Monday, July 16, 2018

An Interview with trumpeter/composer Russell Gunn as he releases "Get It How You Live"




Russell Gunn (photo credit unknown)

The jazz trumpeter Russell Gunn has become an Atlanta institution since arriving here back in September of 1998. He was born in Chicago, but he moved and was raised by his father in East St. Louis, MO. which he considers his hometown. Born in 1971, he is a child of the hip-hop era and so it's no wonder why the music of that era still influences a part of the music he creates. He developed his chops touring with acts like soul singer Johnnie Taylor and doing a stint playing jazz on cruise lines in the Caribbean. 

After being spotted by the saxophonist Oliver Lake, Gunn made his way to the capital of the jazz world-New York City-as part of Lake’s group. With his unconventional hi-hop attire, a formidable technique and a burning desire to create, Gunn found his talents once again recognized by another jazz luminary, Wynton Marsalis. He was chosen to become part of Marsalis’ Blood on the Fields Orchestra where he distinguished himself as a young lion who brought a youthful perspective to the traditional music Marsalis was trying to preserve. He eventually became a member of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. In the mid to late nineteen-nineties he was enlisted by Branford Marsalis for his crossover group Buckshot Le Fonque. Besides his work in the jazz realm, his trumpet can be heard backing contemporary artists as diverse a Lou Reed, Cee-Low, Maxwell and D’Angelo.

Since his first album, Young Gunn, released in 1994, he has made fifteen recordings as a leader, two of which- Ethnomusicology Vol 1 and Ethnomusicology Vol 2- were nominated for a Grammy.

I have personally seen Gunn play at various music venues around Atlanta. He is a consummate musician, serious about his art. Gunn is always engaging and committed to  every performance no matter what the size of the audience. Fittingly, his group ceremoniously played the last set of music at Sam Yi’s celebrated jazz club, Churchill Grounds, an Atlanta institution for twenty years, back on July 31, 2016.

On July 13, 2018, Russell Gunn released his latest and most ambitious project to date, his Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra’s album-Get it Like You Live  on Ropeadope records. The album is the culmination of a Gunn's accumulated musical acumen.  On it he pursues his vision of incorporating elements of contemporary soul, rock and hi-hop influences with the jazz aesthetic of improvisation, all in a big-band format. Gunn whipped his nineteen-piece orchestra into recording form during a several week residency at the jazz club St James Live in East Atlanta. He wrote and arranged over thirty pieces of music for the band before settling on his best nine for inclusion on the recording. The album includes the voice and music of the neo-soul singer Dionne Farris, who adds another dimension to Gunn's bevy of some of Atlanta’s finest musicians.

We caught up to Russell at his home in Atlanta via telephone on June 12, 2018 as he was between gigs touring with the bassist Marcus Miller.  Notes on Jazz  discussed his personal  history, influences, his musical philosophy, his recent work with the bassist Marcus Miller and his most recent album.

NOJ:    You were born in Chicago and grew up in East St.  Louis Mo.  When did you make that move to East St. Louis?

RG: We moved to East St. Louis in 1979. My parents got divorced so I moved with my dad.

NOJ: East St. Louis is where you started to mature?

RG: Exactly.

NOJ: You started trumpet at the age of ten, but I read somewhere that you were initially interested I the drums. Is that correct?

RG: I did start to play the trumpet at ten, but drums have always been my passion instrument. I consider myself- I’m not a drummer- but in my heart, I’m definitely a drummer. That’s why drummers in my band hate my ass, because it’s hard to play drums for me. Drums have always been the foundation for everything. But that’s a little off the point. When I was ten I wanted to play the saxophone first, because the songs on the radio had saxophone solos, so that’s what attracted me. I was going to play saxophone when the opportunity came up at age ten and the only reason that I played trumpet is because my best friend at the time-we were going to play music together-he wanted to play the trumpet he said, “Hey man why don’t you play the trumpet.” So, I really didn’t care, I just wanted to do something musical so that’s what happened.

NOJ: Does he still play trumpet?

RG: No. He was a soldier and he moved that way.

NOJ: What was it like growing up in East St. Louis for you?

RG: Man, it was great, Besides the obvious glaring negative things about East St. Louis-especially in the eighties, which are completely true for the most part-I mean I loved it. Of course, when your nine or ten years old, when you’re a kid, being a kid, no matter where you live is just fun. I still have friends for life.

High school was a little challenging because of all the problems that East St. Louis had. There were three high schools in East St. Louis at the time. There is only one now. I went to the high school completely on the other side of town, because I wanted to be in the band at that school. So that meant that I didn’t go to high school with most of my elementary and junior high school friends.

Just like Chicago, East St. Louis was always divided by the gangs that were local to where you lived in the city. So, I grew up with a bunch of friends that were a certain way and then I had to ride the bus to the high school across town which was a completely different thing than what I had grown up with. When I look back at it, it wasn’t that bad. It was sort of the pre-crack days, so the only problems in East St. Louis for kids was the gang problem. Don’t get me wrong, that was a big problem, but that was the only main problem. If you took care of yourself and watched your back that way, if you had friends that took care of you, you’d be ok. I had a lot of friends and we still look out for each other even to this day. Overall, I love East St. Louis with all my heart. Outside of Atlanta, to me there is no better place, where the quality of the people that live there is so genuine.

NOJ: That must have been difficult to have to go all the way across town on bus to another district, away from your friends, so that you could pursue music. You must have been driven by somebody or inspired by someone or just driven by yourself ?  Which was it?

