Monday, May 16, 2016

JAZZ GUITARIST RANDY NAPOLEON ON HIS NEW ALUBM 'SOON', HIS INFLUENCES, AND INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION


Randy Napoleon
Thanks for taking the time to talk to I Dig Jazz

Man, it's totally my pleasure. Thanks for having some interest in my album “Soon”. I appreciate it. It means a lot.

“Soon” is a wonderful album. How long was it in the making?  

For me, I've been thinking about doing a trio record for a long time, but you have to be an illusionist to take trio work because you need to feel and hear the harmony as if there were a piano player. It was something that for a long time, I didn't feel I could pull off. It’s something I've been thinking about as a musical challenge I didn't feel ready for.

Sometimes the only way you can deal with something is you just make yourself do it. So, all signs pointed to that for me. I had this incredible opportunity to be able to record with two of my heroes, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Gregory Hutchinson, and one of the top trumpeters in jazz, Etienne Charles. 

The actual creation of the record was pretty quick and more informal than the other records I've done. There were less detailed arrangements. I didn't give a lot of instructions to the musicians. I just said we are going to play these tunes, these are the chord changes I like. Then we went for it. It was a real kind of organic, spontaneous record date.

That’s interesting because “Soon” is meticulous. It doesn't come off like it was done quickly. The album sounds as if you guys labored over it for months.

Well, thank you for that. I so appreciate that. For me, it was super easy to play with Rodney and Greg. Rodney, I've gotten to play with a lot, and he's my long-term mentor. I listened to Greg and Rodney play together a lot over the years, and I had that sound in my mind. And, I've spent so many years imagining what it would feel like to play with that kind of groove and soul. So it's very natural for me to play with them even though we hadn't played together a whole lot. We did one gig the night before the recording session, and then we did the record, and that was it.

What pushed you to the point where you said, "Okay, I'm just going to go for it"?

It was like those guys who want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. There’s something out there that you haven't done, and you're not going to feel satisfied until you do it. And also, it was something that I just really wanted to hear because most of my favorite guitarist made trio records many years ago. Wes [Montgomery] made just a couple of trio tracks one record where there's a piano, and there're some overdubbed strings. 

Joe Pass, there's a great trio record that he did with Ray Brown and Mickey Roker. And Barney Kessel did a lot of trio records, but there haven't been as much straight-ahead jazz guitar records the last 30 to 40 years. There's a handful of good ones, but I felt like it was something that needed to happen

Now that you've got this one out of your system are you planning another trio album?

I want to do more. I am going to keep on shaking things up. I want to continue playing as much as possible in the trio setting. This is an exciting summer coming up for me because I've been able to line up some trio gigs. I've spent so much time playing with so many great pianists, and they just make you sound beautiful all the time. I'm trying to explore all the chords I can get out of the guitar. There's so much sonic capability there and so many different textures you can get combining chords and melodies. That was a little bit of a rambling answer; I do want to make trio a bigger part of my life and playing duos, too. That was the other part of the record.

Your duet with trumpeter Etienne Charles on “Body and Soul” was my, favorite cut on the album. I wish you and Etienne had included a few more duets on the album.

Well, next time.

The duet felts so organic. How did you and Etienne pull that off? Or was that something you guys plotted before hitting the studio?

That one wasn’t planned. I recorded a track for Etienne's Christmas record.  I said you know as long as we've got the tape rolling, let's call a couple of tunes. And so we just played, and we went with the spirit. I think jazz is a language, and it's just an amazing feeling. I wanted a record that felt like jazz, so we just played, we just did what we always do. And you know, we left the tape running, and then we played “Body and Soul” and it came out great. I asked Etienne if he minded if I put this on my record. It was great. So that was how that went.

I had a conversation with Sonny Rollins once about playing with a piano-less band. He said to pull that off you had to be an exceptional musician because a pianist can cover up a lot of the things that are not going right on the bandstand. What are some of the challenges you face playing without a pianist?

It's half-challenge and half-opportunity. Everything is a little bit more exposed. Between the bass, drums, and guitar there’s more potential opportunity to use that space or just leave it open, which the great guitarist Bobby Broom told me one time about playing in a trio. He said you had to trust the space, which I thought was very good advice. 

There is a little bit more you know, openness when you have three instruments instead of four. There's something just beautiful about the symmetry of three. I mean if you think about the strength of a tripod. Three people can all look at each other at the same time. It's a really strong and a magical connection playing with three people.

Seems as if you have a direct line to the ghost of Wes Montgomery listening to you play "First Love, Only Love," and "So In Love".  

