Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Vocalist Kate Reid shows some backbone and style on "The Heart Already Knows"

Kate Reid :The Heart Already Knows 

Despite a plethora of female jazz vocalists who release albums on any given week, rarely do I hear what I consider to be a voice that catches my ear, a voice clearly distinguishable from a sea of pedestrian singers out there desperately trying to gain recognition. To separate themselves from the pack, many singers hire top name musicians or employ lush orchestrations to give them credibility or to hide their vocal deficiencies. Along comes Kate Reid. I have never heard of her and admit to picking up her latest cd The Heart Already Knows with a bit of skepticism. Yes, she employed some of the most accomplished musicians to accompany her on this outing, but instead of hiding behind their virtuosity or employing a big band with over the top arrangements, she daringly chooses to lay herself bare, performing in a series of duets with just her voice and either a piano or guitar accompaniment. There is no hiding in this format. You either have the goods or you don’t. Kate Reid’s The Heart Already Knows shows she is the real deal. Clearly, she chose her collaborators wisely, bringing in some of the cream of the crop to accompany her. Pianists Fred Hersch and Taylor Eigsti or guitarists Paul Meyers, Romero Lubambo and Larry Koonse all contribute admirably to the effort, but it is Kate Reid who shines.

Reid hails from the Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio and received her bachelor’s degree in Jazz Studies from Western Michigan University. She continued her education at the University of Miami where she received a masters and eventually a Doctor of Music Arts.  She moved to Los Angeles and continued as an educator, teaching music and voice at Cypress College also working with her own quartet around the LA area. She became a sought-after studio and session musician lending her voice to several notable films, network television soundtracks and commercials. She is presently a Director of Jazz Vocal Performance and Associate Professor of jazz voice at the Frost School of Music at her alma mater University of Miami. The woman clearly has the goods.

With such an esteemed career in the studio and academia it’s no wonder why many of us haven’t heard of her at the national level.  With her latest release, The Heart Already Knows, that should change.

Reid’s voice is smooth, sultry with a Julie London-like intimate quality, especially in this very pared down duet format. It’s as if she is singing to you personally. Her tone is warm, her delivery is polished, and she modulates between notes with effortless ease.  

The songs are not your usual fare, more contemporary than the run of the mill standards from the Great American Songbook, but they have their own charm and certainly suit her voice.  She sings Strayhorn’s “Something to Live For” like a wizened storyteller and with tender poignancy, accompanied by Paul Taylor’s nimble guitar. Taylor’s guitar accompaniment also shines on the Ellington Blues “Just a Lucky So and So” where Reid’s velvety voice floats on top of the melody like a dollop of ice cream on a root beer float.

The masterful guitarist Larry Koonse’s weaves his magic on “Confessin’” laying down the perfect backdrop for Reid to soulfully scat to the melody. Reid also uses Koonse’s filigreed guitar work on Joni Mitchell’s “Two Grey Rooms.” Koonse plays the chord changes on an acoustic guitar and overdubs some superb harmony lines on a western-tinged electric guitar. Reid’s voice is clear and impassioned by the Mitchell lyrics and at times, although her voice has a lower timber, she almost sounds like Joni.

The pianist Fred Hersch can be heard accompanying Reid on the haunting Billie Holiday song “No More” which she sings with her own sense of pathos. He also accompanies Reid on a song sung by Nina Simone “If I Should Lose You” which is done with an up tempo beat and again on Hersch’s own languid composition “Lazin’ Around.”

The Brazilian guitarist Romero Lubambo lends his exquisite mastery and gives Fred Hersch’s” Endless Stars” a samba beat. Reid sings the Norma Winestone lyrics with an easy lilt. Later the two return on the Ivan Lins’ composition “Minds of Their Own” with lyrics by producer Peter Eldridge.

Perhaps the most synergistic combination on the album is Reid with the pianist Taylor Eigsti on the Peter Eldridge song “Busy Being Blue.”  Reid’s voice rings with a sense of having lived the lyrics and Eigsti’s accompaniment is perceptive and lyrical. Reid’s delivery is so natural and unforced that it draws you into the melancholy of the song without ever becoming maudlin. Eigsti also accompanies Reid’s on the James Taylor classic “Secret of Life.”