RG: Well I had to go to that school because I wanted to be in that band. There was a teacher, his name was Ron Carter, not the famous bass player, but the band program leader. He took the time to make sure that he gave us a place to be, gave us some outlets in music, gave us some outlooks on life that we might not normally have been exposed to. In those days, high school bands were still kind of good. In every city there was a high school where the athletes go because the athletic program is really top notch there.  I went to the high school where the music program and the track program were really the best. The high school where I was supposed to go, East St. Louis High School, was known for its football program. It had some of the best high school football teams in America for a long time, they still have a great program, but I had to be in the school with the best band. I had an older cousin who was in that band, he was a trumpet player. He was there, he was the king. I just needed to be a part of that.

It wasn’t easy. Trust me, sixty-thirty every morning, me and my best friend, waiting there at the bus stop- rain, sleet or snow-to get to the other side of town. We would leave there after practicing, sometimes 10 or 11 pm at night, which was a real problem. That high school was surrounded on four sides by the housing projects, it wasn’t fun after you get out of band practice, to be from the other side and to have to navigate that neighborhood. But it was worth it.

NOJ: What high school did you attend?

RG: It was Lincoln High School. (This music program is famous for being where Miles Davis was a student.)



NOJ: Was their music program well known around the area?

RG: I think the program was well known around the world.  It was really, special. It was a straight up public high school. A straight up ghetto-ass public high school. I only say that because the only other schools that aspiring musicians could go to, that were really, even close to being on our level or better than us, were like Dallas Arts Magnet High School, where Roy Hargrove went to- that was an Arts Magnet High School. Philadelphia Performing Arts High School, where Christian McBride, “Lil” John Roberts, Joey Defrancesco all those kids went together was another place. Those are all Arts schools. Lincoln High School was the only truly public school where the music program and musicianship was even close to that caliber. It wasn’t even comparable because we didn’t have any of the resources (that they had), so it was super special for us, and that’s why we have so much pride to be from where we are from.

NOJ: So, your bandleader at Lincoln, Ron Carter, was obviously an early influence and you mentioned your older trumpet playing cousin, Anthony Wiggins,who was looked up to by everyone. Is there anybody else that you can point to that you can say strongly influenced you to wanting to continue this path despite all to the hardships?

RG: I must say that I didn’t consider any of this to be a hardship at the time. Looking back on it you can see what it was. The way I grew up, my father was a phone man. He was the guy that you see outside climbing telephone poles, fixing your phone service. My dad made sure we lived above our means. I didn’t have to live in an environment where I had to worry about shit happening outside of my house.

NOJ: That’s quite a gift to give a child.

RG: Yeah. My dad was the oldest boy of eleven kids. They were poor. My father was poor, poor, like one pair of pants poor, like not eating poor and he was abused by his deranged stepfather. My father made sure that his kids wouldn’t have to deal with any of that and I try to do the same for my children. I sometimes live way above my means(laughing), so my kids don’t even have a hint of what it means to be that kind of poor or even the level that I experienced when I was growing up.

To get back to your question about early mentors, beside Mr. Carter and my older cousin, I soon became focused on what I wanted to do and so I didn’t need anyone else to motivate me when it came to my music. I was already going for it. I was living as if this was what I was going to be doing right now.

NOJ: Did you get a chance to study classical music or have classical music training?

RG: No, not at all. In East St. Louis you could start learning music in the fourth grade, at about age ten, but the only thing they would have is what was called musical specialists. These were people who had basic knowledge of some instruments and they could help the kids with basic flute, trumpet or saxophone or whatever. We didn’t have anybody that could teach us instruments. I’m self-taught most of my friends were eventually self-taught unless you were luck enough that your band director played the same instrument that you were playing. Then you may have been able to get better tutelage on the instrument, but for most of us they showed you the basics, like how to make a sound on your instrument, but basically you had to figure the rest out on your own.

NOJ: So, after High School, what did you do to develop your chops? What was your training program for yourself?

RG: My training program was sitting in a room with a cassette player, rewinding Clifford Brown all day and all night. That’s how I learned how to play.

NOJ: Not to shabby a role model.

Clifford Brown ( photo credit unknown)
"My training program was sitting in a room with a cassette player, rewinding Clifford Brown all day and all night."

RG: That was the only way to learn. That’s why I don’t teach, because I developed completely bad habits playing the trumpet, because I taught myself how to play. Just now, at forty-seven years old, am I becoming a better trumpet player because of all the on the job (training), the hard work I had to put in to develop with no formal training. If I had been giving the opportunity to have learned correctly when I was younger there is no doubt I would be one hundred times better than I am now. I am just now getting to the point where I’m able to play the trumpet comfortably without doing any damage to myself.

NOJ: Talk about the necessity to be able to read music.

RG: That depends on what you want to do. What are your goals? What are your desires?  Who do you want to play with? For somebody who wants to be diverse and have multiple opportunities, being able to read is of the utmost importance. But you don’t have to be able to read anything. There is a saying, there are those who if you threw fly shit on a notation page and they could read it no problem. You don’t have to read to that level to play music. A basic understanding of reading music helps but a lot of musicians don’t read. Some great ones don’t read at all. I played in the pop world and the R & B world for a long time, a lot of those guys can’t read, but they are still able to make music.  Music is based on sound, understanding sound and being able to convey sound, that is what makes it happen.

NOJ: In previous interviews you have credited the Russian classical composer Peter Tchaikovsky, the jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus and the saxophonist Benny Golson with all being strong influences on you. They could all read and notate music. You have formed your own big band and have been able to create your own sound and arrangements for your ensembles. How have you been able to overcome the obvious disadvantage you have compared to your idols?

