Joey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun"

Joey Alexander

Photo: RUBA Creative


Joey Alexander On The Primacy Of The Blues, Building Tunes To Last & His New Single, "Under The Sun"

In an exclusive premiere with, Joey Alexander shares his new single, "Under The Sun," and discusses its inspiration from the Bible and social justice

GRAMMYs/Apr 22, 2021 - 05:00 pm

Unlike most condiments, salt figures heavily in the Bible. It symbolizes friendship. It means preservation. Lot's wife became a pillar of it. Jesus' salt illustration on the Mount is now an idiom. "Let your words be seasoned with salt," Paul said in Colossians, essentially meaning "Speak gracefully and perceptively." While only 17, Joey Alexander is aware of salt's religious and historical connotations—and his expressions would make the Apostle proud.

"I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression," the thrice-GRAMMY-nominated pianist tells about his single "SALT," which dropped in mid-March. "The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe."

And what of his latest tune, "Under The Sun"? Isn't that title from Ecclesiastes? "Yeah!" Alexander replies, flashing a grin. "Oh, man! You know your stuff!"

"Under The Sun" marks the second single Alexander is releasing this spring via Verve Records and premieres above exclusively via ("Summer Rising" will conclude the trilogy on May 28.) The tune, which Alexander wrote after the murder of George Floyd ignited protests in New York City, sounds appropriately golden-hued and ascendant. Therein, he wrote about the universal human family—one bound by forces racial disharmony can't destroy.

Alexander opened up to over Zoom about the significance of salt, the spiritual intent of his music and this radiant new tune with bassist Daniel Winshall and drummer Tyson D. Jackson.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I dig your tune "SALT." You've mentioned the title is symbolic of the blues.

It can mean different things to different people. Even what we eat. The word "salad," during Roman times, was derived from the word "salt" for salted vegetables. I guess you might have heard that before.

No, never.

Oh, really! Yeah, man. It's kind of interesting to really look at what we eat. And it's in music as well. Blues is such an essential part of jazz and in other genres of music. You find it in so many genres of music. To me, most of them lead back to the blues. And of course, there are different interpretations of playing the blues. So, I have my interpretation in my composition "SALT."

Gilad Hekselman really added some fantastic color on the guitar to the track. To have a sense of completeness, I just had to have Gilad perform on the song. He's truly one of the best. His projection of the guitar is remarkable. Also, how he kind of resounds the rock element is very cool. I never had that element before, until this song came out.

Salt was also inspired by words from the Book of Matthew that we are the salt of the earth. It's a [invitation] to do good to others. I want my music to reflect this sentiment and have a lasting impression. The blues is that thing that preserves just like salt—that has inspired us in our ups and downs. The blues give us that reassurance that everything is going to be OK. Even though we are trampled under the ugliness of the world, we can still hold on to hope. That's what I believe.

Right. I feel like songs based on blues forms are preserved. They tend to weather fads and trends.

But in this song, I wanted to create a sense of space in the way it is collective. I was trying to create room for other musicians to jump in and do their thing [chuckles], whatever that is. To share their talent and be themselves.

Also, I wanted to have really carefully written songs. "SALT" has that strong melody, which I was striving for. I was glad that Jaleel and Gilad played in unison and sounded so strong. When I heard it back, I was like "Wow." I never would have imagined that the song would sound that way; it was indescribable.

When you first listened to it, what came to your mind? I'm curious.

Something craggy and historical. Something that's been around for a long time. Like I'm looking at an old village church or a cave or something.

That's great, man. You use that as your tool—your imagination. I like that. I like to hear from other people who have their own perspectives. As much as I could share with you about what I felt writing the song, it's always great to hear other peoples' thoughts. It's really important to me.

As a composer, it's all about strengthening the melody and rhythm. When the band comes in, it's very ... not elusive, but it's very simple. The rhythm kind of sticks to you, right, when you hear it? I think Gilad also added some of the notes to the vamp, which was wonderful. He put that in place. Some songs I like to start with a vamp. Whenever I feel like it comes to my head, I play it. It happens in the moment sometimes.

Regarding the spiritual content of the song, it seems like you're pretty open about your beliefs.

Of course, I have things that I believe in. We all have things that we hold on to. Do you know what I'm saying? Whether it's music or faith. Of course, my music is all there in faith and holding on to the things that we believe.

I'm always about being thankful and always thanking God for all the things that happen in my life. That's the main point to me. To show love and empathy to people around me. My friends and I always pray before we start a performance, just to remember why we're there. To be a vessel to others. 

Even though things aren't going the way you expect them to be, there are moments where you need to hold your head up, and along the way, you find hope. That's what the song is about: finding life and togetherness. I hope people feel that. This is my message about "SALT."

It's interesting the way you came up in your early teens. Usually, jazz musicians go through the whole curriculum and when success strikes, it's a lot later in life.

Yeah. It just so happened that I started earlier than some other musicians. You might have known some musicians who start early, in their teens, too. I'm not unique, I'm sure. Some musicians started just as early as me.

True, but you had a public profile, too.

I guess many musicians haven't experienced that at a young age. Well, I can say I'm thankful for all the things that have happened to me. Even when I got my first nomination, which was totally out of the blue, I wouldn't have thought that I would have my first album be in that category. I was nominated for Best Instrumental Album, and nonetheless, Best Improvised Jazz Solo.

Do you remember who else was in the running when you were nominated?

