Q&A with pianist Jeff