A Conversation With
by Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
Alexander Zonjic is an incredible flautist, and he’s certainly one of the more industrious musicians in the format. He has a great new CD that came out a couple of months ago and he’s recording for Heads Up records.
Smitty: Hey Alex how are you my man?
A.Z.: I’m doing wonderful, how come you don’t have like, an applause track when you do that, you know when you introduce me there’s like this tumultuous applause?
Smitty: (Laughing) You know, you are the second person to ask that question, Steve Cole ask the same thing.
A.Z: You feel lonely, you introduce me and no one says anything (both laughing).
Smitty: Believe me, they are cheering man.
A.Z: Good, good. It is a pleasure to be with you Smitty, thank you.
Smitty: Same here. You’re doing 100 shows per year, you’re doing a radio show, a great new project, and you’ve collaborated with some of the best in the business. When do you find time to sleep? And I want the name of the vitamins you’re taking.
A.Z: Hey you left out my new jazz supper club.
Smitty: Oh man, you’re right, how could I forget that………..
A.Z: C’mon now.
Smitty: Yes, “Seldom Blues”.
A.Z: Right. You know, I’ve always Smitty, had a very, very proactive, extremely diverse career and people have always ask me the same questions that you ask. And my feelings have always been that, the amount of energy that you have and the amount energy that you are capable of having is directly related to whether or not you love all of the things you are doing. There’s essentially nothing that I do that I don’t enjoy. Your capacity to do all of that is directly related to the fact that it’s just all great, fun stuff. Do I get tired sometimes? Of course I do. And do I think sometimes that I’m biting off more than I can chew, that I’m wearing too many hats? Yes definitely, there’s no doubt about it, but for the most part I love every aspect of my career and I’ve been doing this for a long time and doing under a really comfortable level for a long time. Maybe it’s because I’m a flute player, I have no idea.
Smitty: Maybe that could have something to do with it. Anyone ever tell you that your voice sounds a lot like Howard Stern?
A.Z: Well we’re both in radio and he makes a lot more money than I do, and I couldn’t get away with anything he says on the radio. You know for a while there we were both with the same company, we were both with CBS and Viacom, and now of course he’s gone off to GREENER pastures for what I understand.
Smitty: Much greener (laughing).
A.Z: I guess that’s a compliment?
Smitty: Ah yea.
A.Z: Mind you, Howard can’t play the flute worth a darn.
Smitty: Oh no no, no. You got him on that one that’s for sure (both laughing). Let me ask you, I heard through this little grapevine that you’re quite a guitar player?
A.Z: I do play guitar and we’ll have to back up here in a while and find out who’s was in the grapevine. I started out Smitty as a rock n roll guitar, so my roots musically, really are rock n roll. And that being the case, obviously a little bit of blues. And I played, I wouldn’t call it jazz guitar necessarily but it was my first love and I started very young. Interestingly enough you bring it up…recently I’m playing guitar on the show again. I actually brought the guitar with me on a jazz cruise last year and got such a kick out of the look on everybody’s face. Whether it was chielli Menucci or Kirk Whalum, when during the middle of one of their solos, I just went grab the guitar. It’s funny because I’m not playing great yet, but I’m on the road back.
Smitty: Well it’s like riding a bike, you don’t completely lose that. It will come back to you.
A.Z: I didn’t completely lose it, I do enjoy it. I think the thing that’s so humorous is the fact that when I do play guitar, being a flute player and having this kind of studied career where I went back to the university and graduated and studied classical music….I actually have three classical albums that I’ve recorded as well, people expect that when I pick up the guitar that it’s going to be somewhat of a refined style. But when I pick up the guitar I still play rock n roll, and it’s a totally different personality. So it’s funny you bring that up, and it really is a real passion of mine. And you know my friend Jeff Lorber also plays guitar.
Smitty: Oh yea, and Jeff’s not bad.
A.Z: Not bad at all, and it’s very funny because when he first came to Detroit to play with my band as my guest, he said “I’m going to bring my guitar” and he had no idea that I played guitar at all. So we got on a big festival and when he started playing the guitar, I walked off the stage and came back on and played the guitar. (Both laughing) It was really quite a comedy to see the piano player and the flute player both playing rock n roll.