As Producer Peter Eldridge says in the liner notes, the duet “…concept could either send chills down your spine or reveal a backbone you never knew you had.” I think its safe to say that with The Heart Already Knows, vocalist Kate Reid 's backbone is alive and well. 

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Mike DiRubbo Quartet live at Smalls; Patience pays

Mike DiRubbo Quartet Live at Smalls  Sl-0058
The alto saxophonist Mike DiRubbo has been on the verge of a breakout for some time.  The now forty-eight-year-old alto saxophonist has a clean, biting sound. One is reminded of one of his mentors, the late Jackie McLean. DiRubbo began his musical studies on clarinet and eventually moved to his instrument of choice, the alto, when he was twelve.  A life changing experience with the Mitchell-Ruff group while he was still in high school convinced him that music was his life’s calling. After high school, DiRubbo studied at McLean’s Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford in his home state of Connecticut. McLean saw something in the young man’s playing that reminded him of himself. The master’s intuition has proven to be prophetic.  DiRubbo graduated from Hartt in 1992 and after working for a couple of years with local musicians in Connecticut, he eventually made his way to the Mecca of jazz, New York City, in 1997.

DiRubbo has sharpened his skills on the whetstone of gigging with some of New York’s premier jazz players like Al Foster, Jimmy Cobb, Harold Mabern, Eddie Henderson, John Hicks, Peter Washington and Carl Allen to name a few. His hard work has paid off giving him a distinctive hard-edged sound that both honors the tradition and launches the music into the era of modernity.  The critics have noticed. DiRubbo has been a nominee for Downbeat’s Rising Star on Alto Saxophone for the last six years running.

He has worked extensively as a sideman on albums led by modern artists like  trombonist Steve Davis, keyboardist Brian Charette, trumpeter Jim Rotondi and bassist Mario Pavone. The altoist has released several albums as a leader and started his own record label, Ksanti in 2011. Ksanti means “patience” in Sanskrit and with such an impressive resume and his latest release, Mike DiRubbo Quartet Live at Smalls, that patience may finally be rewarded with the accompanying recognition that he so richly deserves.

As the title implies this is a “live’ recording, capturing the moment of spontaneity and excitement that happens when a group is in sync and spurred on by an appreciative audience. This release is very current having been recorded at Smalls Jazz Club in Greenwich Village in December of 2017. The group is stellar. Pianist Brian Charette sheds his organ and synthesizers for a night of acoustic piano and the results are impressive. The rhythm section of Ugonna Okegwo and Jonkuk Kim keep the energy high and pulsing.  Smalls, ans an intimate, basement club that has a capacity of sixty, is the perfect venue to listen to and appreciate a group like this. You get a chance to get upfront and personal with the band. A chance to listen and watch undistracted as DiRubbo and his group explore the possibilities of the compositions that they play.

The music is straight-ahead post-Coltrane, hard-bop and it is delivered with a raw edged authenticity that captures your attention. All the songs are written by DiRubbo- the one exception is John Abercrombie’s beautiful ballad “As it Stands,” and to be fair ,“Pent-Up Steps” is a take on Coltrane’s “Giant Steps”

From the driving opening bars of “Hope” you get the sense that this is going to be a special set of music. There is a Coltrane intensity and DiRubbo’s horn, at times almost sounds like a tenor; sharp, sometimes ragged, ripping through the lines like a serrated knife through crusty bread.Okegwo’s pulsating bass lines lead the way.Charette’s piano comps are thoughtful and measured and he offers a shimmering solo of cascading notes. Drummer Kim is a bundle of cacophony that keeps the proceedings percolating just to the brink of a boil.

“Details” uses a repeating rhythmic motif over which DiRubbo’s alto blows, first stating the line and then exploring its modal possibilities. You can hear the strong influence of his mentor Jackie McLean here. His notes are articulated like short staccato stabs, often accentuated with snare drum jabs by drummer Kim. When the altoist goes off, his cutting sound connects longer runs of notes played with a force that implies urgency. Charette takes an inspired solo that features a flow of notes that pour from his keyboard like the water of rushing stream before setting up for a pensive bass solo by Okewgo. As the song closes DiRubbo reaches the higher register with intense wailing sounds that are reminiscent of some of Pharoah Sanders’ plaintive cries.

