andrew neu
by Bonnie Schendell

Visit Andrew at
Every year 45,000 fans gather in Reading, Pennsylvania to kick off the jazz concert season.  It was at the Berks Jazz Festival that many became familiar with saxman, Andrew Neu.  From hanging around to play at midnight jam sessions whenever possible to sitting in with headliners, and this year holding his own with Bobby Caldwell and the Dave Stahl Big Band, this Philadelphia Native has been breaking out of the local area to garner national attention.  While at the 2013 Berks Jazz Festival recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Andrew and talk about how his career is moving forward.

SmoothViews (SV):  Thanks for taking the time to chat today.  Glad we could work this out.
Andrew Neu (AN):  Thanks so much.  I’m thrilled that we were able to do this.

SV:  You are about to release your fourth CD, Everything Happens for a Reason, in a couple of weeks, but I think people are still getting acquainted with you and your sound.  You have been around for a while, quietly making a name for yourself.  Can you tell us a little bit about you and your music so our readers can familiarize themselves with you?
AN:  My parents are not professional musicians, but they always had music around the house.  My father is an amateur violist and a trombone player, but an engineer by trade.  I remember going to see the Philadelphia Orchestra when I was a kid and we pretty much only listened to classical music in our house growing up.  I have a big brother and big sister who are both musical and we all ended up going into music.  My brother, who is a good bit older than me, was out there doing gigs and concerts.  He’s a trumpet player and has played on all of my records.  I love playing with him and I know that he is someone who will always be in my life, and playing together and being family is great.  You do become family with the musicians that you play with all of the time, those that you connect with, and when they are family, that’s even better.  So I remember watching him doing gigs and knew that this was something that was really cool for me, seeing him put the gig bag on was very cool.  I was still in elementary school when he was doing all of this stuff, but eventually as I got old enough to do gigs myself, we created a new relationship with each other.  But I started on clarinet in 4th grade and went through the band program, like most kids do.  I wanted to play trumpet but we already had a trumpet player!  Apparently drums were not allowed because they were too loud, and even saxophone was apparently allowed at the time by my parents.  But I knew I wanted to play in the jazz band so a few years later I started playing the saxophone.  So, I play saxophone and still play clarinet, and flute, and I took piano lessons.  I actually played trumpet for a little while.  I can still pick it up and play a little bit.

SV:  So, do you still play other instruments now?
AN:  Oh, yeah.  In fact, on the new record, Everything Happens for a Reason, has a lot more flute on it than my others, and I play clarinet and bass clarinet on it, along with the full orchestra.  I also played flute on Peter White’s last record on a tune called “Costa Rica.”  It’s nice to be able to play these other instruments because it gives you a different perspective on all music, especially when I’m writing horn parts.  The fact that I played trumpet helps me when I’m writing horn parts for my record or when I write for big bands.  I’ve written a lot of Bobby’s [Caldwell] charts for big bands, and I’m actually published with Kendor, which is a very big publishing company for big band music.  So, it definitely helps you relate to other musicians when you know how to play those other instruments.  That way you know that when you are writing something, it’s idiomatic to whatever the instrument is.  It makes things make sense.  I know that I have written things for the guitar that probably make no sense because I don’t play guitar.  It’s the one instrument that I know the least about.  But I do play piano and I played bass for a minute, so I do understand what they can do.  That’s why I have always relied on producers that were rhythm section guys.  Brian Bromberg, Steve Oliver, Chuck Loeb, and Gerald Veasley have all produced records of mine.

SV:  The new CD is mostly produced by Brian Bromberg, who was involved with producing your last CD, Try Something Neu, except for two tracks produced by Steve Oliver.  How did those relationships happen and what do you feel they each brought to the table?
AN: Well, Steve and I have worked on a couple of projects before.  There was another artist that he was producing and we met through the circuit and hit it off.  I played on a project he was producing for another guitarist and not long after that I played on a track on Steve’s last record. We just connected musically and personally.  He’s just a sweetheart!  There were a couple of things I had in mind for this new record that were just in the style of some of the things he’s done, and I thought that if I’m going to do it, then just go to the source.  “Poolside” is one of them.  A very Steve Oliver tune.  And he also did “Dreaming of Lions,” a tune we wrote together.  I wanted to do more of a world beat, more of a Latin kind of influence on this record and you hear more of that.  Actually, the chant that Steve is doing is actually in an African language and is a story about lions.  That was a neat tune and we worked well in the studio.  We just started riffing together, I was playing keyboards, and Steve came up with the chant.  I think it’s actually one of the more intriguing tunes.  And, Brian Bromberg, well, this is the third record I’ve worked on together.  This is the one that I’ve done the most from scratch with him.  We went in the studio with Third Richardson on drums, Jeff Lorber, and Brian and we cut most of 8 or 9 tunes in two days.  We went from virtually having nothing to having the framework of the record.  It was all done in a spontaneous way, not a clinical way.  It was all done very organically and real.  And that is what I was hoping to make, something timeless.  It’s not the dated keyboard sounds that sound great at the moment but then you go back later and say that doesn’t so great anymore.  The sax, bass, horn section and Fender Rhodes…it’s a classic sound that’s not going away.  We used a real piano, organ and these are sounds that I think will make this record sound timeless.

