Taken into fusion beginning with Jazz/Funk from my teens, I guess I can say Roy Ayers stands as my early heroes, with our very first meeting, back in 1997, counting as one of my highlights both as a fan and a reviewer. He was then jammin’ behind his vibraphone, accompanying India during the Nuyorican Soul‘s album promotional tour at the highly memorable Giant Step party! An effort that would eventually help relaunching his career (alongside George Benson‘s) after the relatively disappointing ‘Nasté’ album released on BMG in the mid-90’s…
“Times have changed a lot and the mentalities too during these last 15 years”, he stated with the calm that suits with the the wise men… “I remember seeing myself distributing my records on my own. But what was possible a few years back is no longer today. For instance, say you meet an interesting guy here or there. Well, in a three to six months period later, he may not be there anymore and all you gotta to do is do it all over again. That’s the way life goes almost everywhere”, until this lucky day that saw BBE Records honcho, Pete Adarkwah coming to his NY home to have a (careful) listen to some of the hundreds of unreleased tunes stocked on his shelves….
“I’m literally obsessed by music and sounds to a wider extend”, he explained. “There’s always something boiling in my head”, this being one of the explanations why he has managed to record that much, collaborating with an incomparable array of great names. From Herbie Mann, while doin’ his debut, to Billy Cobham, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Jean Carne, Rick James, Branford Marsalis, Tom Browne, Stanley Clarke, Stevie Wonder, Lonnie Liston-Smith, Pharoah Sanders, Brian Jackson, Fela Kuti, Erykah Badu, Guru, A Tribe Called Quest, Masters At Work, Naughty By Nature, The Roots or The Jungle Brothers, to name but a… pffffew!
“I have always believed in my stuff, man”, he added, although having gone thru many ups and downs where many others would have lost their minds (if not lifes). “May God bless those who’ve helped me in this.” Not only the crowd, knowing how he may instantly find allied among them from the very first minute he gets on stage. But also these numerous people who made themselves a name while trying to recapture a bit of his unique atmospheres in their music, making Roy Ayers‘s repertoire among the most sampled (alongside James Brown and Lonnie Liston-Smith‘s ones) in the world to date… Something that, no doubt, helped him to keep the faith alive on what he’s doing and give him the energy to keep on making live appearances with such a regularity on some of the most mythic places around the globe. “See all these people asking me for a bit of this or a bit of that over the decades, generation after generation is truly what has kept me going on”, even though sometimes stuck in the middle of financial probs, family crisis that could have led him to some self destruction. “Yeah, man”, he kept on with a lightning in his eyes. “I saw them wanting Roy Ayers in their music and this is what has made me say to myself that everything was not all over, that I was not finished and this is how I have survived…”
Back to this 2003 BBE ‘Virgin Ubiquity’ released album made of 25 to 30 years old compositions, Roy couldn’t help getting back to the working method that applied to nearly everybody at the time… “Labels used to ask you to have from fifteen to twenny tracks for an album project before retaining an average amount of twelve, which I used to do naturally and in advance.” But don’t ever believe that what’d been issued that day came from what may have been rejected at the time… “No way, Sir! We was going to the studio to record songs and I was regularly telling myself that this one could fit into this project and that one to another.” Needless to say that all the aforementioned haven’t seen the day, our man keepin’ them carefully for a more appropriate time. “I dunno how many I’ve got so far, but I think that I’ve got enuff to release some more albums in the ten years to come…”
“Louie Vega’s not really a musician, but he knows what he wants and what is to be expected by the crowd. He came to me with the basic idea of what would become “Roy’s Scatt” before offering me to re-record ‘Sweet Tears’ and I have to say that what he has made of it is even better than my original work…”
No as easy to put words on what makes the unicity of the atmospheres he creates as they seem like being so temperamental. Him being an Afro-American living in this New York depicted as a place like no other in the world (cf. ‘We Live In Brooklyn’), with such a sensibility, not to mention these regular travels around the world allowing him to have the necessary and required distance on things and have a global view of the world. But before being the incarnation of a style on its own, Roy Ayers is first and foremost an incomparable receiver of versatile elements that would give birth to his expression and form the basis of what is to be called the art of fusion at a time when – should this be reminded? – Black people used to be living wherever allowed by the Whites!!!
Musician, singer, composer, arranger, etc., Ayers excels in lucidity and subtlety while writing his lyrics, displaying this humor that you may find behind the camera from a director like Spike Lee for instance, as epitomized on the memorable “Pooh Pooh La La” song where he evokes the woman’s intimacy without materializing the word while shortly impersonating the late Barry White. When not having this Gil Scott-Heron‘s self mockery kinda like…
Nevertheless, this doesn’t keep him away from being very much concerned about what he sees as the great causes. Africa of his ancestors being to him of course one of his biggest concerns, leading us back to 1979 when he came to Nigeria for touring, meanwhile recording the mythic ‘2000 Black’ with the late Fela Kuti, that would get re-issued on a white label… ‘History tends to repeat itself’, he said almost with a drop of resignation in his voice. “Never got paid for that at the time, and nor later as it’s been re-released on Celluloid. Fela and I would do the title album on one side and he recorded “Africa, Center Of The World” on the flip. We’ve got a real enthusiastic feedback on this, not only because of its musical quality, but also due to the conscience and the positivity of its lyrics…
I guess being able to go to Africa has been for much in the understanding then the transmitting of my heritage.” A legacy that ended up attracting ‘Little’ Louie Vega‘s interest as he was looking for emblematic people to be a part of his Nuyorican Soul project by the second half of the nineties. “It didn’t come straight”, our man recalled. “I remember offering him to collaborate on one or two tracks a few years before. He looked like interested at the time but never got back to me, until the days he offered me to be a part of this adventure. Louie’s not really a musician, but he knows what he wants and what is to be expected by the crowd. He came to me with the basic idea of what would become “Roy’s Scatt” before offering me to re-record ‘Sweet Tears’ and I have to say that what he has made of it is even better than my original work…” This followed by the no less meaningful ‘Our Time Is Coming’. “A message of hope”, he concluded back then. “Not only for me but for the attention of everyone”, saying that “time inevitably comes for the ones whose work is made of consistancy…”