The cd continues with “A Blues.”  The song has a swinging feel and each musician takes a turn in the solo spotlight. Okewgo’s bass is strong and pulsing and Charette's musings hold your interest with an economy of notes and some nice tremolo effects. DiRubbo’s alto is sinewy, his facility always at the ready to produce a flurry of notes when the mood suits him, or he will dynamically leave some space when effective.

“Moving In” is a soulful, ruminative ballad that features some of DiRubbo’s most sensitive playing. The rhythm section holds down the waltz-like pace as the altoist is given a chance to wander around the melody expressing a variety of ideas that all have an emotional appeal. His horn pleading in its tone and phrasing. Okwego’s bass is robust, dancing around the rhythm in a free-spirited prance that is loose but never loses the tempo.

“Pent-up Steps” is a derivative of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and shows the group in top form. DiRubbo’s alto navigates the changes with a slipstream ease. Gushes of sound come pouring out of his horn in deluge of ideas, building in intensity, surging with screeching, high-register notes at the apex of his solo. The rhythm section keeps the pace and defines the changes.  Pianist Charette artfully offers a series of beautifully executed ascending and descending runs. Drummer Kim, given his chance to shine, produces a polyphony of beats accented by some shimmering cymbal work, before the group heads for the exit at the coda.

The late guitarist John Abercrombie had a way of composing endearing music that often had a touch of introspective melancholy to it.  It’s no wonder that the group rises to the occasion and delivers one of their most memorable performances on his composition “As it Stands.” DiRubbo’s alto is particularly moving, his tone and attack delivering the pensive, moody feel with great insight and authentic feeling. Charette’s poignant solo is a highlight and Okwego’s bass sings with its own sense of deeply felt emotion.

The final song of the cd is “Archangel.” DiRubbo uses the thumping beat of Okwego’s bass, the roiling drums of Kim and the deftly placed comp chords of Charette to go off in an intense, ‘sheets of sound’ deluge of notes on his horn.
As the record memorializes,this is a group that thrives in the intimate setting of a club like Smalls. The chemistry is potent and DiRubbo delivers a set of  powerful music that relishes intensity while still leaving room for the sensitivity that a good ballad requires.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Tony Bennett mesmerizes at Atlanta’ Symphony Hall July 24, 2018

On a warm Tuesday night, at Atlanta’s beautiful Symphony Hall, a beloved figure of American music entertained an adoring audience. The maestro, Tony Bennett, quickly approaching his ninety-second birthday in August, embodied what is meant by the Mack Gordon lyrics “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Energized by the sold-out crowd, many who came to pay homage to a lifetime of over sixty years of epic performance art, Bennett entered the stage to a standing ovation and to the music of Michel Legrand’s marvelous “Watch What Happens.”  The place was charged. The symbiotic relationship between the warm and humble crooner and his audience was palpable. This exchange of energy is the very elixir that keeps the man vibrant, relevant and endearing. He is loved and adored, and he absorbs this tremendous outpour with rare humility and grace, which makes us love him even more.
His voice started with a raspy, slightly gravelly tone and a somewhat diminished range, but what he now lacks in vocal acuity he more than makes up with in his profound understanding of how to deliver a lyric. He is a consummate storyteller who captivates your imagination with his rich embellishment of its meaning. Take his wonderful rendition of the Gordon Jenkins classic “This is All I Ask.”  The lyrics now so much more relevant for a man in his nineties then when he first sang it back in 1963 at the age of forty-three. “As I approach the prime of my life, I find I have the time of my life, learning to enjoy at my leisure all the simple pleasures. And so, I happily concede, this is all I ask, this is all I need.”  The audience responded with a spontaneous round of applause as he sang these words to life.
In a conversation with Marc Meyers on his blog Jazz Wax in 2017, Bennett explained the importance of his relationship with the audience.