Charles Mingus, Benny Golson and Peter Tchaikovsky
RG: Those are my favorite three, but for different reasons. Mingus has always been one of my idols because of the kind of person he was, in addition to his being such a great musician. Some musicians can just be assholes and they don’t have anything to back it up. Well Mingus was one of the greatest of all times and he was a complete asshole. Because his only desire was for the music to be conveyed in a sincere way. One of the problems he recognized is that when you as a conductor/composer use musicians that play individually at a high level, the musicians often won’t give themselves up to intent of the composer. They need to submit themselves to the will and direction that the composer has envisioned for them. That’s why bands don’t work out a lot of the time. They call it creative differences. Instead of just going with the flow, believing in the composer and allowing themselves to be directed and see what the results will be, they create disruption.

For example, I am in (the bassist) Marcus Miller’s band and there is no time when I’m like telling him   “Why don’t we try to do something like this.” I’m there to learn from the lineage that he comes from and I ‘m a pupil of his, even though I’m in my mid-forties, I’m in his band. I’m there to absorb what he knows and what he has learned by being in other bands and leading his own bands
.
NOJ: What about Tchaikovsky? What is it about his music that is so inspiring to you?

RG: Tchaikovsky, now your talking about my number one favorite. The man had the greatest sense of melody of anybody that I have ever listened to. He maybe the only musician that people are so familiar with his music that they can sing it and not even know its was his music, like the theme to The Nutcracker or Romeo and Juliet. His sense of melody really opened my eyes to the concept of being an artist and what it means to be a global artist. Art comes from everywhere. A lot of Black musicians could never conceive that an old white Russian musician could write such memorable melodies.  If Stevie Wonder wrote those melodies, then brothers would be fawning all over them, acknowledging how they could see how brilliant his tunes were. But for me, it is not just the melodies- his melodies are so strong that we all can cling to that- but it’s also his sense of rhythm and counter-melody that made his work so special to me. My favorite composition is the last one he did before he killed himself, it was called Pathetique. If the story is correct, Mr. Tchaikovsky was a gay man who was in love with the son of a person of stature, something that society wouldn’t tolerate.

NOJ: He was heartbroken? So many great songs seem to come from inner turmoil.

RG: Its like anything. There are parts of our brain and parts of our insides that aren’t accessible until we get to a certain place. It’s like taking drugs maybe, like taking LSD to access different parts of your brain that you can’t normally access, or when heightened emotion enters. That condition can also impact you into otherwise inaccessible states. Like when a mother sees her child under a car and can summon super strength to lift the car off her child.

NOJ: I have done several interviews with notable jazz musicians over the years and I remember asking the one-time Coltrane pianist Steve Kuhn what is it that makes certain songs like “Blue & Green,” which I have heard you deconstruct and reassemble on more than once occasion, so durable and compelling? His answer was “Melody, melody, melody.” Some artist eschew melody completely. What are your boundaries when it comes to melody?

"I have one simple rule. If the shit doesn’t have a melody, then it’s not a f@#king song.Melody, like beauty, is subjective to the listener."


RG: I have one simple rule. If the shit doesn’t have a melody, then it’s not a fucking song. You can have the greatest rhythmic motion and it can feel good rhymically, blah, blah blah. If there is no melody, then you just have beat. Likewise, if you don’t have something rhythmic that kind of brings it together, then it’s a little incomplete. I think you can be complete with just the melody, but I don’t think you can be complete in a purely rhythmic motif. Melody, like beauty, is subjective to the listener. What constitutes a beautiful melody to one person may not to another, and I am very aware of it. I know my opinion doesn’t matter to everybody or is the last word. I just know if the melody doesn’t sound and feel right then for me there is nothing there.

NOJ: As a child of the seventies and the eighties you were experiencing the introduction of hip hop and rap music onto the scene. What is it about these distinct genres that appeals to you. A lot this music is predominantly driven by rhythmic, drone-like constructions. That would seem to be contradictory to your take on melody and yet you are known to be a pioneer in cross pollinating jazz with rap and hip hop. Can you explain how that works?

RG: Let’s backup a bit. I come from a time when rap was in its infancy. I think it’s important to know that for me that was a cultural thing. It came from a cultural basis that included a bunch of different things not just rap music. Rap music is one part of a cultural experience that included dancing- which was break dancing-the music part-which was DJ’-ing,- it included art -Grafitti- and included a style of dress- the oversized drooping pants, the turned around cap- which was the way we dressed. All those things inclusively made up that culture that we used to call hip-hop. What they now call hip-hop  is basically the rap music element which in popular media is the least cultured part of it.

NOJ: You think they are too profane and too centered on overt materialism? I admit to not getting the hype around most rap.

RG: That maybe what you hear, but that’s not it, that’s not everything. What you hear in the media, in the mainstream is really, not what it’s all about. So, if you make a blanket statement about condemning the music just based on what you are told, without doing any research on your own, then your just as guilty as the people that you are blaming for making music that appeals to a lower standard. You just can’t generalize.

As it’s related back to me, hip hop was a complete culture. It included all the elements-dance, DJ music, Graffiti art and a style of dress- not just the music, the one moniker of the culture. Yes, I am a melody guy, but hip -hop rhythm is what drives me, it drives my insides. It’s all African music, African drums at heart. There is test I do when I hear a beat. I always try to divide it into three and see if it relates to the African beat.