I can remember two people who were on the list. They were some of my favorite musicians. Christian McBride and John Scofield

Were you able to meet some of those older masters?

No, I only met Herbie Hancock at the GRAMMYs.

Nice. What was your impression of the man?

It was great meeting Herbie. He didn't say too much, I was eight at that time. He was like, "You really want to be here?" He said something like that and I said "I'm playing 'Watermelon Man.'" He thought I could play and he said, "Keep doing it" and "Don't stop."

Right on.

Yeah, it was pretty inspiring just to have those words come from someone who's been in the music world for a long time.

What can you share about "Under the Sun"?

It has ties to the times that we live in. The pandemic really hit us badly as musicians, and then I saw people marching on the streets where I live in Union Square in New York City. A lot of things have happened during the time I wrote this piece. But I think the positive side is that people of all colors stood up. 

The title is from Ecclesiastes, yeah?

Yeah. Oh, man! You know your stuff. That is one of the inspirations. Actually, I wrote this during summer 2020 after witnessing the protests across the country. I also was inspired by Bruce Lee's interview when he was asked, "What do you think of yourself?" His only answer was, "I like to think of myself as a human being." Under the sky, we are all one family. It just happens that we are all different and we have to accept our differences. And this is how this song comes in.

What do you have up your sleeve for when things return to semi-normal?

As of now, I have one show coming up in Cape May, which is a festival called Exit Zero Jazz Festival and one in June at Saratoga Jazz Festival. I'm always praying and looking forward to being back traveling with my friends.

For now, I'm composing music, because it's what I love. I'm filling in the days with writing new works, trying to keep active. I'm thankful that I'm here with my family in New York City enjoying the weather. "Summer Rising" is my next single and that is about continuing to grow and awakening.

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10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Jazz And Electronic Music: Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus, Caroline Davis & More
(L-R) Chris Tordini, Caroline Davis, Tyshawn Sorey, Val Jeanty

Photo: John Rogers


10 Albums That Showcase The Deep Connection Between Jazz And Electronic Music: Herbie Hancock, Flying Lotus, Caroline Davis & More

Jazz has long stretched the parameters of harmony, melody and rhythm — and when electronic music flows into it, the possibilities are even more limitless.

GRAMMYs/Sep 7, 2023 - 05:03 pm

A year and change before his 2022 death, the eminent saxophonist Pharoah Sanders released one final dispatch. That album was Promises, a meditative, collaborative album with British electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Promises swung open the gates for jazz and electronic music's convergence.. Not only was it an out-of-nowhere critical smash, earning "universal acclaim" as per Metacritic; it acted as an accessible entrypoint for the hipster set and beyond. 

As Pitchfork put it, "One of the year's most memorable melodies consists of a seven-note refrain repeated, with slight variation, for more than three quarters of an hour." (They declared Promises the fourth best album of the year; its neighbors included Turnstile; Tyler, the Creator; and Jazmine Sullivan.)

Since then, jazz and electronic music have continued their developments, with or without each other. But Promises struck a resonant chord, especially during the pandemic years; and when Sanders left us at 81, the music felt like his essence lingering in our midst.

Whether you're aware of that crossover favorite or simply curious about this realm, know that the rapprochement between jazz and electronic idioms goes back decades and decades.

Read on for 10 albums that exemplify this genre blend — including two released this very year.

Miles Davis - Live-Evil (1971)

As the 1960s gave away to the '70s, Miles Davis stood at his most extreme pivot point — between post-bop and modal classics and undulating, electric exploits. Straddling the studio and the stage, Live-Evil is a monument to this period of thunderous transformation.

At 100 minutes, the album's a heaving, heady listen — its dense electronic textures courtesy of revered keyboardists Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Joe Zawinul, as well as the combustible electric guitarist John McLaughlin. The swirling, beatless "Nem Un Talvez" is arguably Live-Evil's most demonstrative example of jazz meets electronic.

For the uninitiated as per Davis' heavier, headier work, Live-Evil is something of a Rosetta stone. From here, head backward in the eight-time GRAMMY winner and 32-time nominee's catalog — to In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew or Jack Johnson.

Or, move forward to On the Corner, Get Up With It or Aura. Wherever you move in his later discography, plenty of jazz fans wish they could hear this game-changing music for the first time.

Herbie Hancock - Future Shock (1983)

In the early 1970s, Herbie Hancock delivered a one-two punch of fusion classics — 1973's Head Hunters and 1974's Thrust — to much applause. The ensuing years told a different story.

While the 14-time GRAMMY winner and 34-time nominee's ensuing live albums tended to be well-regarded, his studio work only fitfully caught a break from the critics.

However, in 1983, Hancock struck gold in that regard: the inspired Future Shock wittily and inventively drew from electro-funk and instrumental hip-hop. Especially its single, "Rockit" — shot through with a melodic earworm, imbued with infectious DJ scratches.

Sure, it's of its time — very conspicuously so. But with hip-hop's 50th anniversary right in our rearview, "Rockit" sounds right on time.

Tim Hagans - Animation • Imagination (1999)

If electric Miles is your Miles, spring for trumpeter Tim Hagans' Animation • Imagination for an outside spin on that aesthetic.

The late, great saxophonist Bob Belden plays co-pilot here; he wrote four of its nine originals and produced the album. Guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, synthesist Scott Kinsen, bassist David Dyson, and drummer Billy Kilson also underpin these kinetic, exploratory tunes.

The engine of Animation • Imagination is its supple and infectious sense of groove, whether in breakbeat ("Animation/Imagination"), boom bap ("Slo Mo") or any other form.

