Najee – A Point of View Interview

Najee
Najee is one of contemporary jazz’s true pioneers. Creating a fresh and pulsating “rhythm and jazz” dynamic in the early days of the smooth jazz format, the versatile saxophonist—whose first two recordings, 1986’s Grammy nominated NAJEE’S THEME and 1988’s DAY BY DAY, went platinum—inspired the whole urban vibe that took over the instrumental world throughout the ’90s. Mixing up his trademark soulful soprano with dynamic touches of flute and alto, Najee made a dramatic return to the scene this August with his Heads Up debut, MY POINT OF VIEW.

A native of Jamaica, Queens, New York, Najee shared all of his musical dreams—and later, many professional gigs—with his brother Fareed, a guitarist who was a year younger. Their father passed away when they were very young, but their mother encouraged a deep exposure to jazz via recordings by artists as diverse as the Miles Davis Quintet, Junior Walker and Mongo Santamaria. Najee showed an early interest in the sax but a grammar school teacher steered him towards clarinet when there were no sax chairs available in the school band.

“My life and career have been shaped by what I like to call ‘life defining moments,'” he says, “and the first of these came when I took a tenor sax solo in my jazz band at August Martin High School and realized that suddenly, all the girls knew my name! Fareed and I started playing professional gigs together at 15, and had a mutual support system going.”

Najee began studying under the direction of Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster and Billy Taylor at Jazzmobile in Harlem, and he also studied flute with Harold Jones at the Manhattan School of Music. “Later,” he adds, “Fareed and I spent a year in the music department at Bronx Community College, then auditioned and got into the New England Conservatory of Music, with me majoring as a woodwind and composition major and Fareed focused on guitar and composition. Musically, I really loved everything, from Kool & The Gang to Grover to Sanborn to Maceo Parker. I also couldn’t get enough when one of my teachers played Charlie Parker for me.”

Needless to say, Najee’s POINT OF VIEW is the culmination of his studies, brilliant influences, and creative skills set to music. This stellar debut also offers the saxophonist/composer/arranger the promise of a future among the best of the best at Heads Up International. We caught up with Najee as he launched his concert tour in support of POINT OF VIEW. Here’s what he told us so, listen up!

Najee’s Point of View
A New Contemporary Jazz Aesthetic
by Paula Edelstein

PE: Congratulations on your debut for Heads Up International – MY POINT OF VIEW! It’s been a long time coming but it’s well worth the wait. What a great CD Najee. I understand the buzz is really positive. You got to be really happy about that.

NAJEE: Yes I am, I’m very happy to work with people I enjoy working with from the Heads Up label.

PE: Oh yes, they’re a great group. Najee, you got some hot guest stars including guest appearances by vocalists, Will Downing and newcomers Lomon Andrews and Sisaundra, keyboardists James Lloyd and Rex Rideout and Chris “Big Dog” Davis. How did you hook up with them or had you played with them before?

NAJEE: Yes, they’re actually friends of mine. Will and I go back many years. The first time we worked together was on a record called JUST AN ILLUSION. Over the years, we’ve toured together in different packages and I had the pleasure of playing on his Christmas CD this past year. When we were recording this song, Chris Davis said, I’d love to have Will come in here and do this.” So I called Will and Will told me politely in a nice way, “Man, I was going to come in there and surprise you but you just messed it up.” As far as the other people, Sisaundra is a very gifted vocalist and is on tour with Celine Dion and has her own solo career. Then Lomon Andrews is a young gentleman out of Connecticut who, when I was recording, came by. I ended up putting his song on the CD.

PE: Let’s talk a little about your jazz influences. I understand you began studying under the direction of Jimmy Heath, Frank Foster and Billy Taylor at Jazzmobile in Harlem, and he also studied flute with Harold Jones at the Manhattan School of Music. These are very heavy jazz influences and that association really surfaces in your music. What do you think was the one most important thing learned from your association with Jimmy Heath and Billy Taylor?

NAJEE: I think the one thing that I learned from them was diversity. Originally, I went in there with a mindset as a kid that all I was going to play was R&B music and that was cool. But they encouraged us to study music seriously – jazz in particular but also classical and to learn the fundamentals. And to be as diverse as possible even though they were primarily known in the jazz realm, they were very diverse and knowledgeable about music. They also encouraged to play more than just saxophone and to play flute.

PE: Najee, you’ve also played with some very hip contemporary artists such as Prince, Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie, Chaka Khan, Freddie Jackson, Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham, Larry Carlton and so many others. An incredible career! With MY POINT OF VIEW, you have come full circle with that whole urban vibe influence that you helped to launch back in the late 80s. What are your thoughts on the state of contemporary jazz today? There’s some criticism about it being too formulaic.

NAJEE: I think it’s somewhat formulaic. It would be nice to have some variety of artists that are out there doing some interesting things and to be able to listen to what they’re doing and give them a shot to help the format live. As with all formulaic things, after a while they tend to become predictable. I am not excluding myself from this criticism. So I think it would be healthy for the industry to allow some of the artists that are doing some interesting things. You never know who’s going to be the next big one!

PE: I agree. There is music out there that barely scratches the surface and then there is music that reaches deep inside of a person’s soul. Najee, your sound on soprano, tenor and alto are so emotional and romantic and you’ve often said your music is a product of your personal life experiences. But technology also plays a part in getting that trademark sound. Do you have a favorite saxophone voice?

NAJEE: No, I can’t say that I have a favorite. The song dictates to me what I’ll play. I’m one of those guys who people call a doubler, which means that I play more than one voice. People know David Sanborn as an alto saxophonist, but I enjoy playing alto, tenor and soprano. The soprano ended up becoming the most successful voice even though it was an instrument that I didn’t like very much in the beginning.

PE: Do you have to use a certain technology, mouthpiece or reed to obtain these heartfelt sounds that we hear?

NAJEE: Well, my set up has changed over the years. Recently I’ve gone back to using a very simple mouthpiece made by Beachler.

PE: Your brother Fareed produced some tracks on MY POINT OF VIEW. His arrangement of Sisaundra’s vocals on “Emotional” is awesome. What was the inspiration for “2nd To None” and “Emotional?”

NAJEE: “2nd To None” was written by James Lloyd and myself. We had made a loose commitment years ago to work together and we’ve been friends for many years. We’ve always said, “Man, we got to get together and write.” On this particular record, I made sure that I wasn’t going to let him slip out on this one! Especially since it was his idea to check out Heads Up. He spoke very highly of Dave Love and all the staff over there.

PE: Well congratulations on your new association with Heads Up Najee. They’re an excellent group of people. Will you be on tour in support of MY POINT OF VIEW and where can your fans find your schedule?

NAJEE: Yes, we’re currently on tour and putting together the cities as we speak. We’ll probably play South Africa again in January and be back in the states to continue the tour in 2006.

PE: Wonderful, we’ll look forward to your playing the West Coast and here’s to much success with MY POINT OF VIEW.

NAJEE: Thank you Paula.

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