You grew up in a very artistic family, your mother being an artist and your dad a trumpet player. How did the sax end up as the instrument that has contributed to your success so far as a musician?
Well it was kind of like destiny. In Nashville, 5th grade was the time where you went beyond the song flute and the xylophone and actually started to learn music in earnest with "real" instruments. Up until that time, my father, even though I knew he played trumpet did not push me into music. If he had, I probably would have been influenced enough to pick that instrument. As it happened though I was totally free to make my own decision. On the first day of band class another kid had already made his choice and obtained his saxophone: a brand new Vito Leblanc, Brass with Sliver keys. I had never seen one up close before! I immediately fell in love with the physical beauty of the instrument. I could not stop staring at that work of art and decided that was the instrument that I wanted to hold in my hands. When I told my father the news, he was somewhat disappointed, but because one of his best friends, Roger "Rock" Williams was an accomplished saxophonist, we took the trip over to his home where we purchased a used Vito for myself and I never looked back. Roger became my mentor and we stay in close contact even today, 30 years later!
When you first started playing, did you rely more on your ear or on your ability to read music?
Well, I would say a little of both depending on the circumstance. I read music, and learned along with everyone else. I played the arrangements that the director put in front of us and usually sat first chair. However, I developed my ear for everything else! See, many of my father's friends were current or former musicians. On the weekends, they would come over to our home, sit back, listen to records and reminisce about their band times in High School and College. Sometimes, my father would pull out his trumpet and play along with the records. After I got my sax, my father would always call me into the room and tell me to play with him. Now this is 5th grade. I could barely play "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and here it is he wanted me to play along with "Ray Charles Greatest Hits"? Well it only took that first time of abject failure for me to take that record back to my room during the week and try to listen to and learn every one of the licks I heard them play. That developed my ears early on and caused me to actually start improvising even then. I think my very first performance beyond my father's living room was in the school library where I played a jazzed up version of the theme to the TV show "Happy Days" that I had learned by ear to my fellow 5th graders.
Your album MY LIFE is an exceptional project, easily perceived, if one didn't know otherwise, as several releases into your solo career rather than a debut. To what do you attribute the high degree of professionalism and entertainment value in your style and performance here?
A lot of factors came into play with this. Up until this point I had been on other people's projects but never really had anything that defined me personally. When a band that I invested a lot of time and effort with broke up in 2004, I decided to start writing on my own instead of relying on the visions of others. What I naturally found myself writing were songs that evoked certain memories of mine which triggered an emotional response. I fed that back into the music. I also relied heavily on the major R&B influences regarding the songs that were out during my most emotional and formative years: Jr High, High School and College. Those 80's grooves by bands like Cameo, Earth Wind and Fire, Prince, The Time, and others were very heavy regarding bass and drums and most had horn sections. Because I so loved that "old school" R&B, my original music naturally had a similar feel. I was also looking to make a statement, not necessarily to anyone else, but to myself. See, I was not anticipating this CD to be commercially successful at the beginning. I actually was not trying for that. What I wanted was a quality piece of work that reflected "ME", what I considered the sax to be to me, what I loved about the music of my life, and most importantly something that I could be proud of for the rest of my life, whether I got another chance to record ever again. I wanted to have something that I could hand to my grandkids and prove to them that I actually created something special in my life. That is why it had to be right, with no cut corners and no slacking on the project. That's why I was lucky enough to learn about Veit Renn, Renn Music Productions, and was fortunate to engage him as a producer. Veit is a perfectionist, and that was fine with me. He helped me create this album and allowed me to creatively stay true. I think that is why people can feel the emotion and the quality of the music which has led to this unexpected outpouring of respect and enjoyment for this CD worldwide.
If you were to name only one major influence in your life that has led to your growth and maturity as a recording and performing musician, who or what would that be?
That is so hard to answer! I guess it is my desire to entertain. When I perform live, I relish the performances where I have an attentive crowd. I find myself scanning the audience for a face that is smiling and enjoying the performance and I play emotionally to that person trying to make that smile bigger, get them to start moving in their seat, and clapping their hands. The bigger their response, the better I play, and so on in this big musical, creator / listener feedback loop. Because I strive to continuously evoke that response from an audience, truly wanting to entertain, I have been able to grow as a musician and improve over the years instead of stagnating.
One of the most appealing aspects of your new album is your positive, happy vibe. What are the things in your life that bring you that joyful feeling that you so successfully project in your music?
Friends and Family! You know, they say that you can't take anything with you when you leave this earth except your experiences. That is where the vibe comes from, those experiences. "JJ's Bounce" was written for my kids, Joseph and Janelle. "Mura de Cozumel" was written about a diving vacation with my wife and about 250 other SCUBA club members. "Free" was written about changing your life and moving in a new, positive direction; "Call It A Day" is about going to Happy Hour with friends. "Embarkation" is about dancing on a cruise ship and starting on a journey, etc. Each song has a meaning and an experience and it is that positive emotion that makes the vibe.
In what directions would you like to see the Smooth Jazz format evolve moving forward?
I would like to see more variety, complexity, creativity and even an occasional return to some of the original contemporary styles of songs that started the smooth jazz movement. Songs like those recorded by Grover Washington, Jeff Lorber, early Spyro Gyra, Sanborn, etc. I think that the listener misses the excitement some and it is causing an unfortunate drop in market share for the stations in our genre. Individual stations used to be more unique, and that was their magic. In fact I have talked with several DJs from Smooth Jazz stations all across the country and many of them relate that they miss the control that they previously had over what could go out over the air. They were able to play something that was new and interesting easier then than they can now. A DJ had the ability to just by choosing certain songs in a certain order whip you into a jazz euphoria that would melt all your troubles away.That is what grew the format in the first place. I would say open that faucet again, and allow the DJs to again create that mood for their listeners. Let them take them back to the genre's roots with some Yellowjackets and then hit them next with something from Herbie's new album. Play someone new and local to your city right next to an established cat. Open that faucet and watch the format be rejuvenated in power!