This makes the drumless moments, like "Love's Lullaby," have an indelible impact; when the drums drop out, inertia propels you forward. And on the electronics-swaddled "Snakes Kin," the delayed-out percussion less drives the music than rattles it like an angry hive.

Kurt Rosenwinkel - Heartcore (2003)

From his language to his phrasing to his liquid sound, Rosenwinkel's impact on the contemporary jazz guitar scene cannot be overstated: on any given evening in the West Village, you can probably find a New Schooler laboriously attempting to channel him.

Rosenwinkel's appeared on more than 150 albums, so where to begin with such a prodigious artist? One gateway is Heartcore, his first immersion into electronic soundscapes as a bandleader.

Throughout, the laser-focused tenor saxophonist Mark Turner is like another half of his sound. On "Our Secret World," his earthiness counter-weighs Rosenwinkel's iridescent textures; on "Blue Line," the pair blend into and timbrally imitate each other.

Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest co-produced Heartcore; it's as unclassifiable as the MC's most intrepid, fusionary works. "This record — it's jazz," Rosenwinkel has said. "And it's much more."

Graham Haynes - Full Circle (2007)

Cornetist, flugelhornist and trumpeter Graham Haynes may be the son of Roy Haynes, who played drums with Bird and Monk and remains one of the final living godfathers of bebop. But if he's ever faced pressure to box himself into his father's aesthetic, he's studiously disregarded it.

Along with saxophone great Steve Coleman, he was instrumental in the M-Base collective, which heralded new modes of creative expression in jazz — a genre tag it tended to reject altogether.

For Haynes, this liberatory spirit led to inspired works like Full Circle. It shows how he moved between electronic and hip-hop spheres with masterly ease, while being beholden to neither. Featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, bassist Shahzad Ismaily, drummer Marcus Gilmore, and other top-flight accompanists, Full Circle is wormholes within wormholes. 

Therein, short-circuiting wonders like "1st Quadrant" rub against "Quartet Circle" and "In the Cage of Grouis Bank," which slouch toward ambient, foreboding kosmische.

Craig Taborn - Junk Magic (2004)

Steeped in brutal metal as much as the AACM, the elusive, resplendent pianist Craig Taborn is one of the most cutting-edge practitioners of "creative music." Some of his work resembles jazz, some is uncategorizably far afield.

Strains of electronic music run through Taborn's entire catalog. And his Junk Magic project, which began with his 2004 album of the same name, is a terrific gateway drug to this component of his artistry.

Junk Magic has a haunted toyshop quality; tracks like "Prismatica," "Bodies at Rest and in Motion" and "The Golden Age" thrum with shadowy, esoteric energy.

If these strange sounds resonate with you, 2020's sinewy Compass Confusion — released under the Junk Magic alias — is a logical next step. So is 2019's Golden Valley is Now, an electronics-inflected work of head-spinning propulsion and kineticism.

Flying Lotus - You're Dead! (2014)

Spanning spiritual jazz, devotional music, the avant-garde, and so much more, Alice Coltrane has belatedly gotten her flowers as a musical heavyweight; she and her sainted husband were equal and parallel forces.

Coltrane's grandnephew, Steven Bingley-Ellison — better known as Flying Lotus — inherited her multidimensional purview.

In the late 2000s, the GRAMMY-winning DJ, rapper and producer made waves with envelope-pushing works like Los Angeles; regarding his synthesis of jazz, electronic and hip-hop, 2014's You're Dead marks something of a culmination.

Flying Lotus was in stellar company on You're Dead!, from Kendrick Lamar to Snoop Dogg to Herbie Hancock and beyond; tracks like "Tesla," "Never Catch Me" and "Moment of Hesitation" show that these forms aren't mutually exclusive, but branches of the same tree.

Brad Mehldau - Finding Gabriel (2019)

As per the Big Questions, pianist Brad Mehldau is much like many of us: "I believe in God, but do not identify with any of the monotheistic religions specifically." But this hasn't diluted his searching nature: far from it.

In fact, spirituality has played a primary role in the GRAMMY winner and 13-time nominee's recent work. His 2022 album Jacob's Ladder dealt heavily in Biblical concepts — hence the title — and shot them through with the prog-rock ethos of Yes, Rush and Gentle Giant.

Where Jacob's Ladder is appealingly nerdy and top-heavy, its spiritual successor, 2019's Finding Gabriel, feels rawer and more eye-level, its jagged edges more exposed; Mehldau himself played a dizzying array of instruments, including drums and various synths.

The archetypal imagery is foreboding, as on "The Garden"; the Trump-era commentary is forthright, as on "The Prophet is a Fool." And its sense of harried tension is gorgeously released on the title track.

All this searching and striving required music without guardrails — a marriage of jazz and electronic music, in both styles' boundless reach.

Caroline Davis' Alula - Captivity (2023)

Caroline Davis isn't just an force on the New York scene; she's a consummate conceptualist.

The saxophonist and composer's work spans genres and even media; any given presentation might involve evocative dance, expansive set design, incisive poetry, or flourishing strings. She's spoken of writing music based on tactility and texture, with innovative forms of extended technique.

This perspicuous view has led to a political forthrightness: her Alula project's new album, Captivity, faces down the horrific realities of incarceration and a broken criminal justice system.

Despite the thematic weight, this work of advocacy is never preachy or stilted: it feels teeming and alive. This is a testament not only to jazz's adaptability to strange, squelching electronics, but its matrix of decades-old connections to social justice.

