THE BLOG
10/24/2014 12:00 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Chats with Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey, Dave Koz, Eric Johnson and Kiki Ebsen, Plus a Katherine Jenkins' Exclusive

KATHERINE JENKINS' "ODE TO JOY"

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According to Katherine Jenkins...

Recording Ode to Joy was so much fun -- it's one of those classical melodies that everyone knows and loves. To have David Garret lend his beautiful talents on the violin make the track even sound even more triumphant and special to me as we have known each other some 10 years. It's the quintessential classical crossover song & I'm really excited to hear feedback from my much beloved fans.

Home Sweet Home Available 1/27/2015

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A Conversation with Earth, Wind & Fire's Philip Bailey

Mike Ragogna: Philip, let's talk about Holiday. It's a mix of secular, sacred and spiritual, with "A Song To Mother Earth" pretty much representing the Earth, Wind & Fire credo. So what inspired the choices for songs?

Philip Bailey: We actually did a survey, which most artists do, because you only have the one chance to put your songs before people, so you want to make sure you get the songs that are most likely to be played. We just did a survey of the most popular holiday songs and then we thought about flipping a couple of Earth, Wind & Fire songs like "Happy Feeling" into "Happy Seasons" and "September" into "December."

MR: Everyone has their own favorite Christmas song that they haven't gotten too burnt out on, do you have any of those?

PB: I think that the Donny Hathaway Christmas song that he does so well, "Hang all the mistletoe..." I started wanting to do that but then I got intimidated because I was like, "Man, I've heard that song so much in my life, if you don't kill that song..." That's my favorite song, but we didn't actually do that.

MR: What's interesting is that the sixteenth-note emphasis in the horn arrangements plays nicely pumps up the spirit of Christmas.

PB: Yeah, because you've got that [hums] real staccato [humming intensifies] that's a very happy movement. A lot of our arrangements have those sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes, so it
kind of fit right in.

MR: I'm surprised Earth, Wind & Fire never released a Christmas album until now.

PB: Right, exactly! It was about time. Sony came to us after we did the Now, Then & Forever CD with the idea of having a holiday record. I was quite surprised that they would be interested in doing it so soon after the last project but we jumped into the studio around April and we did it in between touring and got it done.

MR: I want to go back to how it's a natural fit--Earth, Wind & Fire and a holiday like Christmas--since you guys do have a natural spiritual path. Look at some of those albums. It's not that you're beating people up with spirituality, but you do explore it.

PB: Yeah, you know, that's just our aura. That's just how we move and breathe and live. You can celebrate it, join it or whatever but that's just who we are and how our music comes out.

MR: How do you guys create music these days?

PB: We still do it pretty similarly to the way we did it in the past. We get everybody in the studio and we might work on ideas before coming in with templates of what we want to do. If there's a whole song or songs that we have that we really know we want to record, then we might rehearse or teach them to the band or whatever but then we get into the studio and record the songs.

MR: Is there anything that's changed since you guys were kids recording and performing together?

PB: Well, the one thing is nowadays because of Pro Tools and the internet, when you're starting on an idea, you can really continue on that path until the whole idea is developed and completed, as opposed to before when those were separate processes. There might be a writing session but you weren't necessarily going to be able to use anything that you were doing in the writing section. Now, with technology, the very seed of the idea might be part of the final project.

MR: What do you think of Earth, Wind & Fire's cultural contribution? Everyone loves the group and even Homer Simpson sang one of your hits!

PB: [laughs] I think when we first started, we couldn't have ever envisioned this. We were just making music and the music that we loved, just trying to make the best music we could, as we are today. We're just trying to continue along the path of making music to the best of our ability. Fortunately we were able to make music that people like and have liked for forty-three years.

MR: What do you think it is about Earth, Wind & Fire's music that resonates?

PB: I think it's very catchy, very uplifting and very celebratory music but it also represents many different genres of music. We're a band that struck on a really fantastic formula. We were able to carry it through. People were able to grow up with it for forty-three years so now, it's become part of the musical soundtrack of their lives.

MR: Groups often try to mimic your horn section. I think you've made a solid contribution to jazz and R&B in that area. And even some of the guitar sounds and grooves you guys came up with are also copped.

PB: Yeah, and who would've thunk it, as we say. We just love what we were doing, we still do, we're very, very fortunate to have been able to make a living making music and doing something that we love to do. We're still very sought-after internationally and we're having more fun now than we did back in the past because we've realized how hard it is to do what we're doing.

MR: What advice do you have for new aritsts?

PB: I don't think very hard when people ask me that. I just come up with the first thing I think, which is don't buy into the hype. Just keep it real...just keep it real. Buying into the hype can get you into a lot of trouble, believing your own press. One way or the other, keep it real. Know what's good, what's bad and what's different.

MR: Is this something you would've told yourself way back when you started?

PB: Well, it's something I did tell myself. I don't necessarily have to tell myself that now because I'm solid with it. I keep it in perspective. You can't get really caught up in the hype and lose your way.

MR: Do you guys have a couple of favorites to this day, songs you can't wait to play live?

PB: Oh yeah, we always say they're kind of like our kids. There are a lot of songs that I associate with how I felt recording them in the studio. Songs like, "And Love Goes On." There's so much music that it's hard to just pinpoint, "This song is my favorite."

MR: What is the future for Earth, Wind & Fire?

PB: We're always on the road somewhere in this world. We're continuing to tour. Next year, I'm thinking about maybe doing a holiday run of special cities, maybe no more than six...do something special with charities and toy giveaways and that sort of thing. It's something we could possibly do annually.

MR: Beautiful. And I'm assuming there'll be an "Easy Lover, Part Two" with Phil Collins.