"...to me, hip hop was a complete culture. It included all the elements-dance, DJ music, Graffiti art and a style of dress- not just the music, ..."

NOJ: You believe that rap music has a cultural link to heritage, more based on the diaspora of the West African drumming tradition?

RG: It all manifests itself in different ways. As an African, an African descendant, that lives in you. It will manifest itself in different ways. I’ll give you an example. When I was in elementary school, when a teacher would leave the room, one of the boys would start a beat on his desk and then the others would all join in adding their own beats. What do you have there? You have an African drum circle manifesting itself in East St. Louis, Missouri. Out of nowhere. Nobody knows why, it just is. So that rhythm always finds a way to express itself. Rhythmically, what we have today, even with the shit that we hear on today’s popular radio that we can’t stand lyrically, underneath it all that is a rhythm that we all feel and love in a certain way, because it’s that same inherent rhythm that is manifesting itself.  We can get past on whatever is going on in society; boys feeling a certain way about life, about how badly people are treated and how unfair life can be, we need to get past that shit because that comes and goes. But that rhythm is always going to be with you in your DNA. And that’s why my music is both of those things. I am a melody writer, but I am pulled rhythmically from that African drumming tradition.

NOJ: During your career you have played with some impressive artists from Oliver Lake, to Branford Marsalis to Wynton and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Then you diverted from that more traditional trajectory and started going on your own into hard bop, integrating contemporary sounds into your music. Is this the direction you expected to take?

RG: Yeah. Since in high school I was always on that path. When I made Ethnomusicology Vol 1 in 1998, I had already thought of that material in 1988. I just didn’t have the musical tools to develop that stuff. I started to develop the musical tools I needed once I moved to New York. I started to learn how to put things together, but conceptually it had been there since the late eighties.

NOJ: Wynton is known as being a jazz purist. Did he influence you, if at all?

RG: Now here is a beautiful thing. Here is a beautiful lesson in musicianship. I was in Jazz at Lincoln Center (Orchestra) before it was called Jazz at Lincoln Center It was called the Wynton Marsalis Big Band. I was hired personally by him. You know all these arguments that are going on now in the public eye. Wynton and I had these very same conversations, with the same differences, twenty years ago, only they were in private. Our differences never stopped him from having me in his band because I spoke the language and was able to deal with what they wanted me to deal with. We could have the most personal differences all day long, and we did, many, many times. I was a kid coming straight out of East St. Louis onto the scene in New York. My hair was braided, I dressed just like all the kids in the nineties, giant ass pants, giant ass coats and shit, my nose was pierced. There was no way you could tell the difference between me as a working musician at Jazz at Lincoln Center and any other twenty-something walking the streets of New York at the time. The only way you would know the difference was when I sat down and took my trumpet out to play, and that’s the only thing that really mattered to Wynton.

NOJ: You got nominated for two Grammy awards and then you were dropped by your label, Atlantic at the time. How does an artist deal with that kind of roller coaster ride and what keeps you from just throwing your hands up, scratching your head and questioning why you are doing this?

RG: This is what I do. I would be a liar if I didn’t say that things like that hurt me sometimes. Of course, they do, because it not only kind of demoralizes you but it fucks with how you make a living. If you in the “life” (laughing) which is what I like to call it (the life of a professional musician), then you are in it for better or worse. I don’t teach. I don’t give lessons. I write songs and I play the trumpet and that takes me wherever it’s going to take me right now. When I get a little older maybe I’ll feel different. Maybe somebody will offer me something that I will like oh shit ok.

NOJ: You just came off a tour with bassist Marcus Miller. Was that satisfying?

RG: Man, that is completely satisfying. For me it’s very important to be in his band right now. There are very few opportunities like that left. To be a part of a band, especially at my age, where I’m still in the student role and I can still learn. But to play with someone who played with someone that I wish I could’ve have played with.

NOJ: Miles?

RG: Yeah. Bands don’t really exit like that anymore on that level. When there is one person who has that kind of lineage who works as much as he works. For me its very important. I don’t think its by accident. I am a universe believer. I believe you will always be put in situations because that’s what you asked for or that’s what you want.

NOJ: How did the connection with Marcus happen?

Russell Gunn and Marcus Miller

RG: Man, it’s the craziest thing. Now this is one of the weirdest things that have ever happened to me. A few years ago, maybe a year and a half ago, my oldest sister passed away. I was in East St. Louis, at the funeral and I was about to go inside. I was in the car and Marcus texted me. I don’t know what he was doing, he was changing up the band, and I had always wanted to be in his band and for whatever reason he never called me until that day and I have been in the band ever since. Quite honestly, right now the trumpet duties in his band are kind of split between me and another trumpet player, Marquis Hill from Chicago. That’s how that happened. The crazy thing is when I started to tell people I’m about to go out on tour playing with Marcus. They all started saying “Damn man, it’s about time.”

NOJ: It is about time that you’ve have gotten this kind of recognition.

RG: Everything that Marcus needs in a trumpet player, that is exactly what I am. All the Miles music, all the contemporary music, not to say I’m a great trumpet player, but that thing -to be in his band -is exactly what I’m about. I’m positive that my development as a trumpet player has led me to this point, that now joining his band I am able to give him what he needs without any kind of real tutelage. I think it works for him it’s a really great thing. I love playing in the band.

NOJ: Who is in the band now?

RG: This band is very, very young. He has a great young piano player named Brett Williams who will be doing some things soon. His alto player is Alex Han. Alex was nominated for a Grammy last year, first record, first time out of the gate. His drummer is Alex Bailey who is a roommate of Alex Han when they were in college.

