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Issue 1084

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Feature

Najee: Saxy R&B

Najee @bluesandsoul.com
Najee @bluesandsoul.com

Itâs a year shy of saxophonist and flautist Najee arriving onto the music scene three decades ago with his platinum-selling major label debut LP, Najeeâs Theme. His fresh sound introduced audiences to an invigorating fusion of smooth instrumental R&B layered under his signature romantic horn melodies.

Critics and listeners have often placed the Grammy-nominated easygoing musician born Jerome Najee Rasheed in the jazz category. The Queens, NY-born musician, however, has his own definition of what his music is. âThe problem with me is that I like a lot of things,â says Najee. âThe first few records I did were really R&B records. They werenât jazz records. They were R&B records with a saxophone.â

Najee is an extremely humble performer who started out in Chaka Khanâs touring band fresh out of the New England Conservatory of Music. As a solo act, heâs released 13 full-length studio albums and became one of the most sought after accompanist to a slew of artists spanning multiple genres. Najee says it doesnât feel like that much time has passed.

âIt seems like yesterday to be honest,â says Najee seated comfortably in the lobby of downtown Atlantaâs Hyatt Regency Hotel. âIt sounds like a long time, and it is, but it goes quick. When I started this thing, I didnât have a clue as to what I was doing. I was just a guy who was fortunate to do what I love and earn a fairly decent living.â

Najeeâs manifesto is to always keep his music fresh. Heâs been spending time in London lately recording material for his tentatively titled project, You, Me, & Forever, along with Incognito frontman, Jean-Paul âBlueyâ Maunick. The Soul Train award winner glows as he looks back on his time laying down tracks across the pond.

â[Bluey] just made is so inviting to be there,â says Najee as he sips coffee. âIâm always looking for some different angle every record. I enjoy working with musicians that come with a very thorough sense of whatever it is they engage with. They have a perspective thatâs all their own.â

Itâs not uncommon for Najee to keep one of his leather-covered Apple mobile devices by his side. He uses either of the devices for release therapy and to get inspiration. He periodically scrolls through playlists on his iPhone one minute. The next minute, heâs either checking his schedule or reading news briefs or excerpts from his virtual library of economic literature (calling it âboring stuffâ) on his iPad.

In Atlanta at the time to headline Clark Atlanta Universityâs annual outdoor âJazz Under the Starsâ concert, Najee taught a master class on-campus the day prior. Never complaining about venue size, Najee doesnât mind performing in front of any audience.

âWe modify our shows according to where we are,â says Najee. âThe smaller environments are easier to connect with the audience in terms of intimacy. You can do some things that are a little more mellow.â

Being in a room full of aspiring young musicians has prompted Najee to figure out how to revamp his virtual teaching and digital workshops. Because of the engaging instrumentalistâs hectic recording and traveling itinerary, his music education programming has taken a backseat.

âMy problem is my time,â he says. âIâve been so busy, itâs hard to really organise a set time for that. Iâm going to put time in to make sure we develop it.â

Najee likes to share stories about his time working with other legendary performers, especially Prince. The Purple One originally invited Najee to one of his post-show parties, requested him to bring his flute. Doug E. Fresh, who toured with Prince at the time, told Najee that the multi-talented artist had been studying a video of his flute solo.

Traveling to Minneapolis a few days later, Najeeâs initial offer from Prince to tour with him for two weeks turned into three-year collaboration. Najee jokingly mocks Princeâs voice and posture as he reenacts phone calls and soundchecks. He makes it crystal clear how much respect he has for His Royal Badness.

Najee remembers a time when the flamboyant superstar didnât know how to financially compensate him. The saxophonist remains tightlipped about what he was paid but has no complaints whatsoever. â[Prince] was a very interesting guy,â says Najee. âIt started out just doing jam sessions like two in the morning. We never talked money, but letâs just say he respected my time.â

Fatherhood is the greatest thing Najee says heâs ever done. His six children have each traveled with him at some point in his career. Joined by his daughter and sister in the hotel lobby for breakfast, Najee thinks allowing his kids to see him on the road made them feel important.

He later wisecracks that touring is the sole reason that his children never pursued a career in music. âWhen Iâm with them, I make them feel like nothing else matters,â he says.

Najee is preparing to go back out on the road with upcoming dates in London. You, Me, & Forever is slated for release later this year. Heâs happy to have enjoyed a successful career by not sounding like any other musician. He says his musical resistance motivates him and gives him his own unique flavour.

âI decided that I wanted to develop me a whole lot more,â says Najee with his legs crossed. âI never get tired of hearing people like John Coltrane because thereâs always something to learn. As best as I can, I try to listen to whatâs going on in the music business and keep my eyes open.â

*Najee and Gary Taylor are in action at premier London venue Under The Bridge on May 22nd. Tickets are available from all good ticket retails.
Words Christopher Daniel

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