Photo: Anastas Tarpanov
Freddie Hendrix is a veteran trumpeter who’s making his debut as a leader 20 years after emerging onto the East Coast scene. Strongly influenced by Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw, he’s been a member of the Count Basie Orchestra, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and many other bands, both in and out of jazz (he toured with Alicia Keys in 2008). His album Jersey Cat comes out this Friday on Sunnyside (get it from Amazon), and features saxophonists Bruce Williams and Abraham Burton, trombonist David Gibson, pianist Brandon McCune, bassist Corcoran Holt, and drummer Cecil Brooks III, who also produced the record.
The music is a mix of hard bop, funk and R&B grooves, all performed with a showy, entertainer’s flair, similar to Shareef Clayton‘s North & South (reviewed here). Hendrix contributes five originals to the album, and the disc also includes versions of “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” Freddie Hubbard‘s “Hubtones” and Horace Silver‘s “Peace.” When all four horns are working at once, the orchestrations have an almost Duke Ellington-esque lushness, crossed with the rich 1970s sound of Woody Shaw albums like Rosewood and Woody III.
Stream three tracks from Jersey Cat:
Hendrix answered questions via email.
You’ve been working steadily for close to 20 years in various ensembles, but are only now making your debut as a leader. Why did you choose to wait to step into the spotlight in this way?
I didn’t completely choose to wait to step into the spotlight. I was kind of forced to wait for a number of reasons. I have led bands at Cecil’s Jazz Club in New Jersey and Smoke Jazz Club in New York prior to this current time. The problem that was always presented to me when I would lead a band would always be this question: “Man, I’ve never heard of you until now. I’m completely blown away by your artistry. Where can I purchase your CD?” I got tired of hearing that all the time and not being able to do anything about it. I could have led my band at lots of venues in the tri-state area, but what would be the point without a CD to promote? My CD was recorded Dec. 19, 2010. We mixed and mastered it at Tedesco Studios in May of 2011. And then began the problems. My publishing was registered with ASCAP and I wanted to get out of my contract with them, but they wouldn’t let me go. That didn’t go through officially until sometime in 2013. Then for another year and a half, my time was killed shopping the CD to seven different record labels. Two of the seven never responded back to us at all. The other five would say, “We love the CD!” then six months down the road come back to us saying, “We don’t have the budget to advertise a new artist” or “We decided to go with someone else.” I was on the verge of giving up and just starting fresh again; however, I thought I’d give it one more shot. I asked my wife/manager, Barbara Hendrix, to reach out to Sunnyside Records for I had recorded on the label as a sideman years ago with my mentor/college professor Rufus Reid. François Zalacain, CEO of Sunnyside Records said, “We are interested in the project. Send us the recording to hear and give a listen.” Now Jersey Cat is a reality because of him. And it’s because of Barbara (former manager at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London) creating my website, freddiehendrix.com, and handling all of my social media every day via Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, that everyone is hearing or seeing my name.
How did you choose the rest of the band? What do you think each person brings to the music?
The guys I chose for my band are some of my closest friends in life. They are great musicians that I play with most of the time and know my playing style best. Alto saxophonist Bruce Williams from Washington, DC I’ve known the longest of all. Bruce is one of the best alto players in the world. He introduced me to drummer/producer Cecil Brooks III of Pittsburgh, PA. Cecil was the motivator in convincing me to record all my material, choosing the band, and deciding where to record the CD. All advice given and approval of my concept for the project, I covered with him. Tenor saxophonist Abraham Burton of New York I first played with at Cecil’s Jazz Club with Grassella Oliphant’s band. We had an immediate connection musically. Then there’s trombonist David Gibson from Oklahoma, who I met around 2006. We play together in numerous bands (mostly in the George Gee Swing Orchestra) and we see eye to eye musically. I appreciate his thought process. Dwayne Burno (R.I.P.) was the original bass player chosen for the date, but the opportunity knocked for him to receive his second kidney transplant at that time. So we replaced him with the great Corcoran Holt of Washington, DC, and he was a perfect fit for the band. Finally there’s pianist Brandon McCune of Chicago, IL, who is just phenomenal. We’ve known each other since 1996. The spirit of Kenny Barron and late greats Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Kirkland engulfs you when you hear him play.
I know you’ve played with the Count Basie Orchestra and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, and I can hear that large ensemble sound in “Madeira Nights” and “Invitation,” which have a very old-school, Ellington-style swing to my ear. Did you do the arrangements yourself, or were they done by someone else in the group (I know David Gibson does arrangements for Orrin Evans’ big band)?