NOJ: You have one of Atlanta’s most exciting and innovative big band, The Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra. Tell us the genesis of this band and where did the name Krunk come from?

RG: The Krunk Jazz Orchestra is basically everything I have been working towards finally coming together. This is what I’ve always been, I have always been a band leader. I’ve always written for a larger ensemble, although I’ve never written for a big band before. But I’ve always written for larger ensembles on most of my recordings. This was always the direction I was going in.

The word “Krunk” is an Atlanta word. There are a couple of definitions and I’ll give you the PG definition. It’s when you are in a heightened excited state.

"The Krunk Jazz Orchestra is basically everything I have been working towards finally coming together. This was always the direction I was going in."


NOJ : Agitated?

RG: No, not agitated at all. It’s a happy excitement. Like when you go to a social party and you see someone having a really good time. You would say “Yeah, that person right there is Krunk.” Its that sensibility, not anything negative at all.

NOJ: Is there a sexual connotation to it?

RG: No, not at all. It’s just being in a super excited, fun state of mind.

NOJ: Is it like being euphoric and care free?

RG:  Euphoric yeah, I guess. The name came about- I did a record called Krunk Jazz- Bionic - Julie Dexter was singing on it. I had her listening to some of the early cuts and she was in a car listening when a kid came up to her car window and said, “That sounds like some “Krunk” Jazz to me.” And that’s how the name was born. Kids always tell the truth.

NOJ: You always wanted to be a big band leader, even though you never studied composition or arrangement or had the rest of that formal training. You somehow managed to find a way to accomplish what you needed for this big band.

RG:  All through trial and error. Arranging is one thing, orchestration is whole different thing. Musical knowledge is acquired by study, but you can learn it by trial and error, which is what I’ve done. I hired Wes Funderburk, a local trombone player and great arranger, to write the very first charts that I had. I arranged three or four on the record. I’m still getting better, I’m working on my next one now. What I learn from the last one, I’m taking to the next project.

NOJ: This debut release of the Royal Krunk Orchestra is titled Get It How You Live, which will be released on Ropeadope Records on July 13, 2018. Tell us what you mean by the title?

The Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra's Get it How You Live  Ropesdope  RAD-430

RG: Its just like everything we have been talking about. Get it How You Live is another saying, a Black saying, that has a simple meaning. To put it in the most layman of terms it means to represent yourself how you really are, in a genuine way.

NOJ: I would call that authentic.  I have to say, you are one of the most authentic musicians I have ever seen. When you play you leave it all out there. I’ve seen you explore a song like “Blue and Green” on several occasions and you always seem to find something new to say when playing it. What is it about a song like that, so compelling that an artist like you can always find a thread that he can explore and make it all his own?

RG: In a small group setting, again for me everything is just sound. In a small group setting it is even more important to deal with the sound as opposed to doing the simple math. As a “jazz” musician you can do simple math to play almost any of these songs just by using mathematical equations. There is a bebop equation that you relate to the notes in the bebop language. If you understand the math and can put air through the instrument you can play. But everyone plays Charlie Parker ‘s music but they don’t sound like Bird. Or they play Trane’s music, but they don’t sound like Trane, because there is the other part to it. It comes from that other place that we really don’t understand yet. When you get to this level, there was a time when everything I did was based on some formulaic approach, but that’s just maturation as a musician. Everyone matures at a different rate, which is very important for young musicians to know.  If anyone reads this, and they are frustrated, I think it’s important for young musicians, no matter how much adoration you may get as a youth, you must realize that the truth is most musicians don’t fully develop until later.

NOJ: It’s also about living, isn’t it? A musician has to "live" experiences to be able to bring those experiences authentically into his or her music.

  • Russell Gunn (photo by Ralph A. Miriello)
RG: Yeah, it’s like the martial arts, you can know all the form and clarity and you can spar and can even get some success in achieving a black belt, but until you are there, and you have to fight, and you really develop those instincts and that sixth sense of what your opponent is going to do you haven’t really mastered your art.

As a musician, once you start really playing, then you start dealing with the sounds not notes, then you and the drummer can start to react together. Then the piano player might play something a little out there and you may hear something that can lead you into an area that is different then where you were thinking before. That is just a maturation period. Trust me, I don’t consider myself to be great or even good by any stretch of the imagination. I always felt that “jazz” musicians have over a hundred years of recorded music to stand on, and we should be as good or better than all of those musicians that came before us, because we have all of that history to study and practice and hopefully go beyond.

NOJ: That’s a very ambitious goal. Can you imagine being better than Louis Armstrong or Clifford Brown or Woody Shaw?

RG: Well Louis Armstrong is the greatest. But listen they were all better than people that came before them. You’re talking about these people that learned the history and the tradition and took it a step further. That’s what we all should be doing. We should have mastered what they did and moved on.

NOJ: On the new album you teamed up with the neo-soul singer Dionne Farris and worked out some of her material with your big band. How did this collaboration come about?

Dionne Farris and Russell Gunn (photo credit unknown)
RG: I started working with Dionne a few years ago. It was crazy. When I played in Branford’s (Marsalis) band, we were recording, I think his second record and it might have been about the same time she was a huge pop star and she came by the studio. I hadn’t seen her all those years until one day she came into Churchill Grounds and was playing with my percussionist Ali Barr. We caught up and reconnected. I was going to do a gig at Churchill and I thought it might be nice to do a collaboration with her. She wanted to learn and wanted to sing and get into the genre a little more. So, we had this gig coming up, and you know, there is no doubt about how well she can sing. She’s amazing. Just singing as a “jazz” singer is a little bit different from what she had been doing. She wanted me to send her a bunch of jazz songs that I thought she would be able to sing well, but hen I thought, why don’t I take her material and arrange it in a way that we would all be comfortable. Basically, extend across the aisle for each other and that’s what I did and that’s how the relationship started. She’s been there ever since. She is my go to girl.

