In this studio session, I am pleased to introduce you to a woman who I believe is one of the finest up-and-coming international jazz talents to come along in years, Halie Loren.
Eugene, Oregon, has always had a rich and progressive music scene. Still, when one thinks of notable “jazz cities,” Eugene isn’t the first place that comes to mind. However, Halie, who makes her home in that city, might begin to change all that.
In addition to my interesting conversation, Halie and her trio treat us to very inventive jazz versions of Bob Marley’s Waiting In Vain, Bobby Gentry’s Ode To Billy Joe and one of her own compositions, A Woman’s Way. When you hear these songs we think you’ll agree that Halie Loren is a jazz singer on the brink of stardom.
I recently had a chance to host The Cookers for an interview and in-studio performance.
If we were to make a list of all the recording and composing credits of the members of The Cookers, it would go on for many pages.
This is an amazing collection of jazz musicians—Billy Hart (drums), Cecil McBee (bass), Eddie Henderson (trumpet), David Weiss (trumpet), Billy Harper (sax) and George Cables (piano).
Individually, they’ve been at the core of the post-bop jazz scene for decades. As a group, they’ve been thrilling audiences around the world for the past 5 years.
On a recent swing through Seattle, they set up shop in the KPLU performance studio and tried to blow the walls out of the place with 3 original compositions, Capr Black, Peace Maker and Croquet Ballet.
When I made the attempt to contact bassist James Genus for an interview, he wasn’t able to immediately get back to me. When he did a few days later, the voicemail he left started like this:
“Hey Kevin, it’s James Genus returning your call. Sorry I didn’t get back to you right away. I was out of the country, and when I got back I immediately had to get to the SNL (season) finale…”
Genus is a busy man, and rightly so.
In addition to being the house bassist for the Saturday Night Live television show band, he has been credited on hundreds of studio and live recordings across a wide variety of genres and is considered one of the most in-demand bassists on the scene.
When I did get a hold of him by telephone this week, we had a chance to discuss being required to learn upright bass in college, his experiences with Horace Silver and Roy Haynes in his early 20’s, what he credits for his versatility, his thoughts on the late Michael Brecker, and what it is like to be part of a television show band.
While attending Virginia Commonwealth University in the mid-eighties, James Genus was strictly playing electric bass, and was told that he would not be allowed to graduate until he also learned to play upright bass. I asked him how being forced to learn the upright bass impacted his career. He told me that he recently went back and visited the school, and met current bass students who were also struggling with the fact that they had to learn upright bass.
“I told them that it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Musically, it opened a whole other door for me and my career, because there was a whole other side of music that I wasn’t addressing, and it basically just made me a better musician all around.”
I also asked him if he thought he ever would have pursued upright bass if it hadn’t been required of him. Surprisingly, he said he didn’t think so, but couldn’t be sure. He said that he may have developed an interest in it had he been at a school that didn’t require it, but there is a good chance that the urgency wouldn’t have been there.
Getting Hired by a Legend at 23
After finishing college, Genus was encouraged by Ellis Marsalis to head to New York, and he did. He initially started getting exposure in the city by showing up to the late night sessions at the Blue Note jazz club. By the time he was 23 years old, Genus heard about an audition for a bass player to play with the legendary Horace Silver. Genus bought at ticket to Los Angeles to go audition.
“I was just going for it. I didn’t have anything to lose. I had gone to an audio engineering school, and after I graduated found out that the starting jobs were basically at the bottom of the food chain as far as getting jobs and making money. I was already doing some gigs around town, and I just figured why not?”
Genus auditioned in the practice room of a music store, and was hired. Genus said it was not only an incredible experience being able to go tour with Silver that summer, but the spring before the tour left, he was also hired to play with the great Roy Haynes. That year proved to offer a huge amount of exposure for him, which undoubtedly opened several doors for him as his career progressed.
