An Interview with T.K. Blue
T. K. BLUE
Unique Sounds and Ideas
by Paula Edelstein
Multi-instrumentalist, composer and arranger, T.K. Blue (Talib Kibwe) has gathered together an ensemble to perform five original compositions and great covers of compositions by Denzel Best, Charles Mingus, Benny Carter and John Coltrane on his second release for Arkadia Jazz entitled EYES OF THE ELDERS. The CD has so many great feels to it; it really stretches one’s senses…similar to absorbing the many dimensions of a musical painting. Blue is blowing on this one and releases such brilliant illustrations of his compositional integrity, setting his sax and flute voices within a collage of shades and colors that incorporate the jazz tradition of the elders with 21st Century concepts. His extended instrumental techniques, idioms and musical concepts are compelling, powered by surging improvisation, and positioned stylistically at the nexus of old and new. With pianist Eric Reed we get this great sense of Monk recast in a new millennium. Randy Brecker gives off a fresh Miles Davis vibe. Lonnie Plaxico’s bass playing extends his range from a seductive whisper to the power of an express train in some of the same ways Charlie Mingus used to play. Then there’s the inimitable Joanne Brackeen, and of course some mighty drumming from Jeff “Tain” Watts. Together they all provide the frameworks that are exquisite in their simplicity yet they contain all that is necessary to stimulate performance with a sure reference to the initial concepts of the elders. Just as a visit to Africa is a journey for the senses, with her majestic mountains to the magnificent sound of elephants trumpeting, from endless savannas to ancient forests, so is EYES OF THE ELDERS! Having said that, we had a great time talking with T.K. Blue about his new release on Arkadia Jazz.
JazzUSA: Congratulations on EYES OF THE ELDERS. It is a triumph of unpretentious yet ambitious jazz repertory, not to mention the great ensemble you’ve gotten together. You obviously love the full breadth of “the elders” and what better way to salute them than with a new generation of jazz musicians. Let’s start with the spirit that moved you to make this CD. How did the project come about?
T.K. BLUE: I really feel blessed to have gotten all those wonderful artists who just happened to be in town and available at that time. Bob (Bob Karcy is President of Arkadia Jazz) and I had been talking about my next recording and I wanted to do something that paid respect to a lot of people that had influenced my life and shaped my future. But at the same time, I wanted to make my own statement as a leader and to propel myself forward as a leader with ideas and compositions that express my experiences. I’ve had a tremendous amount of experience as far as traveling throughout Africa and living in Europe for a number of years. So I wanted to share a lot of that public.
JazzUSA: You represent some great elders on this CD with the inclusion of compositions by Denzel Best, Charles Mingus, Benny Carter and John Coltrane. Their innovative, exuberant, and sometimes controversial jazz has influenced many players with an invaluable repertoire of songs. How did you pare down their extensive list of compositions to these four songs? T.K. BLUE: Yeah! That’s interesting. Take Coltrane for example, “Wise One.” The whole title of that song is kind of…is in the same spirit of what I’m trying to convey with EYES OF THE ELDER, i.e., the wise ones who blessed us with their knowledge and their wisdom and allowed us to grow and give us the different avenues and paths that we can travel on. Coltrane is somebody that is responsible for me playing saxophone! Because when I first heard Coltrane, I went out and immediately got a soprano saxophone. I wanted to play soprano; I’d heard MY FAVORITE THINGS. Up until now, I’d never recorded a Coltrane composition on any of my recordings and I thought it was about time.
T.K. BLUE: You know, all my cats. Mingus is one of the first cats that I checked out when I got into jazz and I had the opportunity to see him “live” many times. I loved his writing, his compositions and musicianship. Benny Carter is one of our true, true elders. Benny’s like what… 92 now? This is a tune of his that I’d heard him play in public and I’d asked him about getting the lead sheet. I said, “I’d love to get that lead sheet.” Benny said, “Oh yeah, I’m going to send it to you.” But you know, Benny Carter is so busy. But I wound up getting it vicariously through other means and I said, “I want to record this song.” So that was another tribute to the elders. And then there is also another song on the EYES OF THE ELDERS by Hale Smith. He may not be well known in jazz circles but he’s an elder and he’s a definite giant. Hale wrote the song “Frozen Mist,” the ballad. Hale is one of our foremost African-American classical composers. He composes for symphony orchestras and then he also does jazz, jazz arrangements and compositions. He did a lot of stuff for Chico Hamilton; Eric Dolphy was one of his students. Very heavy cat and I wanted to do one of his songs because he’s been such an influence on me.
JazzUSA: That’s excellent T.K. Thank you so much for that history. Your debut for Arkadia Jazz, ANOTHER BLUE was really well received and now, EYES OF THE ELDERS is sure to raise your profile among a new generation of jazz lovers with these very interpretative arrangements. As a saxophonist, you are highly ambitious and very serious about your music, as evidenced by your homage to John Coltrane, “Wise One.” You really play this song! It’s awesome.
T.K. BLUE: Wow! Thank you. By the way that song was the last song recorded on the date. That song…was recorded last and I just told the cats…you know when you’re making a record…there’s the spiritual aspect and then there is the business or practical aspect. You want your song played on the radio, so you can’t have it 15 or 20 minutes! (Smile) So you have to just pare it down…cut all the fat off and get to the meat and do it in a good time! But this song… when we did “Wise One” I just told them to play!