PB: [laughs] You've got to talk to Phil about that.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Dave Koz

Mike Ragogna: So, another Dave Koz And Friends has arrived. I'm pretty sure now you're friends with everyone on the planet at this point.

Dave Koz: [laughs] That's very kind of you to say. I seriously doubt that however. Of course, you're talking about the new holiday album, and yeah, sometimes I look at the list of people who actually came forward and it shocks me. I'm like, "How did that happen?" It also happened in a very, very short time period.

MR: How long did it take to record The 25th of December, you know, with your cast of thousands?

DK: [laughs] We recorded that album in like five weeks during the summer, it was like a blur. I can't believe we did that and all those people came forward during that time. But sometimes projects go the other way, by the way, where things are just not flowing and everything takes time and everything's a struggle to get anything happening. This was just not that way. From the minute it started, boom. Everything just flowed very easily. I credit a lot of that to Rickey Minor who's the producer of that, who's just so effortless in his ability to work with people. He's like this little hub of activity. He's like the hive and there are always bees around him, willing to do anything to make it happen. It was such a pleasure to work with him. The proof is in the pudding, I'm so proud of that album.

MR: And it sounds like everybody had a great time. You've done this before, but this time out, it really feels like the party was at Dave's house.

DK: Well that's it! You couldn't say anything better to me about this album because that was our intention. Imagine for a moment that you're having a holiday party and you've invited everybody in, had this wonderful dinner and some nice wine and everybody's got this feeling and it's nice and cozy and warm and then after dinner and dessert we take our glasses of wine into the music room or the living room, there's a nice piano there, I start it all off with a song and it just so happens that our dinner guests are also fantastically talented people and one at a time they all come up and do a song and I help them out with their song and at the end right before we say goodnight we do one song together. That's the way this album is.

All these people came and did their songs and then the last song--I got the idea from Jeff Lorber of all people. He had done this arrangement, this very slowed down version of "All You Need Is Love," The Beatles classic, where you really hear and feel the intent of it. It just hit me like, "Wow, wouldn't this be great as the last song on a Christmas album? It's never been heard in that way before." That's what we did. I invited all of the guests who sang songs earlier to be a part of it, "We Are The World" style and next thing you know we had just about everybody on that last song and the pièce de résistance, it all leads up to Stevie Wonder. Having him, who is to me, truly, the embodiment of love on this planet at this time, having him be the payoff for all of those singers leading up to Stevie Wonder taking the vocals and playing harmonica, I don't even know how it happened, I just say thank you.

MR: We were talking about being around the piano at the Christmas party. It seems you really care about them on a personal and creative level as well?

DK: I do! I don't think that's something you can manufacture. People are smart enough to know when it's a commercial venture as opposed to something that's authentic. Every one of those people who are on this particular album and who come on the cruises and who I tour with regularly are my friends! And these are people that I love to collaborate with. I think you'll find that most musicians and artists come from this place of open hearts and open ears and open arms just by nature of the fact that they're musicians, and music is the dominant force that's informing their lives. This is something I've said a lot of times: I think that our world leaders should be required to take up an instrument if they don't play one, because you can't play an instrument without being a good listener. You have to be able to listen. I think that musicians tend to be great communicators, but they also have to be great listeners, and that makes you an even better communicator. When you have that open channel where there's a free exchange of ideas, whether they're musical or otherwise, I've had some of the most amazing conversations with musician friends and artist friends that have taken wonderful turns. And that's what I love to do now especially in my life. I've made a lot of records, so if I'm going to do something again, if I'm going to go into the studio again I want to be able to say something different. If left to my own devices, if I was working on my own I'd probably make the same record over and over and over. Since I'm collaborating with other artists it allows me to have my ideas stretched and prodded and I get a chance to grow as an artist and perhaps something that I'm saying has a different texture or a different point of view because I've been influenced by somebody who I respect. That's what happens on this record.

MR: Your last album, Summer Horns, merged a lot of talent. These "...and Friends" projects kind of prove that you understand where artists are coming from as you allow for them to shine as well.

DK: I think it's in my DNA, definitely. Born collaborator. I love working with other artists. Initially, when I had that idea for Summer Horns it was like, "Okay, let's do a Summer Horns project, these are the Summer Horns and maybe next year, we'll do something else." But I knew immediately when we started making that record that these were the Summer Horns. You can't just start replacing people, that's who Summer Horns is. It was so immediate that Mindi and Gerald and Richard and I kept on becoming more and more solidified. In fact, we just had our last gig on the books after two summers. That was it. I don't know if we'll ever do it again. I hope that we will, but we don't have any concrete plans right now. That's kind of the end of an era. Bittersweet. I think that the record was really strong and I think that the shows we did were amongst the most fun I've ever had on stage period, but that little X factor, that missing link you don't always see is that camaraderie and friendship, the true appreciation, respect and love that we have for each other. That's something I'm going to miss more than anything else is just spending time with those three. We really hit it off. We all had a great time together and learned a lot from each other.

MR: With the cast of characters you recorded with on The 25th Of December, did you pick anything up from them?

DK: Absolutely. One of the guys I've learned so much from, beyond music even, more about how to be in life and how to live this purest form of being alive and in the moment, that lesson I learned very squarely from Johnny Mathis, who I've known for a number of years. Johnny is an icon and certainly one of the most famous singers of all time. I called him on the first day of recording, because we had this idea to do a jazzier version of a song that he made so popular. His version of "It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year," along with Andy Williams' was probably one of the most memorable Christmas song performances of all time. I was a little leery about him saying yes to this because how do you improve upon perfection? You can't. But I called him up and the same day he called me right back and I was in the studio so I didn't get the message but I saved the message. If you look at my phone right now you'd see th emessage is still right there. It says, "Of course I'd love to sing on your album, I'll sing anything you like. If you want to do that song, great. I love you, I love making music with you." So I called him back and I said, "Why don't you come over the next day?" I think it was a tuesday so I said, "Come over tomorrow, Wednesday, around two o'clock to the studio and we'll pick a key and we'll decide on how we want to do it."