Smitty: That had to be cool…spiced up the show! So you started playing this rock n roll and of course you grew up in Windsor, Ontario so there’s some British roots there musically…
A.Z: Yes, I would say so, but for those that don’t know, Windsor’s right across from Detroit. So Detroit was always a huge influence musically speaking, in all of it’s different flavors…Yes, I mean obviously they have an amazing R&B tradition and Motown, and Jazz, and Rock n Roll. If you consider everybody from Kenny Burrell, to Earl Klugh, to Eminem, to Aretha Franklin, to Kid Rock, that’s quite a stretch.
Smitty: Yes it is.
A.Z: So Detroit’s a great city. I think Detroit was a big influence, but the early British invasion was an influence for sure.
Smitty: So there you were, laying down you chops with the guitar, and it’s a funny story as to how you came upon the flute, but please relate the story as to how you were first introduced to the flute.
A.Z: The flute was a complete and total fluke as opposed to flute. I was playing in a band in Toronto, a band that I thought was relatively successful at the time, I was making a living and I came back to Windsor to visit my parents. By this point I’m twenty years old, and I’m walking down the street and, in much the same way that people walk up to you in Manhattan and in downtown Detroit, or any other big city and try to sell you a watch or a TV or a stereo, some guy literally…who knew by the way, that I was a musician, walked up to me and said…. “Do you want to buy a flute? It kind of took me back and I said “I don’t know, I suppose, how much do you want for it”? He said “Fifty bucks”. I said “I’ve only have nine dollars”. He said “I’ll take it”. And that’s literally how it started. I like the way it looked in the case, I had no real aptitude for it, and just found this amazing desire and passion to not play it. Because it’s not like I had any natural attributes. I did develop this very unnatural at the time; obsession to learning how to play it, and it was all-consuming. I mean I worked a little bit on the guitar, there’s no doubt, but not to the degree that I did on the flute. The flute really, really kind of took over my entire curiosity and I wanted to learn how to play it so badly. And eight months later I auditioned for the University of Windsor music program and somehow was accepted, and that started formal studies on the instrument. And I studied classically for quite a while and continued my studies after I graduated with Ervin Monroe who was the principal flute player in the Detroit Symphony. Ervin and I went on to have a very successful career together where we recorded three classical records and a million recitals together. So it really was a bit of a serendipity there and I always joke that if it wouldn’t of been for that guy with the flute….that he somehow got in the way of an amazingly a lucrative rock n roll career.
Smitty: Yes he did, little does he know. But you still play the guitar.
A.Z: When I graduated from the university, which would have been the late 70’s when I started putting little bands together; it started moving into instrumental pop, jazz, I was already being influenced the Herbie Mann’s and in particular, certainly Hubert Laws. I was TOTALLY infatuated with the music of Bob James because of the roots that were in their music. If you listen to those early records, Bob James One and Bob James Two, you heard this wonderful hybrid of jazz and classical, and Hubert Laws of course played on a lot of those CTI records. So it was right around that time and when I got into the early 80’s and I had already recorded my Elegant Evening album, and I had already made a classical album…Again another very fluke thing happen. I was playing at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge which is a very famous jazz club here in Detroit and Bob James was in town performing at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. Somebody convinced him to go down to the Baker’s and hear this flute guy and he came in and only heard a couple of songs. He heard me play a couple of his tunes actually…Where The Wind Blows Free and…
Smitty: Yea baby!