The whole concept for the recording (musically speaking) and all the arrangements were done by me! I wanted this record to showcase my writing skills as a composer. Five of the songs are my original compositions. The standards/jazz standards chosen are not only songs that I like to play but also songs that are associated with some of my musical heroes. I wanted the songs to have a bounce. Something that people can groove to, dance to, or bop their head to. I wanted arrangements with a hip-hop flair but maintaining the integrity of swing. So yes, you will hear that big band sound and elements of swing, hip-hop, R&B, Latin, and slow ballads.
Some of the tunes on this album remind me of Woody Shaw’s late ’70s Columbia albums, both in terms of your playing and in terms of how the multiple horns are stacked. What can you say about Shaw and how he influenced you as a player and a composer/bandleader?
You are right in your assessment and the first to hear the influence of trumpeter Woody Shaw in my playing and compositions. Well, next to Freddie Hubbard who is my primary influence that most people recognize immediately in my playing, there is my almost equivalent affinity for Woody Shaw which no one ever hears in my playing. Woody is very dear to my heart. He’s influenced by John Coltrane, McCoy Tyner, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, and Miles Davis. He appreciates a nice ballad. He can get down with some funk. And he can play and appreciate the avant-garde. Woody is a very angular kind of player and loves dark-sounding chords. I love swinging, playing funk, avant-garde, and dark-sounding chords too! I think you can hear his influence most in my composition “Whims of a Waltz.” The melody and chord progression is very like Woody. I have been studying Woody and Freddie’s work for years, so you will definitely hear their influence both in my playing and compositions, however, I want people to hear me in there too. Transcribe some of my solos and you will find Woody in there for sure.
How do you balance your career as a performing musician, whether a leader or a sideman, and your teaching work?
I balance out my career by taking whatever gigs as a sideman I’m given first. Sideman gigs are more in demand for me at this time because my career as a leader has not taken off yet. I’m hoping to change that ratio around very soon. Then whatever openings I have in the calendar, Barbara reaches out the the jazz clubs in town to see what slots are available on their calendars. They send us a date and she adds it to the website. I’ve been teaching at the University of Hartford in Connecticut as well as occasionally at the New School in NY and Melissa Walker’s Jazz House Kids in Montclair, NJ. Plus I have some private students. My teaching schedule falls on designated days according to my playing schedule. I try to conduct my teaching during the morning and daytime which leaves my schedule open to gig in the nighttime. Plus I’m a husband as well as a father, and that is 24/7, so somehow everything balances out.
What do you teach? Do you focus on music theory, instrumental technique, approaches to improvisation, or something else entirely? And/or is it different from one school to another?
I don’t teach music theory that often. Only to younger students that are beginners at improvisation. I teach them what’s the correct scale to play over a specific chord. I find that it’s best not to overwhelm younger students with theory but train them to use their ears more and to practice singing. When you can sing your ideas, then it just becomes a matter of how familiar you are with the instrument in order to express or play what it is that you are hearing. College students usually have had some theory training in high school, and colleges flood them that information already, so I don’t have to focus so much on that. I teach all my students, young and old, the importance of good air flow to achieve a great sound and endurance. Instrumental technique is secondary. Improvisation is last, because it requires the most time and attention. When I’m working with younger students which is usually at Jazz House Kids, my time is limited so we usually have to get right to the music in dealing with trying to get the music to sound good at a respectful level like for concerts. With my older students, we cover all bases.
Why do you think New Jersey’s contributions to jazz get overlooked so much? I mean, Count Basie, Bill Evans, Hank Mobley, Grachan Moncur III, Woody Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Larry Young, and that’s barely the beginning of the list, but the state doesn’t have the reputation it deserves.
My belief regarding this question that you’ve asked is this. New Jersey’s contributors to jazz music and the music industry in general are not overlooked. All or most of these musicians are acknowledged and revered all over the world. It’s the state of New Jersey that is overlooked. And the reason for that is…jazz music and most musical events in this area took place in New York. Everybody all over the world traveled to New York because that’s where everything started. All the television productions, jingles, recording studios, Broadway plays, jazz clubs, concert halls, etc., was started there. New Jersey had some great jazz clubs years ago that all the cats performed at, but they never stood the test of time. Lots of the jazz icons even relocated here to New Jersey, but it didn’t mean a thing. Even though my roots are in North and South Carolina, I was born and raised here. It doesn’t matter where in the world you traveled or how much success you achieve in life, you must always remember where you are from. That’s what I represent. It’s who I am. I am a “Jersey Cat,” that cat from Jersey, that’s me! Maybe I can be the game changer. A changing of the guard. Who knows. We shall see.