NOJ: What’s next for you?

RG: I just got home yesterday from a Jamaican tour and I am on my way out in the morning to Europe for about ten days. Then I come home for a couple of days before I go back out to Europe again with Marcus Miller for another month. Then I come home for a bit, my record will be out by then, and hopefully we can come home and see what we can make happen with this band.

NOJ: Are you planning on touring with the Royal Krunk Orchestra, if not nationally then locally?

Russell Gunn and his Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra 

RG: I plan on touring with the big band if I can, I just have to make it happen.

NOJ: That is a tough one. The economics of touring with a big band are challenging. How many pieces are in the band?

RG: Nineteen.

NOJ:  The band includes Lee King, Curtis Watson, Daniel Harper, Ali Barr, Darren English and Melvin Jones on trumpets; Derrick Jackson, Saunders Sermons, Derrick White and Tom Gibson on trombones; Akeem Marable, Brian Hogans, Mike Walton, Jamel Mitchell, Eric Fontaine and James Robertson on Saxophones; Che Marshall on drums; Phil Davis on keyboards; Rod Harris Jr. on guitar; Tabari Lake on bass; Ali Barr on percussion; Dionne Farris and Dashill Smith on vocals; and special guest Theo Croker on trumpet on "Sybil's Blues."  Composer, arranged, produced and conducted by Russell Gunn. Some Arrangements by Wes Funderburk.

NOJ: It should be happening. From what I ‘ve heard its different and fresh and I wish you all the luck in the world with it.

RG: Thanks, its all good.


Friday, July 6, 2018

A Never Ending Search for the Groove: Drummer McClenty Hunter's "The Groove Hunter"


McClenty Hunter The Groove Hunter Strikezone Records 8816

The drummer McClenty Hunter Jr. is one of those timekeepers that has made a name for himself precisely because he can adapt his playing to suit almost any music. The cat swings on everything he does, whether it be in guitarist/producer Dave Stryker’s trio and larger ensembles, in saxophonist Kenny Garrett’s Grammy nominated quintet or as a valued sideman on other people’s projects.

He’s been on the New York scene for about ten years after having studied with Grady Tate at Morehouse College where he graduated in 2005, and later studying with Carl Allen at Julliard for his masters, which he received in 2007. He has worked with jazz icons like Lou Donaldson, Jimmy Heath, Cedar Walton and Curtis Fuller to name a few and has been recorded extensively.

His debut album as a leader, The Groove Hunter, says it all- he is a man always hunting for that perfect groove. Hunter’s seemingly effortless ability to adapt his style to compliment whatever music is at hand is impressive- his effort is always within the group context. With plenty of facility, he is somewhat selfless musician, an advocate of the total sound rather than promoting his own individual role.

The music begins with the fractious staccato movement in Herbie Nichols “Blue Chopsticks” where Hunter, pianist Eric Reed and bassist Cochran Holt lay down a powerful pace that Hunter accentuates with splashes, pops and crackle. Holt offers a fleet and mellifluous bass solo. This trio shows tremendous intuition and Hunter would be wise to maintain his connection to these like-minded musicians for future projects.

The music ups the ante adding three horns - Donald Harrison’s alto, Stacy Dillard’s tenor and Eddie Henderson’s trumpet-to the rhythm section of Holt, Hunter and Reed. The group pulses in hardbop splendor behind Hunter and Holt’s marvelous in-the-pocket groove. There is some scintillating horn work by these gentlemen on this one that on its own is worth the price of admission.

McClenty Hunter (photo credit unknown)

Hunter proves himself to be a sensitive composer, shown here by his work with Dillard, Reed and Holt  on his composition “Autumn.” Reed’s fluid piano work is a delight. Holt’s bass sings with great sonority. This man has the sound of a mature master. Stacy Dillard is increasingly becoming an important voice on the saxophone. Here he plays with a breezy lightness that nonetheless preserves a sense of poignancy and power. All the while Hunter is quietly in command, the cement that binds them all together.

Hunter enlists bandmate and producer/guitarist Dave Stryker along with piano phenom Christian Sands and bassist Eric Wheeler for a rousing rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “That Girl.”  The trapmaster anchors the tune with a soulful shuffle that has you tapping your feet from the very beginning. Stryker’s guitar is in classic swing mode ala Wes Montgomery, and Sands piano solo is splendidly creative. If this one doesn’t get you moving, call a doctor and check your pulse.

Another Hunter original is the soulful “My Love,” once again played with Reed on piano and Holt on bass. Hunter’s shimmering cymbal work giving the barest accompaniment on the intro until the song erupts into a Coltrane-inspired modal chant. Dillard providing the exploratory tenor solo and Hunter’s exploding drums showing Elvin-like polyphony. Reed’s Tyner-like piano solo is another marvel of absorption and Holt powers full-throated through it all.



“Sack Full of Dreams” is Hunter’s homage to teacher and mentor Grady Tate. Guitarist Stryker sets his tone to mellow and bassist Wheeler struts strongly. Pianist Christian Sands returns for a thoughtful solo before Stryker lays down some sweet lines and octaves that just melt into the fabric of the song.

