Interviewed by Anne Aufderheide
May 5, 2007
SV: SmoothViews welcomes Grammy-winning artist Jason Miles. You've developed a reputation as an extremely gifted and multi-faceted artist who always pushes the limits, as a keyboardist, producer, arranger, musical director, composer, and educator. With great versatility, you are able to perform many different genres from jazz, funk, soul, R&B, even country! Your recordings and live shows have performances with the best artists and create such a lush, deep sound. You have been fortunate to work with and learn from some of the greatest artists of our time from Miles Davis to Luther Vandross, Marcus Miller, Sting, David Sanborn, Grover Washington, Jr., Gato Barbieri, Chaka Khan, Derek Trucks and many more. That’s an impressive background.
JM: Thank you.
SV: SmoothViews readers are probably most familiar with your amazing contemporary jazz recordings such as Maximum Grooves - Coast to Coast, Brazilian Nights, A Love Affair - The Music of Ivan Lins, To Grover With Love…
JM: I wish I didn’t have to make that record because then Grover would still be alive. Grover was a special, special guy who never wanted to take the horn out of his mouth. He wanted to play 24/7.
SV: His 1980 album Winelight was pivotal, a major influence in shaping the sound of smooth jazz radio.
JM: In the early 70s, I first heard Grover on his CTI records like Mr. Magic, All the Kings Horses, and Inner City Blues. In the 1960s, I was developing into a big King Curtis fan. When I was a kid, I used to go see DJs like Murray The K or the WMCA All Stars. We’d see shows at the Brooklyn Fox or the Paramount in New York. There was always a house band at those theatres. After they showed a crumby movie, with kids throwing things at the screen, you know, 1500 teenagers in a room waiting for the band to start. The movie would end, then all of a sudden, the screen would go up. The stage would rise and there would be the King Curtis Band. King Curtis was playing sax with Bernard Purdie, Richard Tee, Cornell Dupree and all those really bad guys. I loved the way King Curtis sounded. They were the house band that backed up popular artists like Leslie Gore, Chuck Berry, etc. Then one day I heard somebody playing sax and I said, “That’s King Curtis,” but it wasn’t…it was David Sanborn! That’s how I got hooked into the contemporary jazz sound. Influences go back many years.
SV: Another big influence for you was Ivan Lins. Your amazing album, A Love Affair, The Music of Ivan Lins, received some major honors. Congratulations.
JM: Yes, it did. I produced the album. It got two Grammy nominations: one was for the Grover track "Camaleao," which turned out to be his last studio performance; the other was for the Sting track "She Walks This Earth," which won Best Male Pop Vocals.
SV: You make the track available from your website. Thank you. If people want to hear, it they can pop over to www.jasonmilesmusic.com and check out the cool music player.
JM: "She Walks This Earth," now that’s a song for the ages. I’m also hoping that in the summer of 2008, we do "Ivan Lins and Friends" show live at European jazz festivals.
SV: You produced that extravaganza for the 2006 Berks Jazz Festival, right?
JM: Ivan has never gotten his real due as a brilliant writer and artist because he’s not totally in the Brazilian mode. He has both jazz and pop sensibilities. We’re alike in many ways. The beautiful thing about the Berks Jazz Festival is that they have confidence in me; we’ve become good friends. We come up with shows that are not only commercially viable, but also incredibly creative. They go out of their way to make these shows work...picking up people in NYC, arranging for the Brazilians to come over for Ivan's show. These huge shows are “once in a lifetime” experiences.
SV: Another artist CD you’ve produced is self-taught Latin sax virtuoso Gato Barbieri’s, The Shadow of the Cat, which won numerous accolades.