Within these oblong shapes and textures, Davis has a story to tell — one that's life or death.

Jason Moran/ Gilmore - Refract (2023)

At this point, it's self-evident how well these two genres mesh. And pianist Jason Moran and drummer Marcus Gilmore offer another fascinating twist: tape loops.

For a new album, Refract, the pair — who have one GRAMMY and three nominations between them — partnered with the tape loop visionary Tyler Gilmore, a.k.a.

The seed of the project was with; producer Sun Chung had broached the idea that he work with leading improvisational minds. In the studio, acted on a refractory basis, his loops commenting on, shaping and warping Moran and Gilmore's playing.

As Moran poetically put it in a statement, "I have always longed for an outside force to manipulate my piano song and drag the sound into a cistern filled with soft clay."

The line on jazz is that it's an expression of freedom. But when it comes to chips and filters and oscillators, it can always be a little more unbound.

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Cautious Clay's 'Karpeh' Is & Isn't Jazz: "Let Me Completely Deconstruct My Conception Of The Music"
Cautious Clay

Photo: Meron Menghistab


Cautious Clay's 'Karpeh' Is & Isn't Jazz: "Let Me Completely Deconstruct My Conception Of The Music"

On his Blue Note Records debut 'Karpeh,' Cautious Clay treats jazz not as a genre, but as a philosophy — and uses it as a launchpad for a captivating family story.

GRAMMYs/Aug 23, 2023 - 02:27 pm

Nobody can deny Herbie Hancock is a jazz artist, but jazz cannot box him in. Ditto Quincy Jones; those bona fides are bone deep, but he's changed a dozen other genres.

Cautious Clay doesn't compare himself to those legends. But he readily cites them as lodestars — along with other genre-straddlers of Black American music, like Lionel Richie and Babyface.

Because this is a crucial lens through which to view him: he's jazz at his essence and not jazz at all, depending on how he wishes to express himself.

"I'm not really a jazz artist, but I feel like I have such a deep understanding of it as a songwriter and musician," the artist born Joshua Karpeh tells "It's sort of inseparable from my approach to this album, and to this work with Blue Note."

Karpeh is talking about, well, KARPEH — his debut album for the illustrious label, which dropped in August. In three acts — "The Past Explained," "The Honeymoon of Exploration," and "A Bitter & Sweet Solitude," he casts his personal journey against the backdrop of his family saga.

As Cautious Clay explains, the title is a family name; his grandfather was of the Kru peoples in Liberia. "It's a family of immigrants. It's a family of, obviously, Black Americans," he notes. "I just wanted to give an experience that felt concrete and specific enough — to be able to live inside of something that was a part of my journey."

On KARPEH, Cautious Clay is joined by esteemed Blue Note colleagues: trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins, vibraphonist Joel Ross, guitarist Julian Lage, and others.

Vocalist Arooj Aftab and bassist Kai Eckhardt — Karpeh's uncle — also enhance the proceedings. The result is another inspired entry from Blue Note's recent resurgence — one lyrically personal and aurally inviting.

Read on for an interview with Cautious Clay about his signing to Blue Note, leveling up his recording approach, and his conception of what jazz is — and isn't.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me about signing to Blue Note Records, and the overall road to KARPEH.

I kind of got connected to Don [Was, the president of Blue Note] through a relationship I had with John Mayer, who had, I guess, connected Don to my music.

Don reached out via email probably a year ago, and so we connected over email. And I had sort of been in a situation where I was like, OK, I want to do something different for this next project. We kind of met in the middle and it just made a lot of sense based on just what I wanted to do, and then what they could potentially kind of work with on my end. 

So, [I was] just recording the album in six days, and doing a lot of prep work beforehand and getting all these musicians that I really liked to be able to work on it. It was just a really cool process to be able to unpack that with Blue Note.

That's great that you and Mayer go back.

Yeah, man, we have a song. We worked on each other's music a little bit together. The song "Carry Me Away" on his [2021] album [Sob Rock] I actually worked on, and then we did a song together called "Swim Home" that I released back in 2019.

You said you wanted to "do something different." What was the germ of that something?

I felt like it could be interesting to do a more instrumental album, or something that felt a little bit more like a concept album, or more experimental. I wanted to be more experimental in my approach to the music that I love.

I wanted to call it a jazz album, but at the same time I didn't, because I felt like it wasn't; it was more of an experimental album.

But I felt like calling it jazz in my mind kind felt like a free way to express, because I think of jazz much more as a philosophy than necessarily a genre.

So, it was helpful for me in my mind to be able to like, OK, let me completely deconstruct my conception of the music I make and how I can translate that music.

And then it eventually evolved into a story about my family and about American history to a certain extent in the context of my family's journey, and then also just their interpersonal relationships. That sort of made itself clear as I continued to write and I continued to delve deeper into the process.

Not that KARPEH ended up being instrumental. But instrumental records are lodestars for you? I'm sure that blurs with the Blue Note canon.

There's a lot of different stuff. There was that red album that Herbie Hancock released [in 1978, titled Sunlight] that I really liked. "I Thought It Was You" was super inspirational — sonically how they arranged a lot of that record.

Seventies jazz fusion was an overall influence. I felt inspired by the perfect meld of analog synthesizers, and then also obviously organic instruments like horns and guitars of that nature. So I wanted to create something that felt like a contemporary version of what could be a fusion record to a certain extent.