Hunter follows with another original “I Remember When,” this time with just Sands and Wheeler. Sands has studied his history and sometimes sounds Garner-esque in his embellishments. Hunter’s brush work carries the rhythm with a gossamer touch before he responds to Sands breakout solo- a fountainhead of pianistic elegance-with his own rhythmic retorts.

John Coltrane’s “Countdown” features some rabid playing by Hunter, Reed and Holt-altoist Donald Harrison offering an incendiary solo that honors the master without copying him. This one cooks and Hunter’s rhythmic drive is impressively unrelenting.

The finale is Hunter’s dreamy “Give Thanks.”  Here he plays toms and cymbals with mallets in a cadence that is particularly alluring. Reed's piano gently comps as Stacy Dillard’s voluptuous soprano work lulls you luxuriously to another place. Cochran Holt’s bass solo is big, round and probing and Reed’s solo is the epitome of musicality.

McClenty Hunter's The Groove Hunter has established this young drummer as a force to be reckoned with. A triple threat as a musician, a composer and a leader. Producer Dave Stryker has once again shown himself to a shrewd judge of talent and his Strikezone record label is quickly becoming a label to watch.


Monday, July 2, 2018

"The Alchemy" A Serene New Offering from George Brooks and Elements

George Brooks and Elements The Alchemy

The saxophonist George Brooks is a West Coast based musician with a definitive sound that is strongly influenced by his affinity for Eastern and particularly Northern Indian classical music.

Brooks was originally from New York and studied saxophone with Count Basie alumnus Frank Foster. He attended the New England Conservatory of Music in the mid-seventies and studied with Jaki Byard, George Russell and Joe Allard. It was at NEC that he met Peter Row, a sitarist and ethnomusicologist at the school. Row introduced Brooks to some classical Indian music, especially the work of influential Northern Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath. Brooks went to India to study with Nath, eventually indenturing himself to the master, cooking and caring for him in exchange for being permitted to absorb his knowledge. He also met sitarists Krishna Bhatt and composer Terry Riley, a relationship that would carry on when Brooks returned to the United States and settled in California.
Gharana, a term derived from an Indian word meaning house, is the specific School of Indian music that Brooks focused his studies on. It emphasized the expression of a raga took precedence over the more rhythmic aspects of the music. The eighth century text, The Brihaddeshi describes raga as " a combination of tones which, with beautiful illuminating graces, pleases the people in general." 

Brooks association with Terry Riley, the influential minimalist pianist/composer and early advocate of the use of tape delay technology would last for thirty years. During his early years in California, Brooks found himself participating in the vivid and expansive Bay area music scene. Besides his work with Riley, he was tapped to lead the horn sections of blues greats Albert Collins, Johnny Taylor and Etta James. His continuing study of Indian Classical music of both the Northern Hindustani and Southern Carnatic styles and its fusion with Western traditions of jazz improvisation brought him into collaborations with tabla master Zakir Hussain, the drummer Steve Smith from Journey, the fusion guitarists Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin, the bassist Kai Eckhardt and the Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. His Indian collaborators are too numerous to mention but are some of the most celebrated musicians in the Indian tradition.

Brooks latest project, a trio titled Elements, combines Brooks’ artful soprano and tenor saxophone work with the Hindustani virtuoso Kala Ramnath’s haunting violin and Dutch harpist Gwyneth Wentik in an eastern influenced chamber music setting. The album aptly titled The Alchemy is just that, a transformational fusion of Eastern and Western musical traditions. An album of deep beauty and quietude, if you allow it the music fosters a spiritual connection to your inner self.

Elements: George Brooks, Kala Ramnath, Gwyneth Wentik
The opener cut “To the Light” starts with a quick-paced synchronous line that is played in unison by the two string instruments, one plucked the other bowed, and Brooks floating soprano. Wentik’s harp provides the plucked background as Ramnath’s bow work pierces the air and Brooks’ soprano soars above the clouds. Brooks soprano work is some of the finest in almost any genre- light, fluid and precise and it is surprising that he doesn’t receive greater recognition for his work in annual polls.

Wentik’s harp gives the music a celestial feel on the beautiful “Karuna.” Ramanth’s violin work is some of the most poignant I’ve heard.  There is a Elysian quality to it that is  quite moving. She manages to produce sounds that ache with sorrow or soar with joy. Brooks’ plays tenor on this and his sound is no less compelling on this instrument.   

The music is peaceful, meditative, serene. Any inner tension I might have been holding onto melted away as I listened to “Travelling Music for Ann” with the ostinato harp of Wentik setting the stage, Brooks’ breezy soprano soaring and swooping and Ramanth’s plaintive, undulating voice all adding to a sense of inner calm.

“Singara” starts out with a call and response between Brooks’ soprano and Ramnath’s aching violin before Wentik’s harp sets the rhythmic stage. On “Lemon Pickle” the kanjira is played by Selvaganesh Vinayakram. This rhythmic instrument from the Southern Indian Carnatic tradition is a tambourine-like drum that creates a plunging like sound. The group plays fast paced lines in unison as the kanjira sets a tonal pace.

 “Ambika” is another showcase for Ramnath’s expressive violin work. You can almost visualize her instrument weeping at times. Wentik’s harp work is gentle like a summer breeze and Brook’s soprano is weightless.

 “To Be or Not,” one of the more melodic songs on the album, is the final song presented by the trio. This time they include Kai Eckhardt’s bass to the mix to set the song on a firm footing. You seem to forget that for the most of this album there is no percussive instrument present.