"I listen to the audience and feel their enthusiasm. Then I go along with that. I feel their spirit. I'm reacting to what's happening out there, and that's how the show becomes a reality. Once I know the audience is enjoying me, that they love what I'm doing, I'll do something different in response. It's almost as if we're having a conversation in the dark."

Bennett’s vitality was remarkable. Throughout the one-hour performance he never sat once, only occasionally leaning on the piano.  He walked erectly and with confidence, occasionally circling his bandmates and pointing to them, generously sharing the spotlight, encouraging the audience to shower his fellow musicians with applause. The band was made up of guitarist Gray Sargent, pianist Tom Rainier, bassist Marshall Wood and drummer Harold Jones. Since Bennett admittedly doesn’t prepare specific endings for the songs he elects to sing, the band must be capable of responding instantly to his flights of improvisation, which they did for the most part seamlessly.

Bennett and company ran through the Great American Songbook, swinging with Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm” done in double time. A master of timing and dynamics, Bennett switched to the Ellington classic “In My Solitude,” where he first sang with restrained aplomb. He skillfully built the tension along the way until the coda, where he surprised many with an explosive ending that he belted out with affirmation, much to the delight of the crowd.

He ran through the repertoire, with most songs timing in at the radio-friendly three-minute mark. The songs included “It Amazes Me,” “Steppin’ Out with My Baby,” “But Beautiful,” “Our Love is Here to Stay,” “My Foolish Heart,” and “Because of You.”  Bennett proceeded with a short medley that included Hank Williams “Cold, Cold Heart,” one of his early hits “Rags to Riches” and his classic “Who Can I Turn To,” which has long been a staple of his repertoire. The music continued with “Just in Time” and “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” and was followed by “The Good Life” which found the singer shouting the words “Wake Up, kiss the good life goodbye” in a powerful display of passion and bravado. It was almost as if he the wise nonagenarian was shaking the audience by the lapels, imploring them to enjoy the life they have every minute of every day. His fans responded several times during the evening to give Bennett a standing ovation. The unspoken question in everyone’s mind was “How can this guy still do what he does at such a high level?” The answer- It’s all about the love. The love Bennett has for his craft, the love his audience showers on him because of his honest integrity and warmth and the love of the music that seems eternal in its message, especially when delivered by one of the all-time masters of the art of singing.

The program continued with “The Music Never Ends” which was decidedly appropriate for this tireless performer. Guitarist Sargent moved centerstage to do a moving duo with Bennett on the Johnny Mandel standard “The Shadow of Your Smile” from the 1964 movie The Sandpiper which had the crowd salivating for more.  Bennett was warmed by the rapturous response and so he mined some more of his treasure trove continuing with Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” and then giving the audience what they were all waiting for, his signature song “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” which despite his diminishing range he pulled off with an amazing display of sheer will and polish. Sensing his audience was peaking, the master showman continued with “Who Cares” before finishing for the finale “Fly Me to the Moon.”  His voice carrying the seventeen hundred seat hall even without the aid of a microphone.

Bennett embraced himself in a demonstrative gesture, showing his deep appreciation for his audience, throwing them hugs and kisses, raising his hand upward in solidarity, basking in the adulation and was almost hesitant to finally leave the stage. But as he has once opined, timing is an important part of entertaining.  

"Know when to get off. You can't stay out there too long. You have to be aware when you've done enough. That often happens at the high point of an audience's reaction during the evening. When I hear that moment, I often say to myself  'I can't get a stronger reaction than this.' I usually leave soon after, on that high note."

Mr. Bennett, with all due respect, you can never stay too long in my book.

Here is one of my favorite Bennett collaborations with the great pianist Bill Evans from 1976. It's just timeless.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

The Interwoven Guitar Mastery of "Kreisberg meets Veras"

Nelson Veras and Jonathan Kreisberg: Kreisberg Meets Veras NFM 0005

There have been some stellar guitar collaborations over the years; some come to mind- Coryell and McLaughlin, Herb Ellis and Joe Pass, Jim Hall and Pat Metheny and John Abercrombie and Ralph Towner to name just a few. The latest duo of note is Jonathan Kreisberg and Nelson Veras as heard on their latest release Kreisberg meets Veras. These two are a revelation. They have an interwoven sound that is remarkably attuned to each other's instincts. A collaboration that deserves further exploration.