This is the brilliance of Rickey Minor, instead of just coming and having a little confab, a little meeting about the song, he arranged to have a recording session with a bassist and drummer and a pianist and me there. So when John came we picked a key and we just did it. We didn't wait around to do it, we just did it. And he was so gung-ho, even a guy who didn't expect to be recording on that day, he was ready to go for it. I think that immediacy and that openness and that being in the moment is something that he's the epitome of. I love seeing that because it just rubs off. I like to spend time with him and hear all his stories. He's such a little kid, he's still so excited about making music. He's seventy eight years old and he's in great shape, he's out there golfing if he's in town every single day. Totally active. It's more than just the music that I learn from people I've had the great fortune to collaborate with. Gloria Estefan who I love and I've worked with quite a bit, too, the kind attention she gave to singing on somebody else's album--she's a superstar! What does she evene need to be doing, singing on my album, and secondly the fact that she put forth so much energy into it to make it great, that really affected me. She is such a perfectionist in the best usage of the term. And then seeing Stevie Wonder coming in to play harmonica first of all on "All You Need Is Love," there's a moment I'll never forget, because he was supposed to come a little later, but with Stevie you never know when he's going to show up, if he's going to show up. I had alreayd left the studio for the day and then Rickey said, "He's coming!" That means that he could be coming right now or he could be coming in five hours.

So I came back to the studio and by the time I got there he was already playing on my song. Walking into the studio and hearing that sound was one of the most surreal moments of my life. He'd only said, "Yeah, I'll come and bring my harmonica and I'll play on it." That was all we asked for. Rickey, the brilliance of him, he's like, "You know you want to get a little some of this because you're going to hear this on the radio and you're not oging to hear your voice and you're going to go, 'Why didn't I sing on this? Everybody else is singing on it.'" Then Stevie ended up singing a bunch of takes, and his first vocal take was perfect. He gets to the end of the track and he says, "Nah, give me another." He gets to the end of the track again and he goes, "Eh, no, that's not going to do. Let me have another." He must have done it ten times and he kept getting frustrated with himself. He was pushing himself and I just stood there with my jaw on the floor like, "I can't believe that I'm watching this."

First of all, everything that he did was amazing. The first thing that he did was great. By the way, that's the take we used. But he's Stevie Wonder, right? It's not like it's some new artist here trying to prove himself. What does he need to do to prove himself? He's Stevie Wonder. Even Stevie Wonder was on somebody else's record--this time it was me who was the very blessed recipient of his talent--pushing himself and wanting to outdo his own bests and constantly strive for perfection. That was a beautiful thing for me to see. I'm no spring chicken, I've been doing this for twenty five years. If Stevie Wonder can be like that in the studio, I can push myself more. Even if the first time I do it is the one that is used, great, but still, having that thing inside of you that wants to always strive for the best possible thing you can do, to strive for excellence. That experience of seeing him do that on my album will stay with me forever.

MR: Now, what about you? You're talking about all of these wonderfully talented people coming to play on your album, but I imagine you must be influencing other people when you're a guest on their records.

DK: I think part of it is recognizing that there's something special going on here, I've been very blessed to have had a really nice career, but by the same token a lot of us just downplay it. I'm starting to do less of that. Kirk Whalum, who's a good friend of mine and one of my favorite musicians of all time said it best to me, and I always give him credit. What he said to me about talent has really stayed with me: However you want to say it, whether it's a gift from the heavens or whatever, you're born with some sort of talent and you nurture it. It's not yours, you don't get to take it when you leave. It's almost like somebody has placed this beautiful gem in your hand when you're born and all of a sudden it gets revealed to you that you have this gem and you can do anything with it.

But the goal is to protect it and don't squander it, but at the same time, you want to let people see it and show its brilliance knowing full well it's not you, it's just coming through you, this beautiful gem, and knowing full well you're not going to be able to keep it forever, so the idea is to share it and to celebrate it and let people look at it and be influenced by it or healed by it or whatever the power it has over people is. You have to shepherd it and protect it so that you know when it's time to give it up it's going to go to the next person in better shape than when you got it. That's the nicest way of talking about talent that I've heard.

MR: When you're creating and improvising and playing truly from the heart and deep down, what is that experience like? It's probably something difficult to describe but I'd like to see if you could pinpoint it.

DK: You know, I think there is something that comes from being completely in the moment and letting the music just sweep you away. It doesn't happen every day or every time I pick up the horn, but when it does happen it makes you really appreciate, "Okay, this is really what I'm doing, what my strength is in this lifetime. I'm here to play this thing and to use this as my vehicle to transform. Hopefully, people are hearing this and they're being moved by it. It's not always using the saxophone. We just came off of our cruise, we had a cruise to Alaska taking twenty one hundred people who come from very different lives, all different backgrounds, and taking them on a trip for a week and sharing all of this music together and not just music but the camaraderie and friendship and all of the elegance and grandeur and majesty of Alaska and all of these incredibly beautiful vistas, it's feeding the soul. It's what music does, it's what nature does, it's what great pieces of art do, it's feeding our souls with love and light and goodness, and I think that's what everybody's after. That sense that you know in your heart when you see it, "Oh, I keep forgetting because I'm so disconnected most of the time that this is what it means to be alive." Music is one of those things that's a reminder if people's hearts are open, it's a great reminder of the true essence of what being alive is. Light and love and positivity and growth and transformation and inspiration and all of those things that we in our busy lives get very disconnected from.