JM: It was a dream of mine. I heard Gato in 1971 on the album Fenix. I loved that sound. When I came back to NYC, “Last Tango In Paris” just came out and I saw it. I loved the theme in the movie. I was blown away when I heard Gato play. It was so incredible. We saw Gato perform live a number of times at the Village Vanguard and The Bottom Line. He had such a hot band. His sound was so ferocious, and I really wanted to work with him. After I did A Love Affair, an A&R guy heard it and said “I think you’d be great working with Gato Barbieri.” We met together a few times. What I did was make this album called Brazilian Nights and put Gato on it. He played “Bahia” and was burning the house down. When I put my head to it, I knew it could work. The Shadow of the Cat was actually the last time Gato recorded; he hasn’t made another album since then. He’s a very eclectic guy who, as amazing as it sounds, brings the sound of Marvin Gaye, Coltrane and tango. Gato loves Marvin Gaye.
SV: In support of your recent recording, What’s Going On? Songs of Marvin Gaye, you mounted an incredible show at the 2006 Berks Jazz Festival. From that experience, you garnered prestigious bookings elsewhere. Tell me where you have been playing the show.
JM: We have performed it in Detroit and Pasadena. Pasadena was 110 degrees that day. It was a beautiful moment – the crowd really loved the performance, despite the heat. Crowds everywhere love it because they relate to the message, even now. "What’s Going On?" is a real boomer message. Marvin Gaye’s original album was a real baby boomer album. Then we played it at the Lyman Center in Connecticut and at the IMAC in New York. I just got back from playing it at the Casablanca Jazz Festival in Morocco.
SV: Cool! How did it go over with the audiences in Casablanca?
JM: It was unbelievable! The appreciation they showed was phenomenal. They were up off the seats, dancing and getting into it. It was really beautiful. The lineup I brought to Casablanca was more edgy because I knew they'd appreciate it. They said “Bring the best musicians;” so I brought DJ Logic, Christian Scott, an incredible young trumpet player, vocalists Maysa and Guida de Palma from Lisbon, Portugal, and British soul singer Steve Menzies, who just blew everyone away! I had the New York hot rhythm section with Brian Dunne, Jerry Brooks and Sherrod Barnes. The people at the show couldn’t get enough. They were buying CDs like crazy – in a country that has a lot of bootleg CDs. We have more dates coming up; one soon in Camden, NJ. We’re actively looking to get this out there now. To me, a great success would be if I could break this on the West coast and Europe. I’d also be happy to produce the show for a jazz cruise.
SV: Do you think the music of Marvin Gaye is controversial?
JM: I think it’s about love and peace, and about spreading the word. Controversy? Is war controversial? Yes. Is the environment controversial? Yes, although it shouldn’t be. Cleaning up the environment is something we should be working on constantly to make the world a cleaner, better place to live. Why aren’t we moving forward in New Orleans? Why did we turn down billions of dollars from foreign countries to rebuild New Orleans? Is Marvin Gaye relevant – yeah! The message is really relevant. However, a lot of the music we perform in the show has nothing to do with controversy. We do “Too Busy Thinking about My Baby” and "I Want You.” These songs are soundtracks to people’s lives. That’s how I go about making an album. I want to make one that people will listen to years from now. On MySpace, people often correspond with me about records I made 25 years ago - they are still listening to them. When I made albums with people like Miles, Luther, and Sanborn, those are albums that were built to last. That is how I view it. I want somebody to be listening to it in 10 years. Certainly this is true with the Ivan Lins album. I get that comment all the time, more than any other album I’ve ever done outside of Tutu. It stays close to them. That’s what it’s about, creating something that’s going to last, not just from one cycle to the next, but from one generation to the next.
SV: Producers tend to stay behind the scenes, but you’ve been able to come around to the “front” of the stage. You play keyboards and synthesizers. Your many different talents come into play when putting together a massive show - from musical director, arranger, performer, and composer. You just mounted two huge shows at the 2007 Berks Festival, “Celebrating the Life & Music of Luther Vandross” and “Soul Summit.” For the Luther show, you had amazing artists performing: Dionne Warwick, Cissy Houston, Kirk Whalum, Walter Beasley, Doc Powell, and more. The show sold out! What was your experience of bringing this music to the Berks jazz audience?