Any specific examples?

Songs like "Glass Face," for example, are pretty fusion-y, but also very just experimental in a way that doesn't feel like jazz, even.

My uncle [Kai Eckhardt] is a pretty big-time bass player, and he played on "Glass Face." I just was like, OK, dude, do your thing, and he just did this sort of chordal bass solo. Then, I did all these harmonies over top of the song.

And then, Arooj Aftab is a really good friend and musical artist; she was able to work off of that as well. So, it was an interesting journey to make a lot of these songs and sort of figure out how they all fit together.

How did you strike that balance between analog and synthesized sounds?

I recorded most of this album at a studio, which is very different for me.

I don't normally do that. I use a lot of found sounds like drums and stuff that I've either made or sampled, but I did all of the drums and bass and upright and electric guitars we'd recorded at a studio called Figure 8 in Brooklyn. That was the backbone for a lot of the music that I created for the album. 

Then, I took it back home to my home studio. After we had recorded all of the songs, I essentially had some different analog synths and things that I wanted to add into it either at the studio that I worked at or my own personal studio, which happens to also be eight blocks [away] on the same street away.

I struck a balance just mostly with it in the context of working at a very formal studio and then having an engineer and just getting sounds that I wanted that could be organic and more specific in that way. And also using some of the synths they had.

In terms of the approach, I kind of wanted it to be different. And so part of that was just being at more of a formal studio and having an engineer and overseeing the overall process outside of just being inside of my Ableton session.

Tell me more about the guests on KARPEH.

I knew Immanuel through a couple of mutual friends, and he has a certain sort of bite to his sax playing that I felt was so juxtaposed to my sax playing.

And same with Ambrose. I feel like his trumpet style couldn't be more esoteric and out, in the context of how he approaches melodies. It's almost in some ways like, Whoa, I would never play that way.

They're also soloists, and conceptually for me, the idea of being in isolation or being in bittersweet solitude was conceptually a part of the last part of the album. They as soloists have so much to offer that I feel like I can't do and I don't possess.

So, I wanted to have them a part of this album, to demonstrate that individuality within the context of what it takes to make a song.

Julian is just a beautiful and spirited man, a beautiful guitar player. I've liked his sound for a while. I think it was back in 2015 when I first heard him; he had a couple of videos on YouTube that I thought were just super gorgeous.

I feel like he just has this way of playing that's folky. Also, it's jazz in the context of his virtuosic playing style, but it's also not overbearing. I felt like as a writer and as a musician, it would be a really great connecting point for a few of the more personal songs on the record.

And then my uncle Kai as well, — he's not on Blue Note, but he used to play with John McLaughlin and run bass clinics with Victor Wooten and Marcus Miller back in the early 2000s. Dude is a real heavy hitter, and he happens to be my uncle, so it's just cool to be able to have him on the record.

Cautious Clay

Cautious Clay. Photo: Meron Menghistab

With KARPEH out, where do you want to go from here — perhaps through a Blue Note lens?

I really love a lot of the people there, and I feel like this could be the first of many. It's also a stepping stone for me as an artist.

I feel really connected to the relationship I have, and our ability to put this out. It's hard to say what exactly the future holds, but I am genuinely excited for this album. I feel excited to be able to put out something so personal and so connected to everything that sort of made me, in a very concrete way.

From what I understand, this is a one-time thing, but it could potentially be two. It depends, obviously. I'm very open-minded about it. I'd love to keep the good relationship open and see where things go.

I really have enjoyed the process and I feel like this next year is going to be something interesting. So, we'll see.

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Living Legends: Seven Decades Into His Career, Swamp Dogg Wants To Give Audiences "Every Last Drop"
Swamp Dogg

Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images


Living Legends: Seven Decades Into His Career, Swamp Dogg Wants To Give Audiences "Every Last Drop"

Swamp Dogg has been an antimatter hero of American music since his 1970 debut and is riding a wave of popular resurgence. Ahead of a summer tour, he discusses his live show, Chuck Berry, John Prine, and more.

GRAMMYs/Jul 27, 2023 - 06:06 pm

Living Legends is a series that spotlights icons in music who are still going strong today. This week, spoke with Swamp Dogg, the eccentric soul and R&B titan still actively writing, recording and performing more than half a century after his debut album.

Swamp Dogg is about to play a major concert in New York City, and he has a few commitments to keep.

There will be no medleys. He won't talk down to the audience. When he hits a bad note — which he calls a "guaranteed" prospect — he'll pause, reassess and fix it.

"When they leave, they're not thinking much about the bad note, because we all talked about it in this conversation," the artist born Jerry Williams, Jr. tells "I do have a conversation with my audience, and it's good."

That gig, at Knockdown Center in Queens on July 28, should serve as a reminder that Swamp Dogg has been in a strange, wonderful dialogue with the planet from the jump. This dates back to when he made his first recording, "HTD Blues (Hardsick Troublesome Downout Blues)," in 1954 — an awfully pessimistic dispatch from a 12-year-old.

His 1970 debut under the moniker, Total Destruction To Your Mind, is a fantastic slice of left-field psychedelic soul — filled with fried, occasionally conspiratorial, frequently profound insights that framed him as something of a modern prophet. ("Why wasn't I born with orange skin/ And green hair/ Like the rest of the people in the world?" remains an excellent question.)

In the ensuing decades, Swamp Dogg (he spelled with a double g before Snoop Dogg was born) has released numerous albums; naturally, his career has ebbed and flowed.