SV:  You talk about your sound favoring Latin and R&B lines, like in the songs “Night of the Mojito” or “Dreaming of Lions.”  Does the “Philly Sound” ever come into play in your music?
AN:  I think that’s all in how I play having grown up in Philadelphia, playing with people like Gerald Veasley, and a lot of the cats that played with Grover Washington are still around.  That’s why I kind of feel that in a small way, I am continuing his legacy.  There’s definitely a way you play in Philly vs. New York vs. LA and you adjust your playing depending on who you are playing with.  But I think on my last record I had more of a Grover thing especially since I had Gerald Veasley produce four of the tunes.  I had Donald Robinson, who was music director for Grover.  So there was that connection there that we had with that Philly vibe.  But with this new record, I wanted to make a real honest album and didn’t think about who was going to like this.  I wanted to make a record that was the most honest to me.  The tunes are much longer and we decided to stretch things and it’s a little more eclectic stylistically, but as the same time I felt that there was cohesiveness about everything.  I think maybe because we tracked everything in a couple of days.

SV:  Is there more of a sense of freedom, since you said that you weren’t worried about who would like it, but more freedom for you to do what you do?
AN:  Absolutely.  Especially as the industry has changed so much and hard to get a barometer as to what is actually going to be successful.  And especially for me, while I am not a new artist, I am still an emerging artist, I guess, and people are still getting to know me that I wanted to put something out there that is really honest to who I am and what I am doing.  Comparing to actors, the best actors are the ones who immerse themselves in the role.  That when you watch them, you don’t think about them in some other movie they did.  I always think about Daniel Day-Lewis.  If I bumped into him on the street I probably wouldn’t recognize him.  But you see him in Lincoln and you see him in Gangs of New York, and you believe that he is this person.  But you watch Tom Cruise in a movie and you think okay, Tom Cruise is a good actor.  His celebrity is always going to be bigger than his acting.  So, I wanted to make sure that what I did was the most honest to me and that’s the artists that I believe are the most honest to the craft.  I have a lot of respect for cats that can jump into any situation and adapt to that.  Chuck Loeb, Brian Bromberg, Jeff Lorber.  These cats made a living playing for other people but were also able to establish their own identity at the same time.

SV:  On “Night of the Mojito,” it sounds like it has an Eddie Harris “Cold Duck Time” sound.  Was that intentional?
AN:  It was definitely deliberate.  We ramped up the temp a bit and I have always loved that boogaloo kind of a groove, which I had to look up on Wikipedia to find what exactly that was!  (laughs) and you know what it said is the truth because it was on the internet! When I read about it, it was a style of music that was popular for about three days in 1967.  It’s a great blend of Latin, pop, and rock influences that were coming together.  I love that era and was intrigued with that vibe.  I was trying to channel that to some degree with this record, and was just always thinking about that era with the real musicians.  Brian Bromberg and I talked about it and we both loved that vibe and that era.  And Bobby [Caldwell] is coming from that same era.  One of the ways Bobby and I connected was from the music of the 1940s and big band, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mercer, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin.  The Great American Songbook.  While we associate Bobby with “What you Won’t Do For Love,” any yet he is so much deeper than that as a composer and musician and his appreciation of music across the board.

SV:  “Take Five” has been covered so many times, but you gave it a fresh sound.  How do you do that with a classic song and not insult the song or have it lose its integrity?
AN:  It’s funny because that’s a tune that I learned in 5/4 like Paul Desmond and Dave Brubeck have done it.  I was just playing around with the groove and started singing that melody over this 4/4 groove.  This was year’s ago.  We started playing it in our live show and over the years it started to evolve.  It was one of those tunes that really developed out of the live show.  And we kept doing it in the live show and people kept asking what record it was on.  My feeling was that it had been recorded a million times and the world did not need another version.