Born in New York City, Jonathan Kreisberg studied at The University of Miami from 1990-1994. He returned to his hometown in 1998 after playing an assortment of musical genres mostly centered on prog-rock and jazz fusion.  He immersed himself into the more traditional aspects of jazz guitar, eschewing his Stratocaster in favor of the rounder, mellower sound of a Gibson hollow-bodied guitar. He built up his chops finding work with artists like drummer Lenny White, saxophonist Joel Frahm and organist Dr. Lonnie Smith. He also formed a trio with drummer Ari Hoenig and bassist Johannes Weidenmueller. I first caught wind of this guitarist after hearing his album Shadowless from 2010 and later his solo album One from 2013, both excellent outings.

Brazilian guitarist Nelson Veras is new to me. He was apparently “discovered” by Pat Metheny when the then adolescent had moved from his native Salvador de Bahia, Brazil to France. Veras playing is rooted in the lilting Brazilian guitar-style of Joao Gilberto with a touch of Baden Powell’s fleet fingering.

Kreisberg plays electric guitar and Veras plays nylon-stringed guitar so the two sounds are tonally complimentary, never clashing with each other.“Lina Rising” is a marvelously layered composition by Kreisberg that allows these two string-masters to dance with each other in a delicate but swaying movement. It is thoroughly enjoyable to listen to the two exchange vastly different ideas on the same theme.

“Until You Know” has a faint hint of gypsy-jazz guitar feel to it. The two play synchronous lines with effortless ease. Kreisberg’s lines are particularly fluid, complex and harmonically aggressive and Veras comps behind him with polished aplomb. When Veras solos, his warmer sound is precise and a bit more romantic in its approach.

The third Kresiberg original, “Every Person is a Story,” is a dreamlike gemstone. Kreisberg’s guitar is made to sound like a harp descended from heaven. Played with exquisite sensitivity, it shimmers with a beauty that is hard not to be moved by.

The duo continues with some more familiar compositions like Monk’s “Bye-Yah,” a twisted exchange of ideas around the quirky Monk melody. Veras’ solo is particularly inventive with unexpected chicanery.  

Milton Nascimento's “Milagre Dos Pleixes” is right in Veras’ wheelhouse. He sets the scene with a miniature intro of classically inspired six-string beauty. The two guitarists latch onto the filigreed melody with some gorgeous finger-picked lines by Veras before Kreisberg launches into a dazzling saxophone-like solo that soars with inspiration.

Charlie Mingus’ “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” is probably one of the most played jazz standards in the canon and for good reason, it is a nostalgic homage to a past master, Lester Young. The two guitarists play it with appropriate reverence. Veras takes the first solo and simply plays so beautifully and with so much feeling that you can’t help but be moved. When Kreisberg solos, he adds crescendos of notes that descend from the air-like freshly fallen snow, lingering for just a second before evaporating into the atmosphere.

Chick Corea’s classic “Windows,” a perfect vehicle for the two guitarists feature a quick-paced and changing rhythm that is the ideal backdrop on which to improvise. The exchange never reaches the fever pitch of the Coryell/McLaughlin duel on the album Spaces, but then these two seem more content to seamlessly integrate the music of their respective instruments into a coherent whole rather than make a show of speed for speed’s sake.

The final cut on this fine album is an obscure Wayne Shorter composition “Face on The Barroom Floor.”  The piece is played at a slow deliberate tempo to allow the nuances of the two guitarist’s interplay to be fully appreciated. Veras lays down the beautiful chordal accompaniment as Kriesberg’s electric guitar simply takes us on a flight of fantasy. Toward the end, Kriesberg introduces a modulating electric sound on his guitar that is otherworldly, fading out at the coda like a sighing last breadth.

Jonathan Kreisberg and Nelson Veras are two of the finest contemporary guitarists on the scene today. Kreisberg meets Veras is an excellent guitar duo album that is destined to become a part of every serious guitarist’s treasured musical library. 

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.