and more disciplined and more dedicated and work longer hours and sacrifice more than whoever it is you're up against for the job.
MR: Let's talk about your growth between your last album, The Gate, and this project. Did you notice anything?
KE: Oh man, I just did a whole bunch of dates on the road and gave it all I could. I'm not sure that we would have been ready to do this project without Don Was, without having worked with Don on The Gate. We wouldn't have been ready to make this record without him had we not made one with him. That's the best way to say it. He really did give us a lot of courage and support that really lingers in my mind. The support that he gave me in the face of any concerns that anybody else might have had is something that I'm going to try to really value and maintain in my own mind, regardless of the specifics of the project that I'm working on.
MR: Kurt, I will continue to romanticize what that building represents probably for the rest of my life, and thank you for this new project that expands the concept. Oh, and Brill Take Two? Bring it!
KE: Great. That's very nice to hear and I'm glad that you're enthusiastic about what we did.
MR: I wish you all the best, and thank you so much for giving us your time, Kurt.
KE: That's great. I appreciate it. Thanks so much.
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
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