What began in 1986 with Najee’s Theme
continues today with Smooth Side of Soul
, Najee’s 14th release. Twenty six years later, Najee continues to make music that is appreciated and respected by his fans. Smoothviews chatted with saxophonist Najee about the release of his current album and his longevity in the music industry.
Smoothviews (SV): Your album was just released a few weeks ago and I really like it. It’s a great CD. Smooth Side of Soul – I thought the title of that was pretty interesting. What are you trying to say with that title? What I get from that is that you’re saying that soul can be smooth, it doesn’t have to all sound hard or forceful, but it can be more subtle. Or smooth can also be soulful. That’s what I get from it, but I’d like to hear from you what the title means.
Najee(N): It was released two weeks ago. I think you just said it best. To be honest with you, we’ve been running with this package called Najee and the smooth side of soul, which sometimes features people like Howard Hewitt, or Maysa. One time Ledesi was with us, Phil Perry, Alex Bugnon, people like that. It’s a tour that we’ve done occasionally in certain cities like L.A., and other places. Phil is a regular guest of mine, occasionally touring and we put him on the record. Pretty much, you’re right. Everything I do has to have soul. (Laugh)
SV: The last song, “Sound for Sore Ears,” has a straight ahead flair to it. I like that. There are people who are into smooth who may not necessarily be into straight ahead, and vice-versa, but this song gives them just enough to appreciate the song for what it is, and hear what you can do with a straight ahead tune.
N: Yes, it is a straight ahead song. It was written by my mentor, Jimmy Heath, a teacher of mine when I was a kid. He was part of the Heath brothers. As a kid, I used to play at the Jazz Mobile. He was one of the instructors, one of the teachers there, a professor there along with Ray Foster, and Billy Taylor. I ran into him recently, maybe a year ago. We were doing a James Moody benefit concert in which I was there, David Sanborn, Jimmy Heath, Paquito d’Rivera . You know, he also taught at Queens College.
SV: When your CD released a few weeks ago, it debuted on the 4th spot on the Billboard charts. The single moved up from #10 to #6, and, looking at the Groove Music chart, it’s up to #5 from #11 last week, and up to #6 from #14 on the Groove Internet chart. I throw out all of those figures to say that it’s doing very well. When I look at the history of how your music has charted over the years, it’s very consistent; most of your music has finished in the top 10 on the charts. That’s a really good track record. You have 14 or 15 CD’s out now. You’ve been consistently putting out very good music over the years. There are people who have been making music just as long as you, if not longer, and after awhile, the music can sound redundant. It doesn’t quite sound new or fresh. You don’t seem to have a problem with that. Every one of your CD’s is new, fresh, and innovative. It’s never reheated, so to speak. What do you attribute that to?
N: I really don’t know, other than just trying to take a different turn every time I try and do something. I’ve never tried to make records that fit the format, or, go the same way. Some songs will make it to jazz radio, and some won’t. But really, it’s about the audience for me. They pay attention. And, at the same time, I wanted to make music that I want to record and have fun with. I enjoy collaborating with different people. I’m always looking for some twist.
SV: Speaking of collaborations, tell us about your relationship with Chris “Big Dog” Davis.
N: Well, I actually met him when I was touring with Will Downing. It was one of those shows where we actually had a combined band; some of mine and some of his, and we did some rehearsal. I met him and I heard him playing. I listened to what he was doing. He made me curious to see what he could do, so, we began collaborating on an album called My Point of View; that was the very first thing we did. At that time, he credited me with being the one to validate him, if you will, because since that time he was working with me, he was working with Kim Waters, Kim Burrell, and a lot of other artists. That’s pretty much it.
SV: You mentioned that Phil Perry toured with you on a couple of things and different people that you mention. How do you choose people to perform on your albums?
N: Phil and I worked together on another CD, and we toured together on several occasions. And this time around, the song that he’s on, he wrote along with Will Downing. So, I was going back and forth with Chris trying to figure out what songs to keep. I probably had about 15-20 songs that we started on together, but I wasn’t finding something that would stand out. And that one, he said to me, which was originally written for Will, when he said that to me, I said, ‘that’s the one.’ That’s how it ended up. Phil’s always good to work with. It’s always good to work with people you like.
SV: I guess that does make the process go a little easier. I mentioned before about your placement on the music charts. They’ve got things broken down into genres, smooth, and R&B, etc. Is that a problem, trying to put people into genre boxes? Do you find that to be a problem, a hindrance?
N: I understand why it’s there. I think at times it’s a little demeaning in the sense that it puts a musician in a box that he may not deserve to be in. I don’t like to think of myself as just a smooth jazz musician. I’m a guy who likes to play a horn. I’m coming from a background where I did it all. I can understand why it’s like that, but I think there’s a certain stigma that’s attached.
SV: I want to talk about the CD for a bit. “Dis N Dat,” love the title. (Laugh)
N: See, that’s a NY thing. (Laugh)
SV: So far, two of the standouts for me are “In the Clouds,” and “Fu Fu She She.” I really like those songs. “In the Clouds” is such a pretty song. Can you tell us a little bit about those songs?
N: “In the Clouds” was actually written by Jeff Lorber. I was flying into San Francisco and he had left me a phone message. Jeff has this tendency to be at his piano and he’ll just be playing and then he’ll leave you a message while he’s playing. And, the intro to that song is what he had just played on the message. I said, ‘Jeff, you have to make a song out of this man.’ He said, “You like that?” I said, ‘Yeah man. I saved that so you’ll remember it.” He does so much stuff that he would never remember what he did. I saved the message and played it back for him, sent it to him, and then came up with that. That’s how “In the Clouds” came about. That kind of has a little bit of that John Coltrane jazz feel about it. And “Fu Fu She She,” that was just a groove that Chris Davis and I did. It was just one of those songs where I felt it was a character song. Every time I heard the song it made me think of those she she like people that we talk about in NY. You know what I’m saying because you’re from NY. I kept thinking of a title for the song and that was it.
SV: Your first single is “Perfect Nights,” that’s another really good song. I said it earlier but it bears repeating, you put out consistently good music every time. It doesn’t disappoint. Can you tell us a little bit about “Perfect Nights?”
N: It was one of those things. It was actually one of the first songs on the record. We had put time in it. It was becoming one of those things that we didn’t have a title for. Chris came up with the title, “Perfect Nights.”
SV: Well, that takes care of my questions. I did want to say that during the concert when you were playing some of your earlier songs that have become our favorites over the years, like “Noah’s Ark,” they still sound fresh and new. You’ve been playing them for awhile, and we hope you continue playing them. “Noah’s Ark” sounded great.
N: Thank you. I have to keep that one in the show because if I don’t, people will get mad at me. (Laugh)
SV: Thank you Najee.
N: Well thank you Mary. I appreciate the time.