SV:  But what you have done with it, it doesn’t lose that integrity of the original.
AN:  I tried to kind of approach it in a Paul Desmond way.  I think there is uniqueness about it in 4/4.  This was the right time to record this and the vibe of the record was right for it.  And the other thing is that this is the most personal CD of mine because I contributed the most writing, most arranging, and even with it being the only cover tune on the album, I made it my own.  It’s not the karaoke version.

SV:  You have been touring with Bobby Caldwell for a few years now and he makes an appearance on this CD.  How did you begin working with Bobby?
AN:  It’s a funny story and I always go back to saying that there is no such as good luck, only good preparation.  And taking advantage of those moments when they are presented to you.  You never know who is going to be in the audience.  You could be doing a gig where you wish you were somewhere else, but you have to bring your “A” game whenever you are on stage.  Even if you are thinking it’s just a gig, take the money and go home.  That’s happens.  For me it was never about that.  I just enjoy playing music.  So, I was doing a concert with a big band in a college in north central New Jersey, in Hackettstown.  It was nicely attended and afterwards I was out in the lobby and I was selling CDs.  In Clear View was charting at the time.  I was chatting to a woman there, it was loud and I couldn’t exactly make out what he was saying.  I could tell that she was connected to the industry and may have heard of me.  Eventually, I figured out that this was Bobby’s wife.  I didn’t feel like I played well at all, but she saw something in me and we connected and I said that I was a big fan of Bobby’s and if he ever needs a sax player, here’s my number.  I got her number and touched base with her a few days later and said again if Bobby ever needs someone, thinking a few years down the road.  That was on a Saturday and on Wednesday, Bobby called me!  He said he had a gig in Santa Barbara in a week and a half and wanted to know if I could cover it.  He was using Patrick Lamb as his regular sax player and I started subbing for Patrick.  And that was in 2007.  In 2008, because of the economy, it was like we couldn’t keep flying cats around, so I was the first guy that started in the east coast band.  And then we brought in Rob Cochran, Brian Dunn on drums, and we put together a whole east coast band.  And over the last two years I’ve been doing the gig full-time.  I’ve been to Japan with him a few times and we’re going back in October.  It’s been great because Bobby sang on my last record, I played on his last record, and of course, on my new record, and we got together again and wrote this tune together.  In fact, it as a tune I had written many years ago.  It was written as a jazz standard and just didn’t fit in with other material I was doing.  So, it was just one of those things that was a nice little piece, but I couldn’t find a place for it.  Brian Bromberg and I were sitting down in his studio about a year ago and sorting through material for the new record, and I was at the piano.  Brian was playing one of his nylon string basses and we were sot of just improvising.  And we both just looked at each other thinking this would be a great vocal tune and Bobby would sing this great, but there were no lyrics to it, just a title, “What Would I Do?”  It was inspired by idea of what would I do if I couldn’t so my craft anymore, like if I had an injury, like if I hurt my hands or something like that.  I mean, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  This is who I am.  That was the emotion and the angst behind this song.  I brought it to Bobby and he liked the title and the melody, but he said no one was going to relate to that concept, so he wrote his lyrics to it, using my title, so it was about what would you do if you couldn’t be with the person you loved, which is much more romantic and much more relatable. But I liked the fact that I was always able to contribute the initial emotion, the title, and the melody.  He also added another melodic section and it was a really nice collaboration.  It sounds timeless, especially with the full orchestra.

SV:  The Berks Jazz Festival is where I first heard you play and have watched you over the years.  It’s great to see the development in your playing and going from solely a midnight jam player to now being in the All-Star Jam and one of the major shows that took place this year with you, Bobby Caldwell, and the Dave Stahl Big Band.  You have become a fixture here at Berks.  Does it feel surreal?
AN:  It is.  And I have always tried to make the most of my time here.  There are so many other amazing artists and it is so humbling, especially like the other night standing there between Eric Marienthal and Gerald Albright.  Two people who are just icons.  That was such a neat experience.  And the title track of the CD, “Everything Happens for a Reason,” came out of the fact that two years ago, we were supposed to go to Bermuda for a show at the end of one of those really crappy winters we had around here.  It sounded really good and then it fell through.  But then I spoke to my manager and he was able to set up some things here at Berks.  It turned out to be a really great experience.  It was very inspiring.  I loved watching all of the other musicians playing together.

