Life Really Is A Gift For Jazz Fusion Star Jeff Lorber
Music has always been vitally important to Jeff Lorber. As a tot, he fell asleep listening to his pianist mother playing in their home. From four he played piano himself. Through school in the 1960s he played in R & B bands, and went on to form his own acclaimed jazz outfit.
Originally meant to major in chemistry, that equation did not figure for Jeff. He went off to The Berklee School of Music. There he developed a passion for jazz. In the 70s, he took up an offer by a friend to go to his studio to cut a demo tape. That recording landed him a record deal at 25-years-old with Inner City, for his debut album, the 1977 “Jeff Lorber Fusion” album.
After a second album with that label, he was picked up by Arista in 1979 for seven mega-successful albums. He has since recorded for other majors and independents, including Blue Note. Jeff has always straddled piano, Rhodes, analogue synths, minimoog and sequential circuits Prophet 5.
A talented musician, band leader, composer, arranger and producer, he made five albums under the “Jeff Lorber Fusion” banner to great acclaim, fuelling almost non stop touring and packed out shows. He dropped the term “fusion” from his billing as the movement evolved into contemporary or “smooth” jazz. He continued to explore innovative blending of other musical forms to jazz.
He has 17 solo albums too, and is featured as session player or producer on dozens of albums. His music is and always has been a mix of traditional jazz with elements of rock, R&B, funk, Latin and other electrified sounds. - complex harmonies, unconventional time signatures, groove laden rhythms and gorgeous melodies.
At his commercial peak, Jeff stopped recording his own material and focused on production and sessions. His track “Rain Dance” from the 1979 album “Water Sign,” was sampled by Lil’ Kim on her hit single “Crush On You.” He released his debut solo album “It’s A Fact,” in 1982. In ’84, “In The Heat Of The Night” and “Lift Off”. The same year, he teamed up with RnB production duo Frank and Mic Murphy, aka “The System,” on massively successful “Step By Step.” In ’05 he got a Grammy nod for “Flipside” and another in 2007 for “He Had A Hat.”
Back home in Portland, Oregon when Jeff and his band were playing the hot spot clubs and building up a reputation, he deliberately highlighted the use of the word Fusion in the name of the band, to “scare away” those who did not like jazz and may expect yet another country, rock or pop band to get up on stage.
Almost four decades later, Jeff will be back in his home city on stage at Jimmy Mak’s club, on 7th April this year, to celebrate the release of his 24th album, “Galaxy.” Globally respected by “A” list musicians and music fans, far wider than just jazz circles, Jeff will not have thought way back in the day, he’d ever be coming back to his home town as a music legend.
But it is even more of an achievement for 59-year-old Jeff to still be able to breathe fresh air, let alone play his music. He was diagnosed with life threatening hereditary Polycystic kidney disease and was so ill, he had to find a donor to give him a kidney or he would have faced first dialysis and then death. His wife Mingquan gave him the greatest gift of all, life, when she was found to be a match, donating a kidney to Jeff.
He has just clocked up seven years since the transplant, given a clean bill of health with his last annual check up. Sadly, he has lost members of his close family to the disease, while others close to him still have it.
His Mother and sister died from it, and he has a sister and two daughters Nica and Jessica who have it, as well as six nieces and nephews. He says he now has a different outlook on life and ensures he never wastes a minute. This spreads to his music making.
“Anyone who goes through a situation like this understands how valuable life is, and how precious each day is. I try not to lose sight of that. I try to spend my time doing what I enjoy doing, and making great music. Not to waste it working on something I do not think is worthy, or is not that interesting. I try to spend my time the very best way I can. I always try to do things on the highest level.”
“Health-wise it is going pretty well. I am very lucky and grateful to my wife every day I am alive. I owe a lot to her.”
Jet-lagged after flying back to his California home and studio from a three week European tour, Jeff is speaking to me on the telephone about his career and his new CD. I am thrilled to be interviewing him, as I have been a fan of his stuff since discovering a track called “Fusion Juice” in 1980 on his album “Wizard Island.” I used it as my “theme tune” when I was a nightclub DJ. I can still hum that track today.
I tell Jeff about my love for this track, and he tells me the band used to open their set with it back in the day, and that he wrote it with a young sax player he discovered, who was in his band, one Kenneth Bruce Gorlick. You might know him better today as Kenny G.