JM: In order to do the music I do, no matter who it is, I feel like I am close to the music and close to that artist. I just don’t pick something random. I’ve got to be immersed in what’s happening. Certainly my life was seriously affected by Luther for many years, because of the proximity of making albums with him, all different kinds of albums, spending months in the studio with him. The effect a person like that has on your life…in fact, some people would not be in the Berks show because it was too emotional. The effect Luther had on his audiences was so huge. So what was I going to do, toss off some quickie tribute? No, I had to get the original band together…with Nat Adderley, Jr. who was my co-musical director that night. He’s so brilliant, an unbelievable genius. Too much! He’s a character too. He’s loved by so many people. Then Doc Powell, Tinker Barfield, Steve Kroon and Buddy Williams – these are all the people who were involved with Luther from different angles. Also, it was amazing getting “D Train” Williams out to perform. He is a brilliant singer but hasn’t been out for a few years. He’s the closest thing to Luther I know. We put together a real New York groove R&B vibe. After the band came together, I said “OK, who was one of Luther’s best friends?” Dionne. Well, the minute I showed her who was in the show, she said “Jason, how can I not do this? It’s for real!” Then we focused on presenting the show so it’s real. And that’s what my job is. Is it an easy job? No! If it was easy, everyone would be doing it! But I know how to do it. Being a producer is a big deal, but not as much anymore. Anybody with a Pro Tools set up can say they’re a producer. But to actually approach projects like Quincy Jones or Arif Mardin did; those were great producers who have true vision behind everything they do, that’s the path that I wanted to follow. It is a difficult path.
SV: You have a talent, a gift really, for bringing the best artists together. What's it like when there’s that much talent on the stage?
JM: I’ve always said this…if the show starts at 7:00 o’clock, five minutes to 7:00 is when my vacation starts. Playing those shows is not hard. Walking out on stage and looking across the stage at everyone, that’s the easiest part of the whole night because then you’re doing the thing that you love. It is so important to have confidence in everyone, in yourself. Because Nat was involved, I had confidence that he knows how to take the music to the next level because he originally helped create that music. As Luther’s musical director, Nat gave so much extra. All you have to do is listen to the beginning of “SuperStar” and see what the story is.
SV: What was the "Soul Summit" show like to direct?
JM: Soul Summit…that was a whole other project. Imagine asking John Ernesto at the Berks Jazz Festival, “Tell me what you think of this show. Celebrating the Life of Luther Vandross." He said “WOW! OK! I don’t have to think about it, I want to do it.” I said “OK, now what do you think about this one…Soul Summit.” John said “What is it?” I told him “Don’t worry about it, trust me it’ll be great.” John said “OK.” Do you know how many people say that? One in 40 million. When I did Soul Summit, I had a clear vision. I wanted to get together the baddest, grooviest, funkiest guys who could play all different kinds of vibes. This music was born in the Mississippi Delta and New Orleans, then went to Memphis and Motown. Any kind of R&B music was born. That’s what Soul Summit was. I called up a whole different group of people and worked on the music for four months to put together and make it perfection. What a coup to get drummer Steve Ferrone and Reggie Young, one of the greatest guitar players in the world. He's played "Son of a Preacher Man," "Suspicious Mind," "Hooked on a Feeling," "Cry like a Baby" and 30 songs with Elvis all those amazing songs that he still plays great. Also, we had Bob Babbitt from the Funk Brothers, who played on What’s Going On? We got this jam band thing going on with Carl Denson, and Sherrod Barnes - he’s so funky - and then singers like Maysa, Mike Mattison, and Susan Tedeschi come together to put this format out there. Add a horn section with David Mann and Barry Danielian and you’re ready. That was real work. It was a vision and I had to put the show, the band, the music together from scratch.
SV: And Richard Elliott joined you?
JM: Richard was off the hook. He really played great. You hear him play on the smooth jazz records, but what's amazing is to see what artists like him really have going for themselves. They can step up to the next level. When you walk on stage with a band like that, you’ve got to step up. I was very proud of Richard that night. He really stepped up. He played lines like I never heard him ever play before, with incredible energy and enthusiasm.
SV: And Maysa, the beautiful Maysa.