But at 81, he's found indie stars like Justin Vernon and Jenny Lewis in his corner, and released inspired late-period albums like 2020's Sorry You Couldn't Make It and 2022's I Need a Job… So I Can Buy More Auto-Tune.

Ahead of the Knockdown Center show, read on for an interview with Swamp Dogg about his live philosophy, upcoming music, profound relationship with John Prine, and decidedly so-so relationship with… the state of Rhode Island.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

What can people expect from your upcoming Knockdown Center gig?

To be honest with you, I don't know, other than I always try to give the last drop of whatever I'm doing. I don't do medleys and that bulls—. They can expect to get it all, and I usually try to get in as many songs as I can without trying to get the audience out of the way.

You feed off the energy of the crowd like a consummate performer should. You're not rushing through it or phoning it in.

Right. Plus, usually, I talk to my audience. Not just to hear myself talk. I get the audience involved. Not a lot of mundane s—. I talk to them like we live together. If you had somebody else in your house, the way you would talk.

When you launched your career all those decades ago, which performers galvanized you to give your all?

It's funny: one of the artists that inspired me the most — and kind of encouraged me, without knowing me, to give everything — was Chuck Berry. Chuck didn't have to do anything but be Chuck, and, damn: that's all you wanted.

Chuck did his singular thing as long as he could possibly do it. Every performance was pure, uncut Chuck. I see that quality in you as well.

Right. If I'm doing a song and we hit a bad note — sometimes a note that's haunting, it's so f—ing bad — I'll stop my band, and talk to my band. I'll take three or four minutes and give the audience what I want.

What can you tell me about the musicians who will accompany you at Knockdown Center?

I've got some great musicians right now, for the gigs I'm doing over the next six weeks. They've been with me for a while.

My keyboard man plays loop stuff. He plays just about every instrument there is. He'll cover for me, because I will hit a bad note. I guarantee I'll hit a bad note. But I'll make up for it. And it's not going to be bad notes all night long. [Laughs]

Human error is how I look at it. But I work real hard to make sure that my audience is happy. I'll stay out on stage as long as the house itself is fine with what I'm doing.

And you have some shows after Knockdown Center on the books, too.

I know we're playing in Rhode Island and some other things coming up. I don't know anybody who ever played in Rhode Island. Nobody ever says, "Hey, let's go to Rhode Island!" It's like, f— Rhode Island.

Don't get me wrong; that doesn't mean Rhode Island is a bad place. It's just musically, you never hear of anybody going there. 

I'm looking forward to it, because how many chances do you get to go to Rhode Island? But there are more memorable states for sure. You don't hear it on quiz shows. I guess if you did, it would be [the result of] the most complicated f—ing question you ever heard.

Swamp Dogg

Swamp Dogg. Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images

What are you working on lately? Can we expect new music coming up?

I've got an album that's finished. It's a country album, and it's great. It's just that I've got to get the liner notes together, because it's got a lot of s— in it as far as information.

I'm not using a drummer at all, but you're not going to miss it. Because if you listen back to the old, old stuff, they didn't have a set of drums. So, I left the drums; I'm trying to go back to the beginning.

On a different note, it was bittersweet to hear John Prine on Sorry You Couldn't Make It. That had to be one of his final recordings. What was it like working with him?

He was a very real person. He and I had planned to go to Ireland together, because he had a house in Ireland. We were going [to go] there for about a week and just write our asses off.

I miss him. I'd known him since sometime in the '60s. We had a lot of stuff we wanted to track lyric-wise, but I guess music-wise also. Good guy, filled with talent.

Which Prine song means the most to you?

"Sam Stone."

Yeah, I know you covered it.

I do it every show. There's a different ending every time I do it, because it's one of those songs that gives me a chance to talk to my audience about how things are, what's going on, what I feel we could do for the country, and to make people more comfortable.

Like giving away clothes. Some people forget that if you put a bunch of clothes away a few years, and moths haven't eaten the s— [out of them], you could give it to these people. And don't be ashamed of the money you can't give — just be happy about what you can give.

I see all the problems that we have, that are unnecessary. That's what makes me really get into "Sam Stone." Usually, 90 percent of the time, I am with Sam Stone.

It's like a preacher on Sunday morning. He preaches and it is basically the same s—, but delivered in a different way. So, that's what I'm doing.

What did you think when Johnny Cash covered "Sam Stone" and controversially changed the lyric "Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose" to "Daddy must have hurt a lot back then, I suppose"? Some say that carved out the meaning of the song.

I've never heard it. I like Johnny Cash. But there are about 10 country artists that I like better.

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Christian McBride On His New Jawn's 'Prime' And How Parameters Gave Him Creative Freedom
Christian McBride

Photo: Ebru Yildiz


Christian McBride On His New Jawn's 'Prime' And How Parameters Gave Him Creative Freedom

On the new album by his New Jawn project, 'Prime,' eight-time GRAMMY-winning bassist and composer Christian McBride keeps new and old associates on their toes.

GRAMMYs/Mar 9, 2023 - 08:41 pm

Are you familiar with the concept of a chordless ensemble? In jazz, it refers to a group format without a chordal instrument, like a piano or guitar. Without such instruments to underpin the chord changes, the music can become spacious — exuding what one writer characterized as "a devil-may-care freedom."

But for Christian McBride, who just released an album with his chordless quartet, freedom is relative.