A.Z: And Earl Klugh was in the house that night and Earl got up and we did Taxi together, and Bob (James) just came up me and said “Hey I’ve been hearing about you and we’re getting ready to go to Japan and we have a concert coming up at Carnegie Hall, would you be interested in joining the band?” Needless to say, it took me all of five seconds…..it was a huge quantum career leap at the time, and of course we’ve been friends ever since. Bob’s one of my dearest friends and one of my biggest influences, and as frightening as it sounds, we have known one another now for 22 years because it was 1982 when I met him. So you can see the direction that it took. Once I started touring with Bob James Smitty, the guitar took a backseat, because he had people like Eric Gale, Hiram Bullock, and Dean Brown, you know people like that playing guitar. And he hired me to play the flute, that what he wanted in the band. When you really think about what an initiative that was…I’ve explained this, how lucky I was; you know everybody needs a sax player, a guitar player, a bass player, but if you really think about it, he created a position for me. No one needs somebody who plays the solo flute, even in that genre if you really think about it. I took up the space of another band member and it takes someone like Bob with the vision that he had, and what he thought I brought to the table. It’s very flattering when I think back to…why would you spend the money to have this guy who just plays the flute. Because he already had a horn section, when I joined the band, Mark Colby and Mike Lawrence were still in the band. He had a sax player and a trumpet. So it really was a very big break for me and I was very lucky, and that relationship with Bob, it lead to so much for me.
Smitty: Yes and you as well as many other musicians have a lot to thank Bob for. However, given what you said, it does add credence to the fact that the flute has its unique place in jazz.
A.Z: There’s no doubt, it has a great tradition. There’s no question, it’s challenged these days. Without getting into all the nuts and bolts…remember I’m someone who is in the radio business, I do the morning show on the smooth jazz radio here. I’m in the concert business; I’m the Artistic Director for seven major festivals in this market. I have a jazz supper club, I make records, I perform live dates. I’m well versed in aspect of this business, and to the point where I’m confused as to why the flute is not a bigger more prominent instrument. I mean no one’s asking anyone to even have a level playing field; where there are as many flute players as there are sax players or guitar players. But it is amazing how in this entire genre at this point, that there is really only a few of us. I mean there is Nestor Torres and myself, Hubert’s not doing a whole lot these days, I haven’t even talk to Dave Valentin in years. I’d love to see the instrument…in the right hands, it’s every bit as powerful and compelling as any other instrument.
Smitty: Yes it is. And you have a great young lady (Jazz Flautist) in your neck of the woods; Althea Rene’.
A.Z: She’s great.
Smitty: Yes, and like you said, there’s some players out there that are capable of making some serious noise, if given the opportunity. Talk about the club man, because I love it when a musician has a club or got some ownership because you know they know how to do it you know.
A.Z: Well this is a unique partnership because I’m not a food and beverage guy. There used to be a club in Detroit from the 80’s and 90’s called Alexander’s, which was actually named after me. It was a cool club but I never owned it or ran it. But I always had it in the back of my mind that if the right combination of people ever came along, and there’s two very good friends of mind that make Seldom Blues work. Let me explain something, Seldom Blues is a 17,000 square foot, 350 seat five star dinning room that is a stunning architectural place with 130 people on staff. You can’t do that on your own. My one partner is Frank Taylor who has a lot of roots in Texas; he came from San Antonio and ran hotels in the area for years and when he came to the Detroit area we were friends right away. Because he has a great love of music, he’s a very good friend of Kirk Whalum. So we hit it off right away, and I did a lot of shows for him through the years. Our other partner is a just recently retired Detroit Lion; Robert Porcher. Robert loves the city of Detroit and is a major player in this market; he was with the Detroit Lions for 12 years, a pro bowler 3 years in a row, all-time sacks record for the Lions, really an amazing guy. So this is the partnership we have. This is a very exciting project. W e’ve had Kirk Whalum there, Bob’s been there, all kinds of people. It’s not necessarily a 7 day a week national act place because it’s not just the music that drives Seldom Blues. It’s also the amazing food, the amazing views (It’s right on the water) it really is the total package.
Smitty: Well best of everything man, it’s a beautiful place.
A.Z: I’m just trying to avoid a real job Smitty (both laughing).
Smitty: Hey, you’ve got a real job trust me. Let’s talk about this record man, Seldom Blues. Obviously I know where the title came from. But let’s talk about some of the players on this record and the concept of the record.