MR: Dave, now is a perfect time to inject that traditional question. What advice do you have for new artists?

DK: Be you. It's kind of part of coming up through the ranks where you try to emulate people. I did it, too. I remember one piece of advice David Sanborn gave to me a long time ago. I idolized him so much, everything about him, and I remember in one of my first encounters with him I told him that and he said, "Look, there already is a me, so I've got that one covered. You should just be you and be the best you that you can be." That was really good advice, very important advice at a key time for me. That's what I would say. This is a very exciting time for music because there are not the fences and the gates and the things that keep people out. The world is available at the flick of a switch and you can develop an audience without having to go through gatekeepers like record companies. If you have a great idea or if you have a great talent, if you choose to show it in a way that can break through you can have a massive career on your own terms. There's never been a better time to truly be unique and let the world see what it is that is you as opposed to trying to fit within the parameters of how people have been successful in the past.

MR: Beautiful. Considering all of the Christmas material you've recorded, was it the plan all along to become Captain Christmas?

DK: [laugh] Captain Christmas, I've not heard about it that way. I kind of like that. I don't know how that happened, cause I'm a Jew. I'm a Jewish kid and this is number five of my Christmas albums, number seventeen, if you can believe that, of Christmas tours. No idea how that happened. But here's my thought... First of all, this is not a commercial thing at all for me. I love Christmas music. We're talking about some of the greatest songs ever written. Every year people try to come up with a new essential Christmas song, but it is so difficult. The deck is so stacked against you because Christmas music is like comfort food. When you think about comfort food you want the stuff that you know, that you've heard all of your life. That's why these songs have become so important to people. They're like a time travel tunnel back to more innocent times, our childhoods, or they're wonderful reminders of our past and our times with loved ones who may not be here anymore. They're like guideposts to our lives. Those are the things that you just want to hear because they make you feel good. They make you feel warm and fuzzy. I consider it a great honor to play these songs every year. Of course, we try to inject some newness in there, like we did on The 25th Of December.

Richard Marx and this guy named Trey Bruce and I wrote a song called "Another Silent Night," which I think is a fabulous song, Richard is so talented. That's a brand new song. And BeBe Winans wrote the title track and I remember hearing this very crude demo that BeBe made with him singing and playing piano. He's not a very good piano player, by the way, but I remember hearing the song and hearing him singing and saying, "I know this song! I know this song. It's one of those old classics." It turns out, no, I didn't know this song, it's a brand new piece of music but it had all of that familiarity built in. It was just so identifiable and so relatable but it was a brand new piece of music. That's when I knew that that would have to be on the album, not ever thinking it would become the title track, but it's that good. We have two new pieces of music and then ten classics.

My goal with this album, by the way... I made a deal with Rickey--you talk about learning new things with each album, this was the album I made my solemn promise to Rickey that I would play not one more note than necessary. Every single note that I play is there for a reason. He didn't let me get away with noodling or filling spaces unless it really was meant to be there and needed to be there. It was a very adult record for me. Not just filling holes but playing only when it really, really needed it. The songs are so great, they really just live on their own. You have to really try hard to screw them up, as long as you don't change them in a random way where you just say, "Oh, I'm changing this because I want to do something that hasn't bee done before." If you remain true to the pieces of music they won't let you down. They're amazing pieces of music.

MR: What happens when you run out of Christmas songs? Are you going to go through withdrawal?

DK: [laughs] I don't think I could EVER run out of Christmas songs. Have you ever looked at how many Christmas songs there are? I could make fifty albums and not repeat myself. The problem is I have my favorites. But there's a bunch of new music on this album. In fact, I think there's only one song, "Let It Snow," that I did with Kenny G--by the way that was an incredible mount of fun to do a duet with him on that, we'd never done that before and we'd known each other forever. He is truly Mr. Christmas. He has the most popular Christmas record of all time. But every piece of music on this album was new for me.

MR: I think we have to throw another holiday at you and see what comes out.

DK: Hoo boy! The nice thing about Christmas is there's such a wealth of material to constantly go back to. There's just not that many Halloween songs, or July 4th songs. There's a huge variety of patriotic songs that are great, but Christmas gives you so many options. Even a song like, "I've Got My Love To Keep Me Warm," which is not necessarily a Christmas song although it's very much associated with the holidays because of Ella's version of that song. India.Arie loves Ella Fitzgerald and she'd never recorded any of the songs that Ella recorded and she heard that one and said, "This is the one, I want to do this." I love what she did to it. She totally was respectful of the style of music that Ella sang and added her own flair to it, but she was very much India.Arie on it. It was a perfect combo. That song is one of my favorites on that CD.

MR: Dave! What's next?

DK: I'm a partner in a restaurant/music venue. The restaurant has been in existence for over twenty five years in Orange County. I've not been a partner tha tlong but the people who own it are great friends of mine and we're opening up a second location in Beverly Hills and that's called Spaghettini And The Dave Koz Lounge. It's a fine dining restaurant and five nights a week after dinner it will turn into a live music venue with headline artists from all different walks of life. Mostly adult music, jazz would be our DNA.

MR: That venture must be energizing for you.

DK: I'm very excited about this! This is kind of an on-land version of what we do on the cruises one week a year, where we can invite people into our space and treat them really well and feed them really well, great food, great wine, and be transformed by some unbelievable music on stage. This is kind of a new thing for me certainly, I've never been in this business before. It's a chance to flex some new muscles and grow. I'm really excited about that. So that's on the immediate horizon. For 2015 I'm just kind of putting things together. It's my twenty fifth anniversary, so I'm excited about that. My first record was in 1990 so that's twenty five years and not that I don't do this normally but I'm going to spend that year doing things that really tickle my fancy. Maybe doing things that are a little different, a little left of center, a little bit rosy thinking, but the goal is just to really take a year to completely enjoy. I'm talking professionally, too. It might mean different kinds of projects, doing different kinds of tours, but we'll see. Nothing is fully planted yet, but some of the seeds are being thrown around a bit. I'm excited about that.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Eric Johnson

Mike Ragogna: You and Mike Stern joined forces on the album Eclectic. Since both of you have a reputation for bridging jazz, funk, rock and popular music, so you each already make eclectic music, and this collaboration seems like a no-brainer.