JazzUSA: And play you do! Man! Well, T.K., studying with “elders” such as Billy Mitchell and with Jimmy Heath at Jazzmobile really impacted your style as a saxophonist. It has been written that this period in your musical growth played a major part in developing your saxophone voices; soprano, alto and tenor. But your fans want to know whether you consider the saxophone or the flute your main musical voice, since they both are so expressive?
T.K. BLUE: I’m asked that question a lot and the only thing that I can tell you is that they both represent a different voice and it’s a mood. There are certain times when the only thing that can get me off is my flute. You know what I’m saying? You can give me a saxophone, a cigar, some good cognac…it’s not going to work. Only the flute at that moment. And there’s other moments when it’s the alto. And that’s it. And there are other moments when I hear the soprano. The tenor, I haven’t really busted out in public yet with…but I plan to. I’ve been practicing my tenor and I love the sound of the tenor saxophone. It’s different moods. All I can say is that they all have a certain time of when they take the forefront.
JazzUSA: You have a sax voice that is beyond velvet on “Dance of The Nile.” What is the inspiration behind this song?
T.K. BLUE: Oooo!!! Yeah! That tune evolved for this project because I recorded that tune several years ago with Benny Powell. He had a record date here in New York with a whole lot of heavy cats…Kenny Barron, Carl Allen, John Stubblefield. Oh man…another brother that just passed away recently. But we recorded “Dance of the Nile,” on that record and it was more in a 6/8 feel the whole way through. It had more of that kind of Arabic, kind of North African desert kind of vibe. But I was feeling of keeping the same impression but changing the rhythm and giving it more of that today kind of nouveau swing, funk kind of beat and it just worked out perfect.
JazzUSA: It sure did…it’s really happening. The music expressed through the flute touches some very deep truths in our humanity. The way you’ve shaped its air has produced some great expressions on “Matriarch” that seems to bring its own characteristics to your music-kind of like another elder, James Moody. Did you write this song expressively for the flute repertoire because of its implicit sounds that reach back to the very origin of culture – to the matriarchal elders as it were?
T.K. BLUE: To be honest, I wrote that song from the piano. I didn’t particularly have a specific instrument in mind when I wrote it. But after I wrote the composition, I started playing around with my instruments and found the flute to be perfect for the vibration of that tune. You know, songs are like flowers…they grow. That particular song was actually scaled down a lot more than what had been recorded. When I knew I had Stefon Harris, I wrote a part for him because I wanted his spirit on it.
JazzUSA: On “Matriarch” you use the kalimba and Stefon Harris on marimba to recall its African roots, set against the warm sound of your flute. This is another instance where the flute universe does not start or stop in Western culture or in the last four centuries of European tradition but where it goes back to early mankind. This is a great combination of sounds — the flute and the kalimba together.
T.K. BLUE: Yeah, I love it man! Well you know, the kalimba is really the predecessor to the piano. The kalimba goes back thousands and thousands of years…even back to Egypt. There were depictions of instruments of that kind in their civilization. And you can tune it. There are guys that can tune it and play on the kalimba the same way you play on the piano. They play chords and changes and everything.
JazzUSA: I had no idea! That’s excellent. “Rites of Passage” has all of those great changes during Harris’ great improvisation for your kalimba. I really enjoyed that.
T.K. BLUE: Yeah! So the kalimba is an instrument that I love very much. I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot in Africa and I brought back several kalimbas. The name changes from various countries. Some places it’s known as a mbira, sanza, or a lukembi. Depending on where you are. In Zimbabwe, it’s very rich in the use of this instrument and they call it sanza, lukembi or mbira.
JazzUSA: Man, that’s great. I have a really different question and it pertains to jazz clubs and ambience. You and I know that The Blue Note has made its reputation presenting some of music’s biggest established stars but Sweet Basil could mine its roster of great musicians that have been presented there. As the former musical director for the Spirit of Life Ensemble, you used to perform at Sweet Basil on a weekly basis and really have come into your own as a respected musical director. How would describe the ambiance of the room if one had to imagine you presenting a showcase there?
T.K. BLUE: Yeah, I used to perform there every Monday night for four years, but I left the Spirit of Life Ensemble about a year ago. If I had to do a showcase or whatever, I would prefer Sweet Basil because it is a little more down to Earth and also the sound. You have those great wood floors…you have a good acoustic sound. With Sweet Basil, it’s more personal.
JazzUSA: Yes, that’s a great downtown scene. Will you be presenting any concerts soon? If so, where?
T.K. BLUE: I will perform with my band in Baltimore on January 19th and 20th at the New Haven Lounge in the Northwood Shopping Plaza. Doing three sets with the first starting at 9pm; in NewYork City at the-UP OVER JAZZ CAFE, 7th Ave and Flatbush Ave in Brooklyn on Jan 26th and 27th I’ll be doing three sets with the first starting at 9pm; in Washington DC—Feb 7th(my birthday!) at Blues Alley in Georgetown, three sets starting at 9pm. These are just a few of the gigs I have coming up. I’ll keep you posted on other things as well. Take good care and stay in touch.
JazzUSA: That’s a great line up. Well T.K. once again, congratulations on EYES OF THE ELDERS and thank you so much for this interview.
For more information on T.K. Blue, visit his website at www.arkadiarecords.com.