A.Z: Well you know, every record is a birth of sorts. I’ve gotten to the point in my career where I really enjoy the whole process of making the record. When I think back to some of my earlier project, I really didn’t get the enjoyment of making them that I get now. Back then you made them with a lot of pressure, you always felt this amazing anxiety “I hope it’s going to work”. Whereas now I make records for the pure pleasure of making them, and I make the music that’s on them to basically satisfy #1, me and the artists that are on it, knowing that if I do that, I’m going to satisfy my fan base and my listeners. And that’s a very liberating point to get to in your career where you can really do that. Because in all fairness, I want my records to sell 20 million copies, but I’m happy if it sells 10 because I’ll be happy with the record. That’s an easy thing to say if you are making some sort of living. If you are relying on the record and the record sales, I can see how there is some pressure. This is my second record for Heads Up. I love the relationship with the record company, I think Dave Love and the whole company is really coming from the right place. So for me, it’s rounding up the usual suspects combined with rounding up my newest friends. If you look at the line-up on this record…People that I have worked with for years, Bob James, Kirk Whalum, people who are relatively new but not completely new, like Jeff Lorber, Angela Bofil, I been working with both of them for a number of years. And there are newer friends like James Lloyd and Peter White, and Kem who I think really nailed Bob’s tune. And Earl Klugh, I can’t leave him out, we got back a long way and he’s on the record. So it’s a fun project, a lot of great tunes, by design, a lot more upbeat than any other record I’ve made in a little while. There’s a lot of original material, a lot of stuff that’s great to play live. In fact I’m in rehearsals as we speak these days preparing for a couple of big shows, we got the album release concert on the 28th of November. We’ve got Bob James coming in, Kirk Whalum, Kevin Whalum, and James Lloyd, so we’re going to have a lot of fun.
Smitty: I love the record Al, great production, and all of the musicians on it.
A.Z: Thank you. It appears that the first track Leave It With Me is going to be the first single. That’s the one with Earl Klugh on it that James Lloyd wrote.
Smitty: Well you’ve had all the fun making it and now it’s in other hands.
A.Z: Cross your fingers (laughing).
Smitty: The release date is November 23rd.
A.Z: Yes November 23rd and we have a lot of things planned around it here in town. And as we get into the New Year we’re going to wonder out a little bit. We’ve got a few dates booked, I have a Vegas thing I’m doing in January. And maybe in 2005, I’d like to get out and introduce this different sound to a wider audience.
Smitty: Cool. We’re always looking for something fresh and new.
A.Z: Houston’s a great place to come, I’ll have to figure out how to get there.
Smitty: We’ll have to work something out. We’ll talk about that after this. And you have a website.
A.Z: Of course, anyone who’s had a mailing list since 1978 has a website…it’s www.zonjic.com and you can go to www.seldomblues.com as well and see some pictures of the restaurant.
Smitty: Al I can’t say enough about this great record, and certainly appreciate you coming on and talking about your great career, sharing your vibe with us and the world for that matter, and I’m looking forward to catching up to you when you start your tour.
A.Z: My pleasure, absolutely. I’m going to do my very best to get into Texas. I have great memories of Texas. When ever I think of Houston I think of Kirk Whalum, I think of all of those concerts that we talked about at Rokerfellers, The Arena, The Majesic Theatre in San Antonio, and in Dallas the club that’s gone now, Caravan Of Dreams, those are great memories. That part of the country has always embraced this music; I certainly appreciate it and can’t wait to get back there. And imagine, Houston is where my biggest influence is from; that’s where Hubert Laws is from.
Smitty: Yes, Hubert and Ronnie, they are Houston natives.
A.Z: The Houston guys and that whole Crusaders thing that started.
Smitty: Exactly, Felder, Joe Sample, and that whole group.
A.Z: Yes you a quite a tradition.
Smitty: Al, thank you once again for this great time ma man. We’ve been talking with Heads up recording artist Alexander Zonjic with a great new project Seldom Blues, I highly recommend this record, and if you’re in the Detroit stop by his restaurant. Al, all the best with this project and the tour in 2005.
A.Z: Thank you Smitty and see you in Houston!