Genus on Brecker
Of the thousands of musicians that have crossed paths with James Genus, it is apparent that he keeps a special place in his heart for saxophonist Michael Brecker, who passed away five years ago. When I asked him if the void has been filled since Brecker died, or if it ever could be filled.
“I don’t think so. I mean there are great saxophonists, and there are a lot of imitators, the same way that there were (John Coltrane) imitators. But I think (after Brecker died), things just went in a different direction. There are horn players who play it, but I don’t think that there is anybody who will ever get to the place where he was. There might be, but as of now … I don’t know.”
When I asked him to try to describe what Brecker did that was so unique, Genus chuckled, almost to suggest that it was impossible. He did say that in addition to his unique approach to melodies and an unparalleled technique, Brecker immersed himself in so many different kinds of music, and he would bring that wide range of knowledge into his performances.
Genus continued with that thought for a while, relating a knowledge of different styles to his own success. If there is one mindset that it appears Genus stands by, its having the knowledge and knowing different languages of music, even if you never have to end up playing it.
“When I came to New York, there were a lot of musicians who only did this or only did that. Not to say that is bad, but I think that being open to all kinds of music and that vocabulary can open your ears as well as doors.”
I asked Genus if he approached practicing with that mentality. He told me that when he would practice with a bunch of musicians, they would play everything, and still to this day he takes that approach. While much of his practicing might be geared towards certain projects he is taking on, he still makes sure he is staying as versatile as possible.
Saturday Night Live
James Genus, in addition to all of his other work, is the bassist for the Saturday Night Live television show band. I asked him what the difference was between working for a television band versus other work. He told me that when he was offered the job, it took him some time to make the decision.
He was touring with Brecker, as well as Dave Douglas, and making a good living doing it. He said he didn’t want it to interrupt the flow of that, because he had seen it happen to other musicians before where they get caught up in that job and there ends up being no time for anything else. With SNL, however, he would have the summers off and eventually after spending time with the band, would be afforded a little more freedom to take on other projects from time to time if he chose.
Genus also said it is a totally different discipline. Most of the time, the songs can range from 30 seconds to a minute, and the band will almost never finish an entire song. It isn’t simply playing the music either that is required. With the live television show there is a lot of multitasking involved, from listening to the conductor to syncing with what happens to be going on in the show.
The James Genus Album
With all of the work that Genus has done in his career so far, he has yet to record a studio album of his own. I asked him if we will see that any time soon. Genus said he gets asked about that all the time, but he has his hesitations.
“I guess that is the curse of having so many things that I do. (How do you) focus on making a record and say that it is going to be ‘this’ but not be ‘that’? But I have been doing some writing, and it is almost to a point now where I just have to do it. It was at a point where I though maybe I didn’t have that much to say, and I didn’t want to make a record just for the sake of making it. But it is going to come soon.”
James Genus has performed or recorded with hundreds of musicians, including Horace Silver, Branford Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Dave Douglas, Roy Haynes, Nat Adderley, Chick Corea, Michael Brecker and Lee Konitz. He is also currently the bass player for the Saturday Night Live television show band. His website is www.jamesgenus.com, and he can be followed on Twitter @jamesgenus. To hear the complete interview, click here.
I had the opportunity to interview vocalist Halie Loren by phone this week. Her most recent release, Heart First (CLICK HERE TO BUY) rose to number one on the ITunes Canada Jazz chart, and has not only received increased popularity in the U.S., but high praise in Japan as well. Halie, who will be performing this weekend (Sunday and Monday, May 27th and 28th) at the Juan de Fuca Festival of the Arts in Port Angeles, Washington, talked to me about her path to becoming a jazz singer, her success in other countries, and what it takes to convincingly sing a song that she didn’t write.
Halie Loren grew up in Alaska, and moved to Oregon in her early teens. She told me that the move wasn’t necessarily a career move, but it certainly didn’t hurt her development. Her father wanted to have a job that didn’t require him to travel so much, and the family landed in Oregon. Halie, who had been singing since “birth” as she put it, and had her talents recognized by her family at an age as young as four years old, consequently had an opportunity for more exposure than she would be able to receive on a small island in Alaska.