Eric Johnson: Yeah, it's a really good combination. I've been a fan of Mike Stern's playing and also his composition and his writing. It all started when Blue Note in New York said, "Hey, would you guys like to share a bill together and play some shows? Originally it would be one person would play a set and then the other person would play a set and then we'd play a few songs together at the end of the night, but we said, "You know what? Instead of doing that, let's just get a whole band together and play the whole evening!" That was kind of the beginnings of a band concept of us playing together. We just enjoyed it so much, so it was a nice logical opportunity when we got asked to do a record.

MR: Were Anton [Fig] and Chris [Maresh] in on the live performance?

EJ: Yeah, they sure were. They've been in on everything we've done. Unfortunately, Anton won't be able to do some of the touring that we're going to do after the record release because he's filming the last part of The Letterman Show but Chris will be there and I think Anton will do part of the touring.

MR: Often, when two powerhouse artists such as yourselves get together, a creative tug can happen. What was the creative experience like with the two of you? You did it in three days, right?

EJ: Yeah, we cut most of the record in like three or four days.

MR: What was the creative process like?

EJ: I hear it in Mike's playing. He's all about the composition. He's a good player and he'll play these wonderful guitar things but I think they're infused into the greater vibe of the composition and I try to go for the same thing. I think when we play together we're being sensitive to that. It kind of puts a little bit of a monitor on getting too bombastic or running over each other or pulling or tug-of-war, whatever it is we're doing it's powerful and we're out pushing it but not to step on the heels of trying to make good music. That's always in the forefront of my thinking. I think Mike and I share that same thing in common.

MR: Did you discover anything about each other during the recording process?

EJ: Yeah, I think so. I also know that some of Mike's compositions inspired me to come up with different voices. I thought, "Oh, you know what? I want to use a volume pedal on the guitar/rhythm supporting Mike so it will be sort of an orchestral swell." That sometimes comes out of a spark of hearing what somebody else does when it's a little out of your sphere and then it sparks something to dilate your own sphere.

MR: Did you end up having songs on this project that changed dramatically?

EJ: Oh, absolutely. We didn't really write songs together, per se, but we brought in the songs that we wrote and said, "Why don't we do this here," or "Do that there," or "Maybe let's change that or take this part out or I'm going to add something." It was real malleable as far as our contribution to the songs. We both had a lot of freedom to talk about changing this or that or to offer whatever we could do that could pull it a different way. And it was all for the better. There's this song called "Title" that I wrote, it's kind of a Wes Montgomery-type deal. I brought that in and Mike rearranged it and after I heard it, I said, "Oh, I like that better now!" He put a chorus somewhere else and put an intro somewhere else. It's always good to have somebody else's perspective.

MR: Did you find that your talents melded better because Mike came from playing a more classics-structured style whereas you tend to push the boundaries?

EJ: I think both things would hold true for both of us. I've always enjoyed playing with other musicians. I guess my go-to thing isn't always double guitar. I've always done a trio and I enjoy playing with other instruments as well, but as far as double guitar to me it's like, "Okay, what are we going to do here? Is it going to be like jump in and go nuts?" and there's the tuning thing and the voicing thing and the tone thing. But playing with Mike is one of my favorite experiences as far as the double guitar thing. I think it's because of what you're saying. It's because he has that approach of the composition of a song, "Let's have a lot of dynamics here and let's lay back here" or, "not play here," or, "Let's do the melody here." It's about the music. It's our responsibility to figure out a way to play with intensity and bravado as soloists but we don't want to screw the song up. And that's easy to do, walk all over the song.

MR: You started as a session player and decided at some point to have a solo career. What was that point? Were there incidents that got you there? Was there encouragement? Did you always want to do it?

EJ: I think I always wanted to do it. I always wanted to write songs and have a band and do that whole thing. I think it was always a dream of mine. As far as the timing of when to do it I think it all happened when it was supposed to happen. I think there's a lot to be said for really studying what you do as you go through your milestones to try to sharpen whatever you need to sharpen. I got lost in the moment and just started playing and having fun and got gigs and got offered to do records and I have no regrets at all. I suppose I would've loved to be a bit more attentive and sharpened about, "Okay, maybe you'd better work on your vocals a bit more, they're not the greatest in the world." There are always things you could've done or waited to do later when it might have been better timing, I don't know. It's something I've always wanted to do, I guess.

MR: Alex Lifeson of Rush said that you inspired the guitar solo on "Cut To The Chase." And you're a very well respected musician in the field. Do you see a legacy that's being left?

EJ: Maybe a little bit. I think the sky's the limit. The opportunity is always there as to what you do with it or how much you embellish it or how far you take it, how deep you make it, how profound and how relevant or impactful it is to people. From that angle, I don't know. I think I could do more to make it that--not so I can make more dollars or be more famous, not that that could happen anyhow. There are always ways that you could infuse it to make it more impactful or a little bit deeper to where it would be more of that legacy. I think I've touched upon it but I could probably contribute more. This side of that deeper contribution, maybe I have, but a lot of what I do is kind of a reinterpretation. I look at the people that I learn from and they sort of invented it and I reinterpreted it. Some of my claim to fame is probably that I reinterpreted from eight or ten people and put it all together in my own recipe to where it's cloaked and nobody notices it. "Okay, it's your own thing," but it's really just a reinterpretation of all my heroes.

