What vocalists blow your hair back?
Well, it's been a while since I've had enough hair to actually "blow it back", but there is probably no bigger fan of great singers on the planet than me, and certainly not only jazz singers. For example, I absolutely adore Imogen Heap, who is a wonderful pop/electronic artist from the U.K. with incredible pitch and this otherworldly breathy delivery that just slays me.
And excuse me, but have you heard Christina Aguilera sing "A Song For You" on the Herbie Hancock CD? Stylistically, she tends to oversing a bit, but wow, the things she can do with her voice, and it's completely passionate and soulful. As a technician, she has few rivals.
Naturally, there have been many many great male singers who have inspired me along the way. I think it all started with memorizing every note on my mother's records by Sam Cooke, Johnny Mathis and Nat King Cole. They were all these soulful men with these warm and tender voices. I grew up around the steel mills of Pittsburgh, where warm and tender men were not the norm, so I found their sound completely captivating.
In my young adulthood, I recall a defining moment in my musical evolution. I was standing in the listening room of my local stereo shop, and they were playing Stevie Wonder's brand new "Talking Book" LP. I stood completely mesmerized through the entire record, tears streaming down my face. For me, Stevie had created the perfect storm of music, combing Soul, Pop and Jazz. I was so stunned and inspired, that I became a complete Stevie-phile and learned to perform dozens of his songs. It was daunting to cover his song "Superstition" on my new CD, but I hope that the arrangement is so re-worked and stylized that Stevie fans will get a kick out of it.
I also have a deep connection to straight-ahead jazz and spent some time studying with, and trying to become Mark Murphy. He is of course a legendary song stylist and true jazz pioneer whose artistry remains uncompromised to this day. I now realize that those kind of daunting vocal challenges are best left to guys like Kurt Elling, who would indeed blow my hair back, again if I had enough to blow.
I never tire of the late, great Eva Cassidy, who makes listening to music feel like going to church. I'm also a huge fan of Brazilian artist, Ivan Lins. His melodies and chords are so delicious, and his singing is honest and sublime.
Al Jarreau, in the era of his live in Berlin project was pretty mind-blowing. I remember that record in heavy rotation at my house for about a year. Clearly, there are many others I could mention, but I'll save them for my memoirs.
In what direction would you like to see Smooth Jazz head as a radio format?
I have been lamenting the sterilizaion of Smooth Jazz Radio for many years now. My friends are sick of hearing me rant about it. The format is way too narrow for any listener with a pulse to take seriously. The grooves are all the same. The same few artists get played over and over, and it's rapidly becoming an oldies format. If George Benson came out with the best album of his career next week, we could expect to hear only "Breezin" and "On Broadway" played, and we'd never get to hear what he's doing today. That's shameful.
Having said that, I am encouraged by the more expansive approach Internet radio stations are taking. When I listen to Rising Star Radio, I constantly hear artists I didn't know about, and some of them are even SINGERS! Just last week, I heard Victor Fields latest project and had to have it. I believe that Smooth Jazz listeners are intelligent, adventurous, sophisticated people. The genre can do a lot of stretching before they'll turn the dial. I think the Internet alternatives are kicking butt, and will eventually either transform or replace the "WAVE" format.
How long have you been affiliated with the format as a songwriter?
Ever since I was lucky enough to hook up with Gregg Karukas in the mid 80s. He had a little home studio where we would work on songs for his records and to pitch to other artists. He had all the production and arranging skills and I would bring the lyrics and melodies. In 1991, we had our first vocal pop-jazz hit with "In My Dreams" and again in 1993 with "Sound Of Emotion."
But along the way, we shopped our material to other recording artists and had covers by Deniece Williams, Kenia, Pauline Wilson, Arnold McCuller, Jonathan Butler, Tony Gable and Pocket Change. There was even a great cut recorded by George Benson that ended up on the cutting room floor.
I did some writing and recording with a few other people too, mainly Smooth Jazz guitarist, Phil Sheeran, and Michael McGregor who produced Eric Tagg's last record and collaborated with me on my new "Blend" project.
What is your song writing process?
I'm a collaborator 99% of the time. Though I have a pretty good working knowledge of chords and arranging, lyrics and melodies are my strong suits. Often times, my co-writers will give me a track or a groove to work from. Then, I lock myself in my studio and live with the music, turning it over in my mind, until I find the right lyrical concept to match the music. It's important to me that the lyric and the music work together to create some third thing that is greater than the sum of its parts.
There have been times when it works the other way too. I might have a melody and lyric idea and bring it to my co-writers, and together we flesh it out. I have to say though, I can count on one hand the times I've successfully come up with a good lyric "live" in collaborative session. I seem to require long periods of undisturbed concentration.
I'm always keeping notebooks and journals with lyric ideas, so when I'm stuck, I go there and do some mining. It can be tedious and frustrating work, but when it all comes together, what a rush.
Tell us what you do in your free time? Favorite hobbies?
Free time, free time... I've heard of that. I actually have another serious career that I'm equally passionate about. I am a mastering engineer at the legendary Precision Mastering lab in Hollywood. Every day I hear music of all styles, recorded in all sorts of environments by all nature of artists, and I have the privilege of helping them fulfill their vision by getting their music to the market in its most flattering light. It is incredibly rewarding work and I absolutely love it.
Beyond that, my greatest joy is spending quality time with my wife, Ruth, who is a busy television producer, and our two awesome dogs, Jackson and Leo. We have a little getaway cabin in the mountains a couple hours from LA, and we get up there as often as we can for hiking, reading and enjoying a glass of wine in front of the fireplace.
We had a big anniversary this year and took a trip to Costa Rica which was awesome. We even did the zip lines above the canopy of the rainforest. Wow, what an adventure!
What are you listening to these days on your iPod?
I keep it pretty well loaded. It really helps the time go by at the gym. Lately I've been into singers like Victor Fields, Melissa Forbes, the latest from Donald Fagen, and the amazing Richard Bona, from Cameroon. I also just downloaded Kem's record and the new project from Sara Tavares.
I keep some favorites in there too, like Gabriela Anders, John Mayer, Sting, Seal, Gotan Project, Gino Vanelli, and Diana Krall. My appetite is insatiable, and fortunately there's a feast of music out there to be had.