An Interview With
by S. H. Watkins, Sr.
Jeff Lorber is unquestionably one of the architects of the jazz-fusion sound. His bands spawned such future stars as saxman Kenny G. and songstress Karyn White. The directions taken by Lorber and his music influenced the fusion jazz movement; at a time when jazz music was primed for change, Lorber lit that fuse and the rest is history.
Since Jeff started out his career playing the Portland and Seattle jazz scene (with an ocassional foray down into the San Francisco scene), we couldn’t do a series on Northwest Jazz artists without talking to Jeff. We caught up with him in his California home one afternoon last month for a short talk.
JazzUSA: Let’s start with a topic that’s dear to our heart… Northwest jazz. Is there such a thing?
JL: Well… (laughing) Sure! It’s the musicians and the scene… I don’t know if it’s necessarily a completely different kind of sound than something else, I think it describes a certain scene and style, an experience.
JazzUSA: Would you say that N.W. jazz had a great influence on the development of the new age sound?
JL: To be honest with you, I think that everybody really listens to the same stuff all over the country and, to some extent, all over the world. So, it’s really hard to say. It’s not like we’re living in a little village in Nairobi somewhere where it’s completely cut off. Everybody is listening to more or less the same stuff in popular culture, popular music. I think when I first moved to Portland from Boston there was definitely a scene, a style that was pretty heavily influenced by R&B, by blues, by a lot of the really exciting stuff that was going on with fusion music, Weather Report, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. There was a little bit of cross-pollination with the San Francisco scene. I remember when I used to play at the Helm in the late 70’s, people like Jim Pepper, Wes Ferrante and other ‘Frisco musicians would come up and play in Portland. The Portland Jazz scene was definitely influenced by the San Francisco vibe, and some Portland musicians like Tom Grant would play with Joe Henderson, who was living in San Francisco at the time. Then there was the influence of Tower of Power and some of the funky stuff coming out of Oakland was a pretty big influence in Portland back in those days.
JazzUSA: So Northwest Jazz is more the result of a kind of synergy than anything else?
JL: I think it’s that and, well to me Portland and Seattle are really different; at least they were back in those days. There was just a more lively music scene in Portland, at least from what I could tell, more was happening on the jazz tip; although there were also some good Seattle musicians. Portland always had more of a soulful, bluesy kind of thing going on. Also, there were a lot of places to play. There was a lot of support from the hometown both from the standpoint of the club owners and the people coming out and supporting local talent. When you think about Northwest Jazz that’s the real key element, even though it’s a city that’s really small, it’s got a lot of talent for the size. It’s got a lot of opportunity for that talent to grow and develop.
That’s the value of it as compared to a place like L.A., you can’t really, bands here if they want to play somewhere, usually they play for practically no money. It’s just a very different kind of scene, like studio musicians that want to play in clubs, play basically for free because of the love of it. It’s not a live music environment, it’s more about the industry. This is like a company town, it’s all about the recording industry, the film industry and people are making music in recording studios for films, movies and records and it’s just a different dynamic. I mean there’s tons of talent here, its fantastic that way.
JazzUSA: Let me ask you about the old days for a minute, I remember back in the days when you were down here, I can’t remember the name of the place, it use to be on Glisan right by the 405, they’ve changed the name a few times. You actually made a song about it, you named one of your songs after it.
JazzUSA: Yeah, back in those days.
JazzUSA: I was wondering about your early beginnings in Portland…
JL: Basically, I played with Thera (Memory) and his band. No, actually there was another band that Thera was in, there was this trombone player named “Jim McKirscher”. And Thera just kind of did his thing some of time, but… I started my group, but I didn’t want to be a bandleader. I never wanted to do that. I did it because I was working with other people, and saw that there were some really great opportunities, and nobody was taking advantages of it. The first incarnation of the band consisted of Lester McFarland on bass, Dennis Bradford on drums and there was this guy named Ron Young that played congas, and the reason he was in the band was because he had a van and we needed transportation. That was a major selling point, right there (laughing). Eventually I had to fire Lester because he would show up late, one time he had pawned his bass, eventually he wasn’t making it to gigs. And then I hired Danny Wilson, and there were a couple of different sax players. There was a guy named Benny Goodfew that was from Seattle, there was… I can’t even remember all the guys that I played with.
JazzUSA: So where did Kenny G. come in?
JL: Yeah… after I went through a few different sax players, including… well… Dennis Springer played with us quite a bit and he was wonderful. Unfortunately ‘Pleasure’ was kind of doing there thing at the same time and I guess at some point Springer had to sort of decide whether he was going to play with me or stick with Pleasure. He had been with Pleasure for sort of a long time so he went that way. So I was looking for a sax player and Michael Hepburn from Pleasure, who was living in Seattle back in those days recommended Kenny. Kenny came down and he auditioned, he was actually in town because he was doing a lot of contracting. You know, things that would come through town and needed a woodwind player, somehow even though he was so young he got in there to be a contractor. So he played things like the ice show or anything that needed union musicians to fill out an orchestra for some production.
