Thursday, September 21, 2017

Grover Washington Jr: Smooth Operator!

Grover Washington Jr(Paris, November 1989) Freshly returned from a period that saw me livin’ in the UK for a few months, I recieved a call from the head of edition of one of the magazines I was writing for. The latter offering me to have a phone conversation with Grover Washington Jr, coincinding with the release of his ‘Time Out Of Mind’ album.

No need telling you how excited I was at the perspective of getting to know more about the artist. A man responsible for incredible pieces of music. Such as the mid-70’s classics ‘Mr Magic’ and ‘Knucklehead’ from his Jazz/Funk period. But also the memorable ‘Just The Two Us Us’ which, along with singer Bill Withers. A cut saw him settin’ up the path for a new generation of artists. From Kenny G to Najee. But also George Howard, Gerald Albright and Walter Beasley. Both makin’ themselves a name in the Smooth Jazz territories…

Let’s get back to the beginning if you don’t mind. And what brought you to music…
“Well, my mom’ was singing in choir at the church. Meanwhwile my dad was a saxophonist and had a collection of old Jazz gramophone records. So music was like everywhere at home. I would listen to great Jazz artists and band leaders like Benny Goodman. Then, noticing my interest, my dad offered me a sax when I got about 8. I eventually practised it prior to go into clubs years after to watch Blues musicians in Buffalo, NY where I was livin’ at the time.

I’ve been lucky to meet Billy Cobham by the time I was doin’ my military obligations. Luckily enough he introduced me to many musicians in the NY area. Then I relocated to Philadelphia, PA in 1967. There, I contributed to the recording of Leon Spencer’s two first albums (‘Louisiana’ and ‘Sneak Preview!’). Which is how I got to work with Idris Muhammad, Melvin Sparks, Buddy Caldwell and Virgil Jones…”

You then came to record your debut album ,’Inner City Blues’. With its opening track being a rendition of Marvin Gaye‘s classic of the likes. And its fourth cut a cover version of Billy Withers’s ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’…
“Man, it sort of came by accident. Hank Crawford was unable to make a recording date with Kudu’s label head Creed Taylor. So I took his place. And the rest is, as we say, history…”

When many artists would tend to feel safe, sticking to the same environment, you seem to have constantly tried to redefine yourself. When looking for instance at the differences between your mid-70’s Jazz/Funk period and the beginning of the 80’s where you seemed like taken into smoother vibes…
“I suppose this is just a natural process that sees each of us evolving and therefore movin’ on along with time. This is how you get to feed that thing we call creation. Most likely depending on what cames to touch you thoughout the circumstances of your existence. And eventually meetings with other people you happen to have. Meetings are just like essential. Coz’ they have the potential to get you into something new. It’s like feeding each other.

I always keep an ear open. And if a song doesn’t get me into it from the very beginning, then I’ll pass on it…”

Which brings us to the sultry ‘Sacred Kind Of Love’ featuring the late Phyllis Hyman…
“I gotta admit that speakin’ of music which involves a singer, this is more of my wife’s prerogative. Christine would listen to the song and come to me with suggestions. It’s like instinctual, as if she had a sixth sense to find the voice that’s needed. She thought Phyllis would be the perfect match for this. Isn’t that cool?”

But also the Steely Dan written ‘Time Out of My Mind’. Sounding like at the crossroad between B.B. King’s ‘Happy Birthday Blues’ and Weather Report’s ‘Birdland’…
“I never thought of it that way. But now you say so, I can see where you’re comin’ from. It’s more a reflecting tune, I would say, related to the idea of day dreamin’…”

How do you react facing that ongoing process of formatted music production and radio airing…
“Speaking of music, I guess I can say I’ve been surrounded by people who’ve remained open enough to let me do my thing. And therefore embrace different kinds of vibes. That said, I would tend to think that sales don’t necessarily reflect the quality of an album. In other words, just the fact that an album doesn’t sell million copies doesn’t mean it’s a poor quality one.

Besides, once you’ve released your music, you’re left with so many things out of you control. Such as the time it’s gonna be played on a radio station. The nature of its rotation and whatsoever. Being programmed in the middle of the night doesn’t help the way it would at a peak time such as when people are chilling at home or on their way to work… And I’m not even talking about this competition thing which has seen most of the radios like playing the same thing at the same time!”

A fact that could eventually apply to more and more artists and DJ’s…
“I’ve always made sure to keep my own identity alive. And I don’t think competition should be used to sort of divide the actors of the scene and their audiences the way it does on occasions. It has shown how counterproductive this is!”

Chosen few
Grover Washington Jr – Inner City Blues (Kudu)
Grover Washington Jr – Mister Magic (Kudu)
Grover Washington Jr – Feels So Good (Kudu)
Grover Washington Jr – Winelight (Elektra)
Grover Washington Jr – Come Morning (Elektra)
Grover Washington Jr – Strawberry Moon (Columbia)

Interview: Grover Washington Jr

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