Wes is my number one influence, so thank you.  I mean, the funny thing about the jazz guitar tradition is everyone's connected and everyone has shades of the same thing. I love Wes Montgomery for everything. I love the way everything was melody with him. His spirit was just so joyful and outgoing and positive. I love his drive and the thrilling excitement of when he played block chords or octaves. He was just so exciting and satisfying. Every solo, every track, and every record are a little bit different.

Who were some of the other jazz guitarists that influenced you most?

 I love Kenny Burrell. I get this liquid feeling when he plays. I love his warmth and beauty and his sound. That always inspiring to me. I love Grant Green. He’s one of my top guys. The thing I love about him is there's no pretense. He goes straight to the center of the groove, and he stays there.  He was not trying to shock anyone with something that's so wild. His playing felt so good, and he has the spirit of the blues in every note he played.

Were you thinking about him when you guys played C.C. Rider?

For sure.  I was also thinking about Russell Malone. When we played that because I love the way Russell plays those slow low-down blues. He’s someone who's been a mentor and an influence for me.

Peter Bernstein is another one who is a huge influence for me of the contemporary guitarists. The interesting thing is when I trace things back those guys are interesting, but Peter has been, I don't know, how to describe it. I hear traces of the guys I loved from earlier generations with Peter and Russell.

So it's all kind of mixed up in my mind and in my ears, which I think it is how it is supposed to be because hopefully you input a lot of people and it comes out like yourself.

When you graduated from college, you played in the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, after which you joined Freddy Coles’ band. How influential was it having those two outlets early in your career?

Touring with them taught me everything I know about professionalism musically. My professionalism comes from those people who raised me on the road. John and Jeff Clayton, and Jeff Hamilton, who run the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, they’re role models. The Clayton Brothers are just out of sight, soulful, hyper-creative in terms of writing, arranging, leading groups everything I wanted to accomplish. 

So, I was able to start working with them when I was twenty-two. I didn't know a whole lot. Seeing the seriousness they had on and off the bandstand, I remember Jeff Hamilton straightening my tie a little bit before going on stage. It was that attention to detail and reverence for what happens on the bandstand that stays with me.

 Freddy, at this point, is a member of the family. I've been with Freddy now for nine years. We’ve been on the road a lot together 100 to 150 days a year. My relationship with him is like a family member.

The things I have learned from Freddy had to do with patience. He’s never in a hurry when he sings or when he plays the piano. He gives you the least amount of notes and gets the most groove and the most meaning out of them. He’s like that as a person, too. I ‘m an intense personality. Freddy has helped me mellow.  He’ll tell me things like no one is bullet proof, and you can't do everything all at once. Plus, I love the way he treats people.

I always really felt a part of his band. I felt actually like part of his family. I mean, we would go to Atlanta, and we would stay at his house, and cook some food, hang out. That’s the kind of relationship I try to have with my students. I try to treat them like that. I want them just to feel comfortable with me, and spend a lot of time with me because that's a big thing spending time with someone who is older than you and who has a lot of perspective on life,  music. I am rambling, but I could talk about Freddy all day.

Do you feel that old-school, upbringing for jazz musicians, is still around today? What you described is the kind of relationships that veteran musicians had with younger musicians.  I see that lacking now; it's as if young musicians on the scene now can play and they are serious about the music, but there is no apprenticeship for them.   

I know what you’re saying. The way you laid it out is just exactly the way I think about it. I agree with you that these young musicians coming out are very serious. A pet peeve of mine is sometimes the older musicians are grumpy, and they say young musicians are not serious. And they don't respect the music. I am teaching at Michigan State University now. I am working with young musicians. I can tell you that they are serious.

They love the music. They are intense. They listen to a lot of records, and they are going for it. I think the music is in very good hands.

There are fewer bands, however, working where a young musician could go on the road for many, many days out of the year, but I will say one positive thing is more seasoned musicians are involved in schools. There are more high-quality music programs now than there ever were. I can speak from my experience. 

Most of my gigs this summer are involving at least one of my students. I am not trying to be charitable. They are ready. All they need at this point is an outlet. They just need to play. So my goal now being middle-aged is trying to keep the continuity going. I am trying to create more gigs and bring some of the young talents to the forefront because they are ready.

Back in the day, a lot of the mentoring took place in a veteran jazz musician homes, or wherever they could find a facility to teach. Now the mentoring is happening in academia primarily. Do you consider that a positive?

It's a real positive thing. It gives us structure. There is pressure for all of us to produce. I take the formal structure very seriously, preparing students for juries, tests, and recitals. It’s a really good thing. Young musicians need to play. They need to get out there. They need to play for people. We need to train these young musicians in a formal kind of way that helps prepare them for the bandstand. 

There's more kind of non-profit art centers now that are starting to present jazz. The music is going to be okay. I think we've got some incredible young artists coming up. I believe that the audience will keep on coming because there is something that jazz has that nothing else can provide.
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