Like Barry White, I guess he played for him in that kind of capacity. He actually happened to be coming to Portland to do a Liberace show when I called him. And the thing about Kenny when I first met him was he really had a great attitude. He was enthusiastic and he immediately, sort of knew that this was a good opportunity for him, whereas a lot of the musicians in town… they just weren’t that interested, they didn’t care. They were good players but they weren’t motivated or they weren’t that ambitious, and Kenny was ambitious and motivated with a real positive attitude. So that’s how it happened. He auditioned, and I kind of hired him on the spot.
JazzUSA: In your band, right?
JL: Yes. We worked together for four or five years.
JazzUSA: Did you ever play in Mel brown’s band in Portland?
JL: Mel played around town, and he would sometimes hire me. I don’t think I was particularly in his band, I think he played with a lot of different guys like we all did in those days. I sort of remember one time that we played a place called Parchment Farm, where Kenny and I sat in with Mel because Kenny was in town.
JazzUSA: I’m sure you’re aware that you had a lot to do with the direction that fusion music took, if you look back at turning points in music history you guys were right there creating change.
JL: The musical community in Portland at that time was really nurturing and inspiring and wonderful for me as a musician. Before I moved to Portland I had decided not to be a musician…
JazzUSA: Oh really?
JL: Yeah. After two years at music school I moved to Portland and had given up my whole idea of being a musician. I was at Clark College in my third year, going for a degree in chemistry. The only reason why I got back into music was that I went down to some jam sessions and started playing with some musicians in Portland and I got a lot of encouragement from those musicians, people like Thera (Memory), people like Mel Brown, people like Ron Steen, and like hearing Tom Grant and his band and being excited by that. Thinking ‘This guys great and his band’s great and the scene’s great’ and all of a sudden there was a lot going on… There were good players, there were places to play. I kind of really took the bull by the horns and put the band together, and basically took the guys that were in Jim McKirscher’s band or Thera, you know back then the gigs were so sporadic it wasn’t like anybody had like a band, it was just sort of get whatever gig you could get with whatever musicians you could get at the time. It wasn’t anything that well organized. Although I gotta say Tom had a pretty solid gig, at the Helm. The big gig to get was the Helm. You could play like five nights a week for a month or three weeks. That was a chance to really tighten up the band and rehearse.
JazzUSA: Jeff, what are you doing now? What can we expect from Jeff Lorber?
JL: Well I’m working on a new album and I’m talking with a couple of different labels. Arista is putting out a ‘Best Of’ this month that will include a lot of the old stuff. I’m working with Herb Alpert, I produced one of his albums and I’m working on some new stuff with him. I’m working with Maurice White, I’m producing a track on the new Earth, Wind and Fire album with him, and I might do some more work with him. I was the musical director for the ‘Smooth Jazz awards’ in Texas. I’ve got some gigs, gonna do some touring of Southeast Asia. Producing different artists…I produced three tracks on the Dave Koz album which has been #1 on the radio charts for the last two or three months in a row.
JazzUSA: So, you’re staying out there.
JL: I’m trying to stay in it. (Laughing) You know, I love making music and I’ve got a studio in my house and it’s pretty state of the art. I really enjoy all the technical stuff, arranging and recording and engineering, which I do.
JazzUSA: Any timeframes for the new album?
JL: I’m hoping it’ll come out in spring or summer.
JazzUSA: Any of the personnel lined up yet?
JL: Well, I work a lot with a guy named Gary Meek, who plays saxophone, that’s been featured on my last four records. I’ll probably use a lot of the usual suspects, like John Robinson on drums and Mike Landau and Paul Jackson, Paul Pesco, and I’m playing some more guitar these days.
JazzUSA: Is thete anybody you idolized, looked up to coming up?
JL: I really studied the history of jazz piano, especially Horace Silver, McCoy, Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea were influential. Joe Zawinul, Bill Evans… I think Herbie’s probably my biggest influence because he’s so funky and so musical and his whole concept of chord voicings and rhythm and soloing is so incredible, you know. I was very, very influenced by him. I really love the music of Miles Davis and Coltrane. That’s kind of where I’m really at. I listen to the more substantial kind of jazz stuff for inspiration. All this new smooth-jazz stuff, you know, some of it’s good but it doesn’t have the same emotion…
JazzUSA: What do you listen to when you’re just laying around the house?
JL: I listen to a really wide variety of things. I listen to the radio, and MTV and BET and try to stay current, and try to, you know, learn, hear new ideas that are exciting that I can incorporate into what I’m doing. Generally I’m listening to stuff I’m working on and often some of those old records that I really love. Not just old jazz, but old rock and roll and pop.
JazzUSA: I appreciate your time and we’ll be keeping track of your upcoming projects.
JL: Ok Thanks.