I played a load of different kinds of music growing up. Under the tutelage of the incredible teachers in the music dept. of the Waltham MA school system, I was introduced to symphonic music, chamber music, big band music, and much, much more. And I loved it all. The intricacies of melody, harmony, rhythm, counterpoint, dynamics, timbre… Whether I was playing clarinet (my first instrument), bass clarinet, or saxophones, the physical sensation of creating a vibration resulting in sound which was then placed in context with a variety of sounds generated by others, was fascinating, mesmerizing. The ultimate, natural buzz.
Yet there was a disconnect.
Despite an academic musical upbringing virtually non-existent in today’s schools, and being raised in a household of cultivated musical taste, I was still an ordinary kid – the soundtrack to my life and the lives of my peers out there in the suburbs of Greater Boston, was played on commercial radio. I searched desperately for some relevancy, some sort of bridge between my largely classical academic music experience, the records played by my parents and older siblings, and the mainstream sounds over which I bonded with friends.
Grover Washington Jr. – Mr. Magic (1975)
I needed something that had it all, but not my teacher’s music, not my father’s music, and certainly not the 80% of mainstream songs I tolerated while waiting for the 20% I might love. All this teenage passion, and nowhere to go. I needed something that said ‘this is who I am’… My own musical identity.
And then I heard Grover Washington Jr.
More specifically, the ‘Mr. Magic’ album. I was home. Grover had it all: vocal lyricism, technical facility, a simple yet deceptive riff-based drive, a kind of post-Coltranesque flair, and oh-so-much damn soul. The music had light, yet explored the darkness in the shadows. The electronic effects of Eric Gale’s down home, bluesy guitar, the symphonic pastiches created in Bob James’ arrangements. Legendary drummer Harvey Mason, who would become an even more important influence to me as a member of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters, laid down grooves which placed the sound of this extended improvisational journey firmly in the realm of here and now.
40 years after its creation, I still dig this album. So do my kids. So does my audience, I’ve been known to lay some ‘Black Frost’ on them from time to time. And of course the title track, ‘Mr. Magic’.
I’d love to point out an example of the ‘Grover’ in my playing on one of my own tracks, but either I’ve managed to disguise his influence well, or maybe I’ve just never really nailed him entirely. But he’s there, as I spend this period of time creating and recording new music. I feel it.