"I feel like I almost have more responsibility because it's not my goal to play free without some sort of gravitational pull to it," the eight-time GRAMMY-winning bassist, composer, arranger and bandleader tells "Freedom is much more exciting when there are some sort of parameters, or you have something to break through."

So, in adding another entry to the catalog of revered chordless jazz albums — Albert Ayler's Spiritual Unity, Sonny Rollins' Way Out West, Lee Konitz' Motion, numberless Ornette Coleman masterworks, et al — McBride assembled the best men for the job. Those are trumpeter Josh Evans, saxophonist and bass clarinetist Marcus Strickland, and drummer Nasheet Waits. 

Together, they comprise Christian McBride's New Jawn — another vehicle for the mastermind in parallel to his other ensembles, such as Inside Straight and the Christian McBride Big Band

Their album, Prime, released Feb. 24, marks an intrepid new chapter for McBride and his colleagues. Therein, the quartet utilizes the frameworks of originals (like McBride's "Head Bedlam" and "Lurkers," Strickland's title track, Waits' "Moonchild," and Evans' "Dolphy Dust") alongside compositions by Coleman, Sonny Rollins and Larry Young to challenge and galvanize each other.

"At this point, I just concentrate on making sure that these cats are in the most comfortable situation —  or maybe not so comfortable, so they might have to dig a little deeper," McBride said in a statement. "It's a balance."

To hear how that balancing act is executed, just listen to the fantastic Prime — and read on for an in-depth interview with McBride about the past, present and future of the New Jawn, and how freedom often needs guidelines to be truly free.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Tell me how Christian McBride's New Jawn came to be. How did you constellate with these fellow masters?

I started doing a residency at the Village Vanguard back in 2009, I believe it was. Starting around 2012, my residency went from one week to two weeks, and so I always had an opportunity to bring a second band or have some sort of a week where I could experiment with some group that I didn't usually play with.

In December of 2015, I thought I wanted to try a new group — something that was a 180 degree turn from what I had been doing. My trio with [pianist] Christian Sands and [drummer] Ulysses Owens Jr. recorded a live album at the Vanguard the year before, and we had also released an album called Out Here in 2013. I just wanted to do something completely different.

Marcus Strickland is someone that I have worked with many times in the past. Nasheet Waits is someone that I knew for a very long time, but hadn't had a chance to work with very much. I had talked to a few musicians who I respected, and I told them what I had in mind: I wanted to do a pianoless quartet, a group that was kind of on the outskirts — not all the way out, but just kind of walking that fine line.

A lot of people said "For what you are describing, you might want to check out Josh Evans." I knew who Josh was — I hadn't played with him yet — so I kind of YouTube-stalked him. I went and heard him a couple of times at Smalls, and he was the guy. So, that's how the New Jawn first got together in December of 2015.

And that's been my main unit pretty much ever since. I still have Inside Straight; that's been my longest running group. I still have my big band, but the New Jawn has been the group that I've probably played with the most since 2015.

Tell me more about your long relationships with Marcus and Nasheet.

I don't really have a lot of history with Nasheet before this group, because I first met him in the mid '90s when he was playing with my friend Antonio Hart. I just always loved the way he played, and then, of course, he became a member of Jason Moran's Bandwagon trio. That trio has been pushing the limits — the outer limits, so to speak — for quite some time.

I became a bigger fan of Nasheet's after I heard him with Jason, so I just took a shot in the dark. I said, "Hey, man, come play this Vanguard gig with me."

We did one gig together in 2011 or early 2012, with Jason [and saxophonists] James Carter and Hamiet Bluiett. It was a tribute to [pianist] Don Pullen, and that gig was so wonderful, I knew that if we had a chance to play together on the regular, that it would be special. So, that's pretty much my history with Nasheet.

Marcus Strickland, I had done some playing with his twin brother E.J. in the late '90s when he was a student at the New School, and I think I first met Marcus when he was playing with [legendary drummer] Roy Haynes. It was in the early 2000s.

We finally started playing together when we made a few gigs with [drummer] Jeff "Tain" Watts' group, and that must have been around 2004, 2005, somewhere in there. Marcus also started subbing for [saxophonist] Ron Blake in my band, the Christian McBride Band, when Ron got the gig with “SNL.” So, yeah, Marcus and I go back 20-plus years.

Christian McBride New Jawn

Christian McBride's New Jawn. Photo: Ebru Yildiz

Can you talk about the freedom that a chordless ensemble confers?

Well, I always feel like freedom is relative, because it's not so much the band or having chords or no chords. It's the concept of the band, the band leader, just sort of your collective MO.

As a bassist, I feel like I almost have more responsibility because it's not my goal to play free without some sort of gravitational pull to it. Freedom is much more exciting when there are some sort of parameters, or you have something to break through.

If you go on stage and you just simply play free without a landing point or some sort of navigation, then I feel like you're kind of running in a circle, or you're just running with no destination — and when you finally land somewhere, you're kind of like, Now what? Now, that could be fun for the musicians, but I have a feeling it may or may not be that fun for the person that's listening to you.Playing in this particular group, I like the fact that we play songs that have a form, but we don't always follow that form. We break through that form, but we eventually come back to it, which is what... That's why Miles Davis' Second Great Quintet was so special, because they used the form to show what could be done if you break it down and then reconstruct it. So, that's what we try to do in this group.

There are some inspired writing contributions from all members of the group, as far as I understand, and renditions of Larry Young, Sonny Rollins and Ornette Coleman tunes. How did this particular sequence of songs come to be? I'm sure you four all work on so many things and are inspired by so many things that there were a lot of contenders for the record.