SV:  I know that you fly out to the L.A. area a great deal and lead a big band out there with one of my friends, Jamey Tate, and others.  Can you tell us about that side of your career?
AN:  I have a big band of L.A. musicians that I lead with Tony Bonsera, who plays trumpet.  Jamey Tate and David Hughes play in the band.  It’s all really top level L.A. players. 

SV:  But it seems like two separate sides of your career, the jazz side and the big band.
AN:  Well, it’s all musical and it’s all jazz.  You see a lot of the same cats playing in both areas.  Eric Marienthal does a lot of big band stuff.  He goes as a clinician to colleges.  But with my stuff being published, my music is being played all country now.  My tunes, arrangements, and compositions are being played all over.  There’s a band in Japan called the Big Friendly Jazz Orchestra, and they’re all girls, and they play their butts off.  They’re playing one of my pieces and there are about a half dozen videos of them playing at different festivals.  It’s just so cool to watch them thinking that this was something that I just wrote in my bedroom!

SV:  You have also done concerts with the Philadelphia Symphony and the Philly Pops.  That’s a very well-rounded career you have going, with irons in many fires.  How do you juggle it all and what do each of these different music styles bring out in you when you are writing your own music?
AN:  The Philly Orchestra and the Philly Pops.  Peter Nero and the Philly Pops.  In fact, last year I had to play “Rhapsody in Blue” with Peter Nero and played the famous clarinet solo at the beginning, which was a huge challenge for me.  I had been playing clarinet for a long time, as I said, it was my first instrument, but that’s not my main instrument.  I had spoken to other clarinet players and they all went through the same anxiety because it’s literally so exposed.  Literally, Peter Nero just would point to me and I would blow (hums the tune).  I was sweating!  I was trying to find my calm place!  Doing something like that where there is no place to hide and out of the norm, and playing for a Grammy Award winning piano player, was crazy.  I was proud I did it but as glad when it was over!  As for juggling everything, I like to say that I have a short attention span!  I get as much pleasure playing in an orchestra as I do playing in a horn section on an Earth, Wind and Fire song.  Or playing a funk tune with the cats here at Berks, or playing straight ahead jazz.  It challenges you in different ways.  I have always been impressed with the musicians who can play other music without losing who they are.  As a professional musician and as a sideman, you have to go where the work is and that may mean having to play the clarinet or a horn.  I just played with a Brazilian group and they asked me to play.  I was flattered and I really embraced how Stan Getz did that, which is very different from how Michael Brecker or Kirk Whalum would approach it.  Again, it was that 60s era.  So, it was really neat for me to embrace how he approached it and try to immerse yourself in the role you have to play.  That’s what I say about good preparation.  You adjust your playing depending on the role required…and it keeps you working!

SV:  What else do you want everyone to know about you?
AN:  Well, besides the fact that I have been touring with Bobby and my association with him, I have spent the last year touring with Diane Schuur.  That’s much more true jazz.  She’s a two time Grammy winner.  She plays piano and sings, Roberto Vally on bass, and Tony Moore on drums.  They are my two best friends and they are my L.A. band for my solo act.  She has no set list and then just says “Hey, you guys know this one, right?”  Sometimes we know it and other times we are playing catch up.  It’s always fresh and truly jazz.  I have been all over the world with her and it challenges you in a different way because Bobby’s gig is more pop/smooth jazz, whereas Diane’s gig is more jazz standards, Cole Porter, and then she’ll go into pop tunes like the Beatles.  Then she might go into all blues, so you have to be able to go into all of these different places. Her gigs are never boring!  I’ve also been filling in with Smokey Robinson for the past year and a half or so.  That’s the one that people outside of the jazz world have heard of.  That’s very cool.    Smokey is a real musician and song writer.  You forget how many songs he wrote.  He’s a beautiful person and he’s still out there touring because he loves it.  It’s so great to watch him after the show, where he will wait to meet everyone who wants to meet him.  He’s not off hiding somewhere.  It’s a lot of fun being able to play on that kind of stage.

SV:  Well, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down, chat, and let everyone get to know you better.  And the new CD releases on….
AN:  June 4th.  Everything Happens for a Reason.  Thanks so much for your time, as well.
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