At 26 minutes and 38 seconds into this interview, I suggest Jeff revisits that track perhaps, for his next album. He laughs and I tell him on second thoughts; it could not be bettered. The line goes quiet and I ask if he still there. He is and then I hear
Jeff playing "Fusion Juice" down the ‘phone on his keyboard in his studio. Wow!
He plays verses and two choruses, and then says he did not recall all the notes. Oh yes you bloody did Mr Lorber! Spine-tingling stuff. When I eventually write my book, that’s going in it.
He tells me he stepped back to the fusion style and adding Fusion to his name, after European concert promoters always billed him as that, and fans begged for new fusion material. He brought out “Now Is The Time” in 2010 as his re-entry into that style after a 29 year hiatus. A Grammy nomination for his trouble. "Galaxy" is, he says, part two of that return to “Fusion.” 11 originals, with four older tunes very nicely revamped.
Released here on 31st January on the Heads Up label, part of the Concord Group, it features big guns Randy Brecker, Yellowjackets bassist Jimmy Haslip (co-producer with Lorber and co-writer on five songs), drum stars Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl, plus percussionist Lenny Castro.
Jeff is musician, composer, band leader and producer. There’s some fine sax work from Eric Marienthal and guitarists Michael Thompson. Sublime horn arrangements from Tower of Power alumni David Mann.
“Galaxy” was mixed by Michael Brauer at Electric Ladyland in New York City. He has worked with the Stones, Dylan, McCartney, Coldplay and John Mayer among many others. Lorber is a big fan of Brauer’s skills.
So why fusion stuff in the first place? “Europe likes the more adventurous virtuosic jazzy music. The music I wanted to make that was really exciting, focused and more energetic and more harmonically adventurous. Jazz at all levels is essentially fusion, and so different elements of what I’ve done are a child of the fusion music that was started in the ‘70s.”
“By Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters and Chick Corea’s Return To Forever. Miles Davis Group and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. The stuff we do is more of an R&B base. It is more melodic structurally. I suppose we chase the holy ghost of be-bop vocabulary in terms of melodic writing and soloing. It has Latin influences.”
So how does he feel being called a pioneer? “Part of the job description of being a jazz improviser is that you are an explorer. Trying to come up with something really fresh and unique. Special and different. Aiming for something transcendental; a moment where you capture something special that transports you and the audience somewhere else. It should touch the essence of who you are as a person, and as a writer.”
“Herbie, Miles, Mahavishnu and Chick deserve tons of credit. Yes some people have credited me with being big a fusion jazz innovator, and I’d like to think I have innovated to some degree. But I never set out to be a pioneer.” As a reflection of Lorber’s standing, legend Chick Corea has guested on some of his cuts over the years.
“I love that funky style, R&B rhythms and chord progressions, melodies you can hum along to. When it comes to jazz music, it is a bit of a dichotomy. There are the purists I have played with who think that anything not straight ahead swing music is bad.”
“What I am really after more than anything is something musicians would enjoy, because it has some real interesting rhythmic and harmonic aspects – but also for an average person who isn’t a music aficionado, to be in tune with it also.”
Jeff says the main difference between “Now Is The Time” and “Galaxy” is the absence of vocals on the latest CD; as they wanted to represent the band how it sounds live, mainly as a quartet, and with the same line-up.
He also feels the song writing is a little more focused and energetic, and so the results on this new CD are “a little more cranked up energy wise, and in terms of the writing.”
There might well be a third Fusion CD, but Jeff does not plan too far ahead, and has no definite idea what his next project will be. Content to focus on getting out on the road to tour this CD, hoping to pop over the pond to the UK later this year. He sold out Ronnie Scott’s in London last summer, and wowed the crowd and critics.
We discuss his love for the blues and in particular, The Paul Butterfield Band and their work. Jeff says he has contemplated subjecting some of those songs to the Lorber treatment. He looks for blues that is not the typical “woke up this morning” stuff, he tells me. He loves Butterfield, Mayall, Little Feat’s groove. The Brits like Jeff Beck and Led Zep. He is a fan of blues greats Muddy Waters and Albert King too.
Always in big demand as a session player and producer, Jeff recently played on a new record from British, blue-eyed soul singer Jamie Lidell. Jamie originally from Cambridgeshire and now based in Nashville. Jeff tips him for big things. “He is very cool and a young guy with tremendous talent.”
I think Jeff may know a thing or two about talent …..
Words SIMON REDLEY