So, we recorded this at the end of 2021, I believe. We were fresh off of the gig at the Vanguard, so a lot of the stuff that we recorded were things that we had worked on that week.

It wasn't really that difficult to figure out what the material was going to be. I think putting a recording together is not that dissimilar to putting a set together. You want to make sure you start off with something exciting — something that's going to lock the people in as best as you think you can, and then you just try to shape it so it's a good listening experience.

I'd love to home in on three of the originals. The title track, written by Marcus, was inspired by a battle in the Transformers movies; you're quoted as calling it "one of the baddest tunes you've ever heard."

Marcus had recorded that on one of his solo albums a few years before [2011's Triumph of the Heavy, Vol. 2, and his version also had no chords. So, he obviously knew that this song would be a perfect fit for this band.

It's got a really great melody; it's got a very interesting bassline. It's a bassline that pretty much stays kind of locked in throughout the solo section, and it just makes for a lot of exciting movement throughout the piece. Marcus composed something really hip there.

"Moonchild", written by Nasheet, has this incredibly potent vibe. Can you talk about how you jointly landed on that kind of crawling, crepuscular feeling?

What I love about Nasheet is that he's known for being this volcanic drummer, but the two prettiest songs that this band plays were both written by Nasheet: "Moonchild" on this new album, and "Kush" on our first album.

So, his creative spectrum is quite broad. And I think the way we recorded it, is we were rehearsing it. That song originally had tempo, but when we were kind of reading it down and kind of learning it, we were reading down the music separately, so we weren't playing it together. And Nasheet said, "Hey, I kind of like it like that; let's play it rubato."

We played it a couple of times, and then Josh and Marcus kind of worked it out where they could still play it in unison, but not quite in time. And again, that's kind of what I mean by having some parameters — having a little bit of a form so you can kind of tug, you could push, you could pull. And that's the way that came about.

Finally, the one I wanted to home in on is "Dolphy Dust" — my personal favorite on the record. What does Dolphy mean to you and collectively, what can you speak to for his presence in all your creative lives?

Well, that's Josh Evans' tune, as you know. Josh is a big time historian.

And it is sort of weird how being a historian in jazz gets interpreted, because some feel that knowing the history of jazz is a necessity, and some people think being a historian puts creative shackles on you. As in, you're not able to create music without always having some sort of conscious historical reference. I feel when Josh wrote this song, he told me that this was something that he just heard in his head.

He kept hearing the melodies slowly over the course of a couple of weeks — like, four bars here, four bars there. And when he finally flushed it out and it became a song, he said, "Yeah, I feel like this has some Dolphy-isms in it."

It's hard because, again, I think with jazz connoisseurs, even if you don't write a song that references somebody like Eric Dolphy, somebody's going to do it anyway. I feel like Eric Dolphy plays as much of a part in our creative and jazz history lives as Max Roach or Booker Little or Jackie McLean or anybody who was a part of their era at that time.

Dolphy, of course, was one of the important figures in jazz in the early '60s. He tragically died young, which always, sadly, adds to a myth of people. It's weird. I hear people now talk about how important Roy Hargrove was. It's like, well, he actually was that important when he was alive. But now that he's not here, we recognize how important he is.

So I think with Eric Dolphy, he is equally as much a part of our intake of jazz history as anyone. But Josh captured that spirit in this piece accidentally. He was not thinking of Eric Dolphy when he wrote that song. He thought of that after he wrote it.

In the press release, you said: "At this point, I just concentrate on making sure that these cats are in the most comfortable situation — or maybe not so comfortable, you know, so they might have to dig a little deeper." How do you bring the musicians out to where their feet might not exactly touch the bottom?

Well, again, when you play a music as creative as jazz or some sort of improvisational music, the fun part — the challenge — is you do know where you're going, but you kind of don't know how you're going to get there.

Or you have a route planned out because you know that's how you need to get to where you have to go, but sometimes a road might be closed, you'll get detoured, there'll be a traffic jam. And sometimes, when you're playing this kind of music, somebody in the band could always divert you to another route.

And that's what the fun part is about playing this music. You want the band to feel like you all can trust each other, because when those detours happen, you know you're not going to get led off the cliff. Or, if you do get pushed off the cliff, there's going to be someone at the bottom to catch you so you don't crash.

So that's what I mean about putting musicians in a situation where they feel comfortable, but not too comfortable.

I look forward to your run at Dizzy's soon. How's the chemistry between you four — or, by extension, you and any accompanists you work with — different on stage versus in the studio?

Well, the audience acts as sort of a fifth band member, which is why it can be difficult sometimes for jazz artists to create when the audience is kind of not interacting. I don't always blame the audience for that, because I know some artists don't want the audience to interact. I need the audience to interact. We're all human beings. We're playing for you. We're not playing at you.

It's never been my MO to play for the audience and say, "Hey, I need you to shut up and pay attention so you can understand how deep and how great we are." I play music, so I can say "Look, I need you to tell me if I'm correct, that these musicians up on stage are as great as I think they are. But in order for you to do that, you have to listen. Right?"

But I don't want you to sit on your hands and be nervous [about] interacting. So I've always been a person of the people. Yes, they do need to concentrate — I need audiences not to be rude — but I do want you to let me know how you're feeling about the music.

That's where things get different live versus in the studio when we just have each other. And frankly, that's enough too; that's fine.

You're each other's audiences.

Exactly. That's right.

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