JM: Maysa is an underground diva! When she gets up to sing and starts scatting, oh my! She is so gifted. The only thing that had me worried about Maysa was that she was going to buy everything at the market in Casablanca. (laughs) If we had stayed any longer we’d have needed a truck. She was amazing, incredible, on that gig. I am really happy that I've got to work with her more. She is a very talented singer. Talent isn’t what makes people successful all the time. If it did, there’d be a lot more rich artists. Experiences I’ve had over the years have helped me know how to pull it off. The one thing that was so interesting about working with Luther was not only being in a studio and making great records but watching how his tours went down, how the rehearsals went down. I watched how it was all put together. It was done to perfection and this is what Luther lived up to: "I will never mess with the money you spend to come see my show. You will see a great show every time." One thing I like about Berks is they know how to sell the shows. That’s something promoters need to start doing again. It helps when the audience is educated beforehand. When they come to the show, they’re totally down with it. I can tell the difference when they are “warmed up” by the ovations and the enthusiasm of the fans. Then I'm happy.
I was in the studio one day with Luther. We were doing Gregory Hines album. Luther was on the couch watching "All My Children.” He said, “You guys know what you have to do? I could sit and watch TV all day; I just have to be the right casting director." That really stuck in my mind. Movies are really great when the script is amazing and you cast the right characters. And that’s what it’s about - casting the right characters whether it is in a film or on an album. You have to have the right person. You can learn that, but you also have to absorb it over the course of your career.
SV: You have an uncanny ear for spotting new talent. Anyone on the horizon you can mention?
JM: You have to keep your ear to the ground so that you hear about people. I learned that from Miles. What do you think? That Miles just put together a band with Bill Evans, Cannonball Adderley and Coltrane – you’ve got to always be looking around and hearing about people. That’s what’s really important. That’s what I do. I really pay attention to people who are being talked about. Every year I try to work with different people and I know the people who make it work.
The guitar player Sherrod Barnes is getting better and better. Every time I do a gig with him, he is always growing. I don’t know how he’s doing it. He excites me every time I hear him. I always want him to play on my recordings and gigs.
I just produced the group, The Bjorkestra, with the brilliant young arranger Travis Sullivan. I heard about him through a connection and went to see The Bjorkestra at Joe’s Pub. They play the music of Bjork with orchestra and a singer. The arrangements are really brilliant. I look at him and see a guy who needs a little guidance. I produced the album and let him run with it at the same time keeping the reigns on it. You also have to know what your role is. Did I need to be the musical director for The Bjorkestra? No, I did not. Did I have to produce an album, show them how to make an album? Yes, I did. We even did a co-bill at the Bowery Ball Room, the Miles to Miles Project and The Bjorkestra. There are all kinds of ways to collaborate and succeed with younger people. The young ones who are listening are the ones that are going to make it. The ones that think they know everything on their own, they will walk into a mine field and some mines are going to blow up.
You know who I’m very high on is Mike Mattison. I think he is the greatest young male singer there is of modern soul music and modern R&B. His interpretation is extraordinary. He’s a project for me because I really want the world to know about this guy. He’s so good. I’ll have him every year at Berks; he was also on my Marvin Gaye CD.
SV: Did he go with you to Morocco?
JM: He was out with Derek Trucks. I got Steve Menzies from the UK and he ripped it up. Whoa! He is a great singer. They’re out there and it’s my job to find and nurture them.
SV: On your Miles to Miles CD, there’s only one cover of a Miles Davis composition. The rest are original compositions.
JM: That’s what Miles would want from me. Why would I want to go back and revisit stuff that the master did himself, especially when I am in my position to create a next step forward? I’m working on getting people to pay more attention to my Miles to Miles project. It was a few years ahead of its time. People hear the CD and they get caught up in the musical intensity of it. I have been able to play it live at a bunch of places and show that it really does work. We did an early gig at the Bowery Ballroom and that convinced to me to put my neck out there. From a lifetime of building a reputation, my track record is good; I am an upfront businessman, which doesn't always happen in our business. I pay people as much as I can. It creates loyalty; people appreciate that you know how much they are worth.