MR: "Cliffs Of Dover" was a major hit, that coming off Ah Via Musicom. What do you think it was about that project that everyone when nuts over?

EJ: Well, I think the timing was just right to where there was more radio viability. I think the songs were strong enough, too. It's kind of an irony, as we sit here and have this interview I realize that the way to make the best music is to cut it more live, more spontaneous, like the record we did with Mike or some of the live record I made in Europe a few months ago. With Mike it's spontaneous, it's live and people resonate with that. The irony is that on the Musicom record the bass and drums were live and some of the guitar was live, but some of the guitar I just killed myself doing over and over just to try and nail the guitar part. I was playing at the brink of my ability and I was pushing, pushing, pushing, trying to get myself to do this, just, "No. Farther, farther," like an athlete or something. The irony to me is on that record a lot of those guitar parts are anything but live, but people resonate with them as if they were live. Somehow that was a fluke thing, but I think it was just pushing the boundaries.

MR: Eclectic was inspired by your live performances, but on the other hand, it was recorded in a studio. Were there many overdubs?

EJ: Very few, really. There was very little fixes and not very many overdubs. Every once in a while I'd put a little lap steel just in the background or Mike and I put some acoustic guitars on or a couple of guitar tracks or percussion players came and played on them. I put a little acoustic piano in the back just in little spontaneous places. We would fix a lick or two here or there but it was really pretty much completely live.

MR: What were your impressions when you listened back to the project when it was finished?

EJ: Well, I think it's cool. It's got some warts on it, but that was our intention, to get in there and play music. To me, it's an investment in the present and the future which I want to contribute to and be a part of, where not only do you play with other wonderful musicians but you play music in the moment and you learn to play to the best of your ability live, spontaneously where you can feel that thing that's happening in the present. It's a little different concept for me than the way I used to make records.

MR: In the end, was there anything you felt was particularly Eclectic?

EJ: I think the combination of Mike and my playing is pretty eclectic. We come from different arenas. We touch on the same thing but we also come from such different backgrounds and histories and careers that it's all real eclectic. We both like and appreciate the gem of all styles of music. There's a certain thread in all music that's good and that's played well. All you've got to do is open your eyes to hear that value. We have a real emotional connection with that, so anything goes. We're trying to make it good, so we have our ears open to whatever the possibilities can present. I think it was all eclectic, in a way.

MR: Speaking of eclectic, not many people are able to do this, but you took part in the Primal Twang: The Legacy Of The Guitar project. Speaking of eclectic, that was an interesting approach.

EJ: Oh yeah, I remember that. It was interesting. It was a cool show, I actually enjoyed that a lot. They had a really fine sitar player on there and some good flamenco players, it was really cool.

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

EJ: That's a really good question. It's a broad question insomuch as trying to answer it, but it's still a good question. I was just listening to a brand new band on a CD recently that was really, really great. I did a blues tour with B.B. King once and I was out there trying to play this B.B. lick and that B.B. lick, and I can play blues guitar but that doesn't necessarily mean that I should try to make a career of playing blues guitar, there's plenty of people who can play it better than me, but I love the blues. But I'm out there doing this tune and that tune and he brought me into his tour bus to talk to me once and he said, "You know what? You have this special, unique gift. As an artist, you should find that pulse that's unique and that nobody else can do that way and just resonates in your own certain way. You should grow that and make that strong and really appreciable and people will then resonate to that."

What happens is no matter how good we get, we put on this generalized suit of what we think we should adorn ourselves with. This band is really great but it sounded like this other band and the production sounded like another band it was all cleaned over and polished. It made me think about my own records where you can't reach in and feel the person inside. You see the aura and it's all beautiful, it's all great, but you can't reach in and feel that thing that you have that's unique and you're really expounding on then you don't have as much esteem to do what you really want to do. That would be my advice. Actually, I'm talking to myself as I say this.

MR: That's terrific because I was going to ask what you would have told Eric Johnson when he was starting out.

EJ: That's what I would say. I think many times, I get seduced by the recording studio. "We could do this, we could do that, let's put this effect on that," and it all just gets this Doppler effect to where the listener is reaching out with his hand to try to catch it but it's out of reach so they just admire it from afar instead of having it assimilated into their cellular structure. I need to think about how people assimilate things into their heart. I guess what I'd like to do is try to make music that resonates with people and has an impact on them. I want it to create something in themselves. It's like the difference between a knick-knack sitting on a table and somebody giving you a card that has some words that go into your soul.

MR: A lot of musicians are inspired by things other than their favorite artists. Do you have things like that?

EJ: I try to learn more about spirituality and think about what's really important on a long-term big-picture field. Try to treat people right, including trying to treat yourself right, and trying to leave an open door to what the possibilities are. I think it's us in our mind who decide, "This is real, this is not real, this is possible, that's not possible." The whole funny thing you can laugh at is twenty years from now we can say, "Oh, we used to think this wasn't real, now we know it is. We didn't think that was possible, now it's possible." Well if it's possible now, it was possible back then. The only difference is that our minds didn't think it was. Our processes and our abilities weren't able to embrace or enact or make it happen but it still was real and it still was possible. That's true and it's always evolving and it'll evolve again in the next twenty years and twenty years after that. In other words there is an incredible possibility in reality to non-reality that we just haven't stepped into yet. To me, that's invigorating, that's inspiring. "What if?" Leave the question mark to float around you and then all of a sudden little time capsules can be released in your life and you say, "Oh, okay," and you get inspired or you get an idea or somebody says something or you see a sunset. Just leave that open.

MR: Yeah. I have a feeling that "What if?" has been a major factor in your creativity.