The Jazz Influence
Loren did not have parents who were musicians, but there was always music around the house, including an eclectic album collection with a substantial amount of jazz and blues in it. The combination of that, combined with one of the lone radio stations where she grew up being a jazz station, was enough for her to fall in love with the genre. Halie also noticed something about her voice that contributed to choosing jazz as a genre.
“I would listen to Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and Diana Krall. I totally loved the music, but I also realized that my (vocal) range seemed to lend itself to a lot of those vocalists. It was really low for a young person…and I’ve always really had a lot of fun singing it.”
Halie has seen a rise in popularity in Canada and Japan, and I asked her what the difference was between these countries and the United States. I also suggested that she had been treated like a “rock star” in Japan.
“Well maybe not a “rock star”, but perhaps a “jazz star”. Is there such a thing? I think we should invent that if there isn’t.”
“Fair enough”, I replied. Loren suggested that aside from her signing with a Canadian label, which has contributed to her success up north, that the musical landscapes and the different appreciations that these countries have might also help. In Japan specifically, Loren hints that the language barrier might be outweighed by their appreciation for authenticity.
“I definitely create music from a very authentic place, and have musicians around me who do the same. I think they are able to pick up on the authenticity and the creative place that it is coming from. It creates something pretty honest, and I think that appeals to people.”
Creating Authenticity When Covering a Song
I suggested to Loren that I felt that when a singer was recording or performing a song that they didn’t write, it is always the most convincing when they can somehow tap into the heart and the meaning of the song and has made it personal when they sing it. I asked her how she goes about making songs personal, and she told me that there are very few songs, especially jazz, that she can’t find at least some small connection with.
“I see a lot of my role in singing standards as being a storyteller and as an actress. There is always a seed of an idea in every song that I have experienced or that I can understand. And I feel that my goal in performing that piece is to bring that out, and as a result, it becomes my own story.”
Authenticity on Stage Versus Studio
I asked Halie if it was easier to tap into that authenticity on stage or in the studio, and she explained that every single album it is the struggle to do so in the studio. She explained that sometimes it can be difficult to be as spontaneous in the studio, and not have to worry about all the technical details.
“The (live) performance aspect…being in the moment entirely really helps with feeling almost transported into the song. My goal every time I go to the studio is to get a little bit closer to that feeling.”
I had the chance to speak with author Derrick Bang by telephone to discuss his new book Vince Guaraldi at the Piano. Bang, who has authored several books on Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts, turns his focus in this new book to the man behind the music of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. But as Bang tells us, his new book shares with us that Vince Guaraldi was more than just “the Peanuts guy.”
I asked Derrick Bang if his inspiration for this book initially came from his fascination from the Peanuts. Bang told me that he remembers being parked in front of the television set on the evening of Dec. 19, 1965 (the first time A Charlie Brown Christmas was televised). He said that while he can’t say that he was immediately a Peanuts fan, he could say with assurance that after the show he did become a Guaraldi fan. During the next several years Bang made a point of visiting the local record store, becoming aware of Guarladi’s previous works such as Cast Your Fate to the Wind.
Guaraldi more than just a Charlie Brown soundtrack
Bang discussed some of the important works that Vince Guaraldi recorded outside of his work for Peanuts. Guaraldi toured twice with Woody Herman in the 1950’s; and, as Bang told me, that was no small thing. Additionally in the 1950’s, Guaraldi spent time in a variety of small groups and combos, including one fronted by Cal Tjader.
“What fans noticed when listening to Guaraldi perform with Tjader’s groups was the fact that during his keyboard solos, Guaraldi had the enviable talent to take a piano improv and turn it into its own little melody.”
Talent like that led Guaraldi to be able to go off on his own and lead his own groups, which led to recordings such as Cast Your Fate to the Wind, and the resulting Grammy win.