SV: Would you talk more about how Miles Davis influenced your work?
JM: How could any serious musician out there playing jazz or contemporary jazz not have Miles on the tip of their tongue? Miles was THE great influence on so many people. Nothing ever stopped him from moving forward. Look what happened...he played acoustic; bang! never played acoustic again. He does "Live at Isle of White" at the Cellar Door; it’s all electric. He’s moving into other things. Nothing bothered him from taking the next step forward. And that’s the great influence. Our relationship was about growth, hanging out and creating music on those albums with Marcus, and Tommy LiPuma. I started realizing how all these great Miles stories had really influenced me. I began writing music around these different experiences. Then I got people interested enough to become part of the journey, like Carter Beauford, DJ Logic, Bernie Worrell, Michael Brecker and other cutting edge artists and musicians. The importance of doing something like this project and seeing the people who agreed to be on it, made me believe they understood my vision and wanted to take the ride with me. That was incredibly important. The concert we did at Berks was off the hook, which was a really great show. It was so special. We had some incredible players – Tom Harrell, Bernie Worrell, and DJ Logic and James Genus - who really got into the music. We gave a young drummer that no one had heard of a shot. That’s what Miles was about - put your confidence in the cats. I’ve taken all these lessons with me. Something very cool happened to me when we were in Casablanca. We played at a very cool club one night. We were booked for two concerts; the first one sold out, but the second show wasn’t because there was a security alert that affected the festival. They moved it to a really incredible club. The stage overlooked a huge mosque and beyond that was the Atlantic Ocean. At sound check, I started playing a riff from "It’s About That Time" and the band joined in. Christian Scott comes on stage and starts playing trumpet and we’re all groovin’. The band was so much younger than me that no one knew what the tune was. It’s from In A Silent Way. Wow, I got to play this music in Casablanca on the ocean. What a Miles moment!
SV: My first Miles album was Tutu. You did the synth programming on the album, didn't you?
JM: My first Miles record was Miles Smiles. There shouldn’t be a jazz fan in the world that doesn’t have Kind Of Blue. That album was the atomic bomb of jazz. For every great artist and musician who has meant something to jazz, there’s some influence of Miles there. His accomplishments and influence were HUGE! What an experience making Tutu; we’re making this beautiful album thinking it’s cool. Then it comes out and only then did we know the intense reaction. When we were in the studio, we didn’t know we were making something so important. I have a gold album for Tutu on my wall from France Miles gave me. That’s a beautiful thing.
SV: You have had some impressive mentors along the way. Tell us about Marcus Miller. Did you meet him when you were working with Miles?
JM: I met him when I was doing my own project in 1979. A great bass player in New York, Tom Barney, recommended him. When I got my first polyphonic synthesizer, I started hearing all this music. Tom was going on the road with Hugh Masekela and couldn’t do my recording. He talked with Marcus who agreed to do the recording gig. And that’s how I met Marcus. He was a young guy, 19 years old; I was young. He had hair; I had hair. Michael Brecker was on the album; it was the first time I worked with Mike. People lent themselves to the project and saw then that I had ambition and energy. A number of years later, I was moving through the pop market, trying to do more pop music. My wife, Kathy, and I went to a New York sushi bar on her birthday. It was really cold out that night. No one was in the restaurant. But at the end of the bar, there was Michael Brecker. “Jason, what’s happening? It’s so good to see you! I was actually thinking about you. If anyone knows anything about synthesizers it’s gotta be you.” We started hanging more and I hooked him up with a DX7. We started doing some music together. The next thing you know, the “A” people started to call me. My phone was ringing a lot more because Michael was telling people about me. One night this drummer Lenny White called me, “Hey you know Marcus and I are starting a new album called Jamaica Boys. He’ll be calling you about coming into the studio.” The very next morning, Marcus called and invited me to bring in some of my synths. We worked together for the next 10 years. That’s the way Marcus and I hooked up.
SV: How has he influenced your career?