EJ: Yeah, I think so. But then we all have our chains to the balloon. My chain to the balloon is the studio, or not believing enough in just playing in the moment. "Let's go in the studio and we'll do this fifty times and try to get this right." I used to read about The Beatles going into the studio and disappearing for weeks on end and I kind of went, "Oh, that's great. Bigger is better so let's just go into the studio and disappear for years on end," which is ridiculous. It's not better, it's like that was my own little illusion of, "Oh yes, I'll just turn into Howard Hughes in the studio and it will be great," but actually it's not. It's all in moderation. We learn from our digressions, I guess, and then we get back on the path and go forward.

MR: Beautiful. What are the "What ifs" that are coming down the line for Eric Johnson?

EJ: Well we have two tours to do with Mike, we're going to do one this fall on the East coast and then one on the West coast in January. I've got another live record from America that I'm planning on releasing in some fashion and then I want to work on this acoustic record that I've been trying to work on for two years.

MR: Right. I wish you luck with that. As far as Eclectic, do you see another collaboration down the line?

EJ: Could be. I love playing with Mike, it's a real nice experience so there very well could be.

Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne

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A Conversation with Kiki Ebsen

Mike Ragogna: Kiki, your last name brings a certain notoriety with it, you being Buddy Ebsen's daughter. On the other hand, I don't think I've ever heard you make that connection for any projects until this point. Why did you record an album of songs closely related to your father, including "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," it having a somewhat extended connection?

Kiki Ebsen: When I was first starting in music, my father had a lot of opinions on my musical direction. He wanted me to sing jazz standards, period. My parents' strong personalities, combined with the famous name motivated me to make a break to find my true voice far away from the bright lights of Hollywood. That journey led me to a life of a singer-songwriter and back-up musician for some of the biggest names in pop/rock including Chicago, Boz Scaggs, Tracy Chapman and Christopher Cross. I found peace, enlightenment and maturity through my songwriting. By recording and releasing my records, I reached a new level of personal growth that would ultimately help me deal with life's challenges. A few years ago, I found a box of old scripts of my dad's from the 30's. This included his songbook from The Wizard of Oz when he was cast as the Scarecrow. He lost the role to Ray Bolger who had a better "rubber knee" dance and was eventually cast as The Tin Woodsman and the filming commenced.

After a couple of weeks, he became very ill from the repeated dusting of aluminum powder to his face and hands. The aluminum coated his lungs like paint and he could not get oxygen to his blood. He was hospitalized for several weeks and the part was recast. I got chills holding the scripts in my hands. A lot of emotion came up for me as I recounted my father's amazing career and our life together. I had an intense desire to talk with him and have him tell me about his early life, his fears and desires. Parent/child relationships are complicated at best, but add the fame element and the generation gap between us--he was 50 when I was born. Suffice to say that there was a lot unsaid between us and I felt a deep loss that I never allowed myself to feel before. I realized the next step in my journey would be to make the record he always wanted me to make: a record of standards that had a connection to his life and career. I felt now that I was in a great place in my life and career to truly honor my dad's request and sing these amazing songs. The experience would bring me closer to him than I'd ever imagined.

MR: Let's go over the tracklist. Obviously, beyond these songs having meaning in your dad's film life, you've also lived with them for a long time. Do you have specific memories with some of them or how they personally relate to you?

KE: "Moon River" is from Breakfast at Tiffany's a movie that I watched many times as a kid. It made me cry (and still does) when my dad appears midway through the movie. He plays Audrey Hepburn's estranged husband, a homegrown country veterinarian who attempts to bring her home with him to care for the kids. She refuses and the look on his face is just so sad. That scene always brought tears to my eyes.

Captain January is one of my favorite Shirley Temple movies. Their dance routine during Codfish Ball is one of the classic routines ever filmed in my book. I remember as a kid feeling so proud to watch him and know that this twenty-something kid was actually my dad!

"Tea for Two" was my dad's signature dance routine. I watched him dance to it a thousand times if not more. To sing it is to remember the feelings of being in the audience or the wings watching him and even on stage with him doing a family vaudeville show. Very comforting and familiar.

"Missing You" is a song that he wrote with Zeke Manners. I am not sure of the year or what the project was, but I found it towards the end of his life. I was able to sing it at his memorial service at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the summer of 2003. This song was to be the climax of a very moving two-hour memorial service where many of his co-stars and friends including Dick Van Dyke, Max Baer, Donna Douglas and Lee Merriweather shared their fondest memories. When I got up to sing I was shaking with emotion. I was to sing live over pre-recorded music. But for some mysterious reason, once my performance started, the track kept stopping in the middle of the song. A very uncomfortable awkward silence ensued in the audience after each start and stop. I finally just had to stop and explain that it must be my dad putting me on the spot to see if I could improv my way out of this. Everyone laughed and a boat load of tension was released. I then sang the song without interruption. We still don't know what happened, but I graduated to the ranks of "trouper" at least in the eyes of Dick Van Dyke and I've never been the same since. My dad showed me that facing your fears with a willingness to be honest and vulnerable is really all you need to connect to your audience.

MR: You employed a stellar cast of New York studio musicians to back you as well as using David Mann. What was the recording process like and did he also have a passion for the material, maybe offering insights into it beyond what you had known previously?

KE: Working with David Mann was absolutely amazing. We met in Christopher Cross's band, but this was my first time working with him as a producer. I had always been a fan of his sax playing. A few years ago while we were listening to my newly released record of original songs, "The Beauty Inside," I revealed a desire to record a project of jazz standards as a gift to my father, but wasn't sure how to do it. David expressed genuine interest of getting involved. Being one of first-call session players in NYC, I was thrilled at the idea of having him on this project. He has loads of experience in the jazz idiom and had recorded with many singers in this particular style. Since it was my first foray into the Great American Songbook, I was more than a little intimidated. His confidence in me was contagious. I really think that he saw the end product right from the beginning and knew that I would sound terrific on it. He heard a quality in my voice that I was yet to discover: a purity and simplicity that would be revealed as the recording process went on. David was sensitive not only to my voice, but to me as a songwriter. His arrangements, especially "If I Only Had a Brain" and "Moon River," mix so beautifully with my material that in my shows, I can meld the two eras, which was something I wanted to do originally.