Cast Your Fate to the Wind leads to next big assignments
Television producer Lee Mendelson wanted to produce a documentary special in 1963 on Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown, and knew that he wanted a jazz musical background for this debut show. Bang explains that both Cal Tjader and Dave Brubeck were initially asked to do the music, but both declined, stating they were too busy.
“Years later, they (Brubeck and Tjader) both admitted that they regretted claiming that they were too busy for this assignment.”
Bang says that later Mendelson tells the story of driving across the Golden Gate Bride and Cast Your Fate to the Wind came on the radio, and his mind was made up on who he wanted to the do music for the Peanuts special.
Bang says similarly in 1964 Reverend Charles Gompertz had been assigned the task of putting together a musical performance to celebrate the Year of Grace that was coming up in tandem with the upcoming consecration and Year of Celebration experienced by the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.
“Gompertz insists looking back that he had no idea what he was going to do, so he did what he would normally do when faced with that sort of crisis: He took a soothing bath, and he remembers sitting in the bath, listening to the radio, and Cast Your Fate to the Wind came on the radio. It was the same thing (as with Mendelson). He said ‘that’s it!'”
Gompertz contacted Guaraldi and asked him to “write music for God.” Bang says that Guaraldi responded with “Bach, Beethoven … why not me?” Guaraldi composed, rehearsed, and debut the Grace Cathedral Mass on May 21, 1965.
The transformation from “boogie-woogie” influence to the Guaraldi we know now
I had heard that Guaraldi was influenced early by boogie-woogie piano playing, a sharp contrast to the style of playing most are familiar with.
I asked Bang if he know how the transformation from one style to the other happened. Bang said that while he was heavily recruited to perform boogie-woogie piano in high school for parties because he could liven things up, Guaraldi made a habit of soaking up all different styles of music as he heard it.
Performing with Cal Tjader as his band explored Afro-Cuban styles allowed Guaraldi to branch out, and as Bang explains it, the music to the film Black Orpheus changed Guaraldi’s life.
Being a “cartoon musician” never bothered Guaraldi
I asked Bang if Guaraldi’s work for animated features ever overshadowed his other work and if being known as a musician who made music for cartoons bothered Guaraldi at all. Bang said that Lee Mendelson’s quick answer to this was:
“If it had bothered him, he would have gone out on the road and further expanded his horizons.”
Bang suggests that by being affiliated with the Peanuts “machine”, it gave Guaraldi the financial stability to not have to go out on the road. This gave Guaraldi the opportunity to experiment more with music (hanging out with rock bands and playing on early first generation electric keyboards).
That financial freedom also allowed him to continue playing in Northern California jazz clubs during the late ’60s decline of jazz. Bang suggests that he did this not only as a “holy cause” to help keep these clubs open, but because he loved it.
“There are a lot of performers who achieve a certain level of fame, and from that point on, all of their work is done in the studio cutting albums rather than touring or performing locally. He (Guaraldi) loved it. It seemed to be as important as breathing.”
Guaraldi credited with the success of multiple Peanuts specials
I asked Bang how different the Peanuts shows would have been with a different musician creating the music for them.
Bang said that Mendelson credits Guaraldi as the reason for their being more than one animated special. He said that largely due to the fact that everyone (Schulz, Guaraldi, animator Bill Melendez, and Mendelson as the director) were left alone to work their own individual magic, which helped make it a success.
Following Guaraldi’s death in 1976, Bang says the specials simply weren’t the same, despite courageous efforts from those who tried to compose for them.
Derrick Bang, the author of several books on Charles M. Schulz and Peanuts, has written film, television, Internet, and general entertainment commentary for local newspapers since 1974. He also supplies regular columns and features to The Davis Enterprise. Bang lives in Davis, California.
His new book, Vince Guaraldi at the Piano (McFarland), is now in stores and can be purchased by clicking here.