JM: One of the things to learn is that you need to earn respect. When you work with somebody who is the very, very best, who has a stellar reputation, and he has records coming out that are really, really great, you have to see what got him to that place. When I started working with Marcus, he was incredibly respected. He only played with the best, “next level” people, so if I was there, I had to be at my best. There are people who are great musicians, but are they at the next level? Being there with them got me to the next level. Once you’re “in,” you learn; you learn from everybody, from the producer, from Marcus, from the other artists. It’s a collaborative effort. You’re there to help move the vision forward. And if you’re making that happen, then your part of the job is successful. Obviously it was because we made it happen all those years. I was the apprentice, like in Star Wars, ”Oh, Obiwan.” Then one day you’re ready to go out on your own. That’s hard, really hard. All those years I was making records with people for months at a time, you don’t get the chance to step out. At the same time, you are presented with opportunities like going to Montserrat with Luther, making 10 albums with Luther, making 3 albums with Miles, working with Tommy LiPuma, meeting Claus Ogerman. What I did with Marcus, I felt we were part of a team. And the best team always wins, that’s what I think. And the team he had was exceptional.
SV: You did the synth programming on Marcus’s album The Sun Don’t Lie, yes?
JM: Yes, I did half the album. He had moved to LA at that point and I stayed in New York. His path was leading him to a new place and my path was leading me to produce and get deeper into projects. I was then presented with a project called People: A Musical Celebration Of Diversity for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations. Coming fresh off years of working with the best artists, I had the chance to put together all the people I’d met, all the connections I’d made, to make this music happen. I received an Emmy nomination. At this point in time, I was able to take what I learned and fulfill a project on my own. At the same point, Nat Adderley called me to program some strings for an artist he was producing. I always want to be a part of things, collaborate with great people. For example, I did a gig with Marcus and Herbie Hancock at Jazz at the Lincoln Center called "Opera Meets Jazz & Gospel." What’s hurting some of the jazz genres today is they aren’t growing with a fresh infusion of new artists, by being dependent on a small, finite circle of musicians. I want to keep growing, collaborating with new artists. At the same time, I am capable of producing a show like Soul Summit. I called Richard Elliot - that dude is bad! He’s a great tenor. He’s the perfect guy for this gig. It takes somebody like John Ernesto at Berks to allow that opportunity to happen.
SV: Smooth jazz grew out of a rock jazz fusion era in the late ‘70s and early '80s. There’ve been many influences changing the genre along the way.
JM: You’ve always got to look for the next step. For example, I bring DJ Logic as part of the band. We collaborate. We innovate. I watched people like Arif Mardin, one of the greatest producers. Growing up in Queens, Marcus learned from Ralph McDonald and Richard Tee. One night in LA, Luther said "Let’s get done early because I want to sing.” We end at eight so he can set up the studio to sing. The movie I want to see started at 10. What am I going to do, go back to the hotel? I’m in a groove now. So I ask, “Hey Luther, do you mind if I sit in the back and hang while you’re doing the vocal?” He comes back with a wisecrack “What do you want now, producer credit?!” We started laughing and he said "Go ahead, just sit back and let me do my thing." I sat there and watched. Why would I miss that experience?!
Or watch Tommy LiPuma run a session. Tommy is the greatest session man of all time – knows who to call, where to get the food, and so on. I've learned to be able to get things from people that I spent months and years working with. I spend a lot of time practicing and beating myself over the head because I want to be a better soloist and a better conceptualist when I play. Like Pavarotti said, "Forever a student."
SV: Michael Brecker - you’ve mentioned him several times today. I know he was very important to you. His passing was such a great loss this past fall. How did he influence your musical career?