The remainder of the album is a three-song suite that features the solo harp work of Wentik, a formidable musician on an instrument that is not often featured as a solo instrument. She concludes the program  with songs like “The Gift” The Longing” and “The Promise."

Let’s be clear as with much of the new music that I receive this music is not jazz per se but more like jazz and world-influenced chamber music. It is expertly played and if you would occasionally welcome a peaceful respite from your everyday hustle, or even if you want a gorgeous, serene soundtrack to meditate  or do Yoga to than The Alchemy will fit that bill nicely.



Saturday, June 23, 2018

Jamie Baum's "Bridges" Spans the gap between Multiple Musical Traditions

Jamie Baum's Septet + Bridges : Sunnyside SSC-1502
The New York based flautist Jamie Baum has made a name for herself as both an accomplished musician and a formidable composer/arranger. Her composing for mid-sized groups is some of the finest and most creative on the contemorry music scene. I've been a fan of her music since I first heard her brilliant 2008 record Solace

Despite some changes in personnel over the years, with her Septet+,she has always managed to assemble and lead a group of talented, like-minded musicians that each bring something special to her musical table. With Baum's music, she downplays her own individual viruosity, never seeming to have the inclination to feature herself in her work, content instead to let the whole of her musical compositions speak as a unified vision. 

On her latest album, aptly titled Bridges, she has released an album of nine original compositions that feature the unique musical skills of her seven bandmates. The music is a the result of a Guggenheim fellowship that allows artists such as Baum the time and resources to create. The instrumentation is itself a bit unusual- flute, trumpet, saxophone and bass clarinet, French horn, electric guitar, piano, upright bass, drums and even a Tibetan singing bowl. Special guests bring additional percussion, voice and tanpura to the mix.

The album is a adroit mixture, with elements of Middle-Eastern or Maqam, Jewish, Indian and Nepalese, Southeast Asian, rock, chamber music and jazz. 

Starting out with the driving “From the Well” the group shows how well this instrumentation can tackle this complicated frenzied beat. The music accelerates like a darting roadrunner across the desert sand until Baum’s flute emerges. Her lines flow like bubbling spring water from an oasis. Sam Sidigursky’s bass clarinet offers a sinewy, snake charmer-like solo before Amir ElSaffar’s clarion trumpet rings over the horizon like a cry to action.

Baum employs ElSaffar’s distinct voice to sing her poignant “Song Without Words,” which is a dedication to her late father. ElSaffar’s voice drips with emotional content. Sidigursky’s bass clarinet solo is a masterwork of expressiveness. Baum’s own solo is soft and feathery, floating on the wings of her fond memories. Baum uses Comer’s distinctive French horn, an instrument not normally heard in jazz, to great effect here.

“There Are No Words” starts with a pedal point by pianist Escreet over which Baum and Sagdigursky play a weaving synchronous line. Bassist Zach Lober offers a deep toned solo, which leads into a Baum solo that features a subtle echo effect giving it a windswept sound. Pianist John Escreet has been on my radar for some time.  His facile keyboard work is harmonically complex, always unusual and played with the utmost sensitivity.

The album then proceeds into a five-part suite that Honors Nepal and commemorates the catastrophic Gorkha earthquake that occurred in April of 2015. The natural disaster took nearly nine thousand lives and injured another twenty-two thousand.

The suite starts with Part 1 “The Earthquake” with the peaceful drone of a Tibetan singing bell which permeates the air before a somber, almost funereal horn movement gently plays over it. Then all hell breaks loose. Brad Shepik’s distorted guitar wizardry recreates the havoc of the quake in all its electric kineticism as Jeff Hirshfield’s roiling drums boil underneath. The sounds are disturbing but recreate the chaos and trauma of the event.

Part 2 of the suite, entitled “Renewal,” is appropriately uplifting. The music is played brilliantly by Sadigursky on alto and Baum on flute with Escreet’s flittering piano work, all conjuring up images of Phoenix-like new growth making its purposeful way into the sunshine and through destruction of the aftermath of the earthquake.

Part 3 “Contemplation” is a gorgeous chamber piece with sounds of French Horn, Bass Clarinet and trumpet all intertwining with booming bass lines, subtle brush strokes and carefully placed piano notes to create a tapestry of sound. Escreet’s piano solo is superb in both its flawless execution and aural beauty.

“Joyful Lament” is perhaps the most memorable of the songs on the album. It is based on a melody by the Pakistani vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Kahan called “Lament.” Baum admits to having arranged the composition with guitarist Brad Shepik in mind and he does not disappoint. The band plays on as Shepik builds his own searing guitar lines into an ascension of sorts, taking his solo into the heavens with his own blend of rock-inspired shredding. This is an easy candidate for most inspired instrumental solo of the year.

“Mantra” is a drone-like creation that finds Baum’s echoed flute in interplay with Navin Chettri’s haunting  voice and twanging tanpura. The music is mystical and the lightly played gongs make it a meditative piece.

“U Cross Me” is the album’s finale and starts off with some syncopated piano notes by Escreet and percussion by Jamie Haddad. The horns and reeds play in a downwardly cascading pattern that is quite unusual. Then they all come together in a display of precise synchronicity. Hirshfield and Lober lay down a more traditional driving rhythmic structure over which the group plays. The syncopation continues as all the instruments find their voice in a cacophony of expression before Shepik’s guitar breaks it all open with another scorching solo.

With Bridges Jamie Baum has somehow managed to span the gap between multiple musical traditions and successfully integrate them all into a coherent genre that is all its own.