I knew that I would record on the East Coast because that is where my dad's career started. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone completely. New town, new producer, new players, new genre! While I was there, I retraced my father's steps with the help of his autobiography, "The Other Side of Oz." I found his old flat and many of theaters where he performed. I tried to imagine the fear and fortitude it took for him to leave his family in Orlando, Florida, on his own with just $26 and a letter of recommendation. This whole project was a desire to reconnect with my dad in the present and create something really cool in the process.

David and I handpicked the band. I wanted great players who would also embrace the project and the story behind it. John Patitucci, Chuck Loeb, Clint de Ganon and Henry Hey were the perfect choices. Enthusiastic, professional and all stars in their own right, each one delivered personal and heartfelt performances every time. For two days, we holed up in this charming hundred-year-old church turned state-of-the art recording studio nestled on Lake Hopatcong, New Jersey. We recorded twelve songs with me singing live the entire time. I knew these moments would be special and I did not want to sit out for even a minute.

David was the ultimate producer: quiet, focused, calm and encouraging. He also arranged, performed, and mixed this project. He listened to my ideas, honored me as an artist and fulfilled my vision for this record. I couldn't be happier and more grateful to him than I already am.

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photo courtesy of Kiki Ebsen

MR: What made you decide on music as a career?

KE: It chose me. I was always playing the piano. It was my therapy, my escape and my solace. I love to write my own melodies and what I wanted to do was play in a band. I got very lucky in the touring side of the business. I started playing in rock bands in high school then got a degree in concert voice from the California Institute of the Arts. My first tour was with the legendary group Chicago as an offstage keyboardist. From there, I joined Al Jarreau's band on stage, which included an up and coming music director on bass named Rickey Minor who went on to be the music director for The Tonight Show and American Idol--and toured steadily with big name artists for the next couple of decades, I would also record five solo records with "Scarecrow Sessions" being my sixth album.

MR: You used Kickstarter to fund the project. What's that story?

KE: I was on the fence about crowd sourcing. I didn't want to ask my fans for money, but then I realized that it might be a great way to get everyone involved from the very beginning and start a buzz about the project. It was still hard to do. Selling a project that you have so many emotions attached to it, I felt naked and so vulnerable exposing my relationship to my father. Something I rarely talked about before. I'd never promoted myself or my music in conjunction with my dad so it was a big step for me. I really wanted to get past the famous name and get to the essence of the project, which to reconnect with a parent who had passed on and honor his early request for me to sing a style of music that he thought I was really suited for.

MR: Are there musical contemporaries out there that you admire and who are they?
KE: My favorite singer is Ella Fitzgerald. My main writing influences are Joni Mitchell and Rickie Lee Jones. I love the music of Steely Dan and the Yellowjackets. I do greatly admire jazz singer Cassandra Wilson in so many ways. Amazing voice and wonderfully unique arrangements!

MR: If one were to classify what you do, they might either say "jazz" or "cabaret." How would you define your own music?

KE: With this project, I would say I am more cabaret, especially with the stories that are attached to it. I am already a storyteller with my own material and this just adds a whole other element to that. Give me a piano, a mic and a lovely listening audience, and I will take you on a musical journey.

MR: Which creative or career highlights are you most proud of?

KE: Out of college, I won the American Collegiate Talent Showcase and then produced my first record, "Red," now a collector's item. It features great performances by Boney James, Jimmy Haslip and Paul Jackson Jr. The songs are timeless and that experience ignited my artistic journey. I've enjoyed two decades with the Christopher Cross Band, which culminated in a live concert DVD a couple of years ago called, A Night in Paris. I am very proud of my last record, "The Beauty Inside," because by writing those songs and telling such a personal story, I was able to move to a new stage in my life, which put me in the perfect place to deliver "Scarecrow Sessions," which may prove to be the biggest highlight in my career so far!

MR: What advice do you have for new artists?

KE: "Never turn your back on enthusiasm". This is something that my dad always told us always. He also had framed the following Calvin Coolidge quote and gave it to us all at an early age: "Press On. Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not, nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not, unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not, the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent."

MR: It's a given you miss and love your father. Do you have any particular memories of him or the two of you together that you're especially fond of and did he ever offer you any guidance or direction when it came to your music?

KE: I loved our family vaudeville shows. We usually would perform at his "Barnaby Jones" wrap parties and during the holidays for the veterans and for the Motion Picture Country Home. I would sing and dance with Dad and my sister, Bonnie. Sometimes I backed him up on piano. He had such a casual way of creating a show. It was usually assembled right before the performance - winging it as usual. A highlight of my childhood was learning to sail from my dad on our little yellow sailboat while living on Balboa Isle, CA

In my early twenties, I was preparing for a challenging piano recital. It was the most difficult material I'd ever tried to master: Gershwin's "Concerto in F" and Chopin's "Premiere Ballad." The night before, I was terrified and filled with anxiety. May father took me outside and said "Look at the sky. Do you see all of those millions of specks of light? Just remember that we are just specks on a little speck in the sky." He was just trying to put it all in perspective for me. He was cool and calm, and not afraid to fail.

MR: What are the future plans for Kiki Ebsen?

KE: To continue to perform, write and interpret music. To continually grow and challenge myself as an artist. To explore this new genre and hopefully record more records with David Mann!