JM: Huge loss, an atom bomb to the musical community. Michael validating your musical career was like receiving the Pope's blessing, or Miles Davis' approval. Michael was the real leader of the contemporary jazz scene. His brother Randy was also very influential. Michael was somebody who wanted to help you move to the next place. If he could help you on your musical journey, he was there as a friend, as a mentor, as someone who wanted to lend his talent to making music. Michael would always say something like “How did you do that? How did you make this album happen? I have no idea how you did that?!” I did A Love Affair and its shining moment was listening to Sting's vocal and Michael playing that incredible solo. He came back saying we cannot use it. "This is pop music. I’ve got to create a pop solo for it." He went back in, re-crafted it, knowing that's what he had to do to make it something amazing. That’s what every great artist would do. To see him go from playing on Cameo one day to playing on Claus Ogerman the next day was something else. I was in Right Track Studios and in another room, Tommy was with Claus, Michael, and Randy, and Mike came out and said “This stuff was hard." Blew my mind! How could it be hard for Michael. Anytime you needed him, he’d always be there for you in that moment. He was incredible at scheduling. That’s what made him so special. He was warm and funny and incredibly friendly. Nobody else was able to be all that. His music will last forever. "The star that burns the brightest sometimes burns the shortest." Mike’s life didn’t burn short but it didn’t burn long enough. Jaco Pastorius burned out way too soon. Charlie Parker, too. The light just burned out. What would Coltrane have been like if he was around 20 more years?! What would somebody like Grover be doing now? Would he be making hits for the radio or would he have been recording albums he wanted to? Who knows? For myself, I’m making albums with a formula of “creative commerciality.” I try to be as creative and as commercial all in one swoop. Back in the 70s, the CTI albums were great stuff. Stanley Turrentine was blowing great. If we didn’t have the influence of these artists, where would some of today’s artists be? Influences came out of so many different kinds of music they were able to play.
SV: You’ve been honored by your peers, being nominated for 4 Grammys. That's excellent!
JM: Two were for the Ivan Lins project. And one was for the Latin Grammys - The Shadow Of The Cat Latin Jazz Album of the Year. It also won the Billboard Latin Jazz album of the Year. From Maximum Grooves, Coast To Coast, "Chasing Shadows" was nominated for Best Pop Instrumental Performance. You know what blew my mind, that’s the album nobody heard and I got a Grammy nomination! I look at Grammy nominations as privileges. It doesn’t happen all the time unless you’re someone like Michael Brecker or Pat Metheny.
The music business is constantly changing. It’s never going to be the same as what it was. What is it going to be? Is it going to grow, generating new, great music? Or just throw stuff out there and hope the public is going to buy it?
SV: You’ve been using technology in making music for decades. Now that everyone has an iPod and downloads music, it’s really changed the way we consume music. Do you think it’s had an effect on the quality of music?
JM: Music for the masses, which at one point was made by craftsmen like Phil Specter, Arif Mardin, Chips Momon, and Berry Gordy - these people were visionaries. Today you don’t have to be a visionary. You just buy loops, play in Apple garage bands, and anybody can be a musician. We’re not growing a pool of originality, we’re creating clones. What is that kind of music; is it for real? Arif was so funny when he told me "I come to the office and these days there's a stack of demos - mostly by young women who sing and play piano." I started laughing! He didn’t need another Norah; he had her already! My day starts off with a lot of e-mails “I’m the next greatest musician, listen to my stuff” and it’s usually somebody who copied something they heard on the radio. They play sax like Dave Koz or Kenny G, a guitar player who sounds like George Benson. But every once in a long while, one person gets to me and I want to explore more. You want to be a smooth jazz artist by copying what’s on the radio? No! That’s not the way to do it. Copying never created anything original. You ask someone like Dave who influenced him; he’ll tell you Tom Scott. He was a real nurturer. He believed that you can hear originality in his playing. But we're surrounded by all the other people who sound like him!! That was a David Sanborn problem, he worked so hard to be himself and constantly develop as a great player. And that’s what it’s all about, it’s about your own personal growth and development. Are you committed to do that? Miles was. Many are. I’ve learned to constantly grow and evolve.
SV: An important lesson. Also you’ve been giving back. You nurture the next generation by teaching music seminars.
JM: I’ve been to Berklee a few times and Manhattan College of Music. I want to do a lot more with the students. In class, I go around to all the students asking what they want to do. “Oh, I want to write and produce for artists.” Or “I want to work for a major label.” When I hear, “I want to graduate and form a group for wedding bands and write and arrange for them,” I tell that person, "You are going to make a lot of money! There is a clear vision. There’s always a market for that." I’m just trying to get the word out there to young people about what it’s going to take to work in the music industry today. It’s beyond serious commitment. You must pay your dues. When I was coming up, I was playing with great people. I see young people now; they want to make their own CD. That’s not the way it works. You need to absorb from the masters. Then when that happens, you’re ready for the next step.
SV: It always gets down to the music.
JM: That’s right! It’s about the songs, writing great material and not worrying how a focus group is going to like it. A great song is a great song. When I heard the melody for Tutu for the first time, it was a seminal moment. I was blown away. When I sat in the studio with Luther, I heard the demo of “Hear and Now” and began laughing. Luther asked, "Jason, what’s so funny?" I said, “What’s so funny is how much money you’re going to make from this tune! This is going to be played at every wedding for the next 20 years! ” ‘You think so?” “I’ll bet my house on it!” Luther shook my hand. And sure enough! When I heard the development of “The Power of Love,” it was another seminal moment that was written in the studio. Always push it. Never settle for OK. It must be THE best. If it isn’t, don’t do it.
In the 70s, Don Grolnick said to me “Be prepared to go for long periods of time without making money. It’s the best advice I can give you.” Travis Sullivan with The Bjorkestra is a brilliant cat who does temp jobs during the day and gigs at night. He’s committed. I know something beautiful is going to happen because he’s an incredible arranger. He’s willing to pay his dues to get to the next place.
We need new things brought to the market place. Why did Google and the iPod happen? Because they are fresh and new. It’s innovation. And when you stop innovating, the music stagnates. America is supposed to be THE innovators in jazz, but the Europeans are taking jazz to a hotter place than we are. They’re allowed to. We tend to conform to what radio wants. We’re starting to see that all that doesn’t mean anything anymore. What's meaningful is creating a fan base and building up audience expectations, drawing them into the music. What happens after that? My job is to deliver great music to audiences, then introduce them to something new.
SV: What’s next for you?
JM: I just finished producing a CD for Suzy Bogguss called Sweet Danger. This record is such a big step for her. Even though she maintains her musical legacy, I convinced her that she has to grow beyond those roots and take it to the next place, and to find collaborators to grow with, ones that can be trusted. I’m so incredibly proud of this record. It is a culmination of a 10 year friendship that finally evolved to doing this together. It’s a gorgeous album. It’ll be out September 7th.
SV: I read where you took country and a New York sound, put them together into a hybrid.
JM: You know what I did, I sent her music I was listening to like Bebel Gilberto and Henri Salvador’s Room with a View, which is one of my favorite albums. She got the vibe I was going for. I said to her, with great affection, “You’re not 25 anymore, but you are the hot mommy, driving around Nashville, taking your son to a great school. You live life in a different way. This is what you must put out there now. It’s not the same story as country music. There are so many different stories for you to tell.” She totally got it. Every song is great, which is the way that I believe we have to start. It’s just like a movie – a movie is only good if the script is good. An album is great because the songs are great. I saw that with everyone I worked for – Luther, Miles, Marcus. When we did Tutu, the key was to get Miles into this new space yet also have very strong melodies. It is important to understand that great artists need to play great melodies.
We have a 6-song CD Soul Summit, the Memphis Sessions, coming out 3rd quarter, with Herbie Mann, Reggie Young, Nelson Rangel, and Chris Parker.
I’m developing a CD based on the show we did at Berks of Soul Summit. I wrote new songs for it, and I'd like to record them.
Also, I’m working on some more big jazz festival shows. Joining me are Maysa, Walter Beasley, Bobby Caldwell, D Train, and Nick Colionne.
Also in development is another project of legacy songs, which must remain a secret for now. You will all be pleasantly surprised, I promise.
SV: Thank you so much for spending time with us, Jason. You've led a very interesting life so far. We'll be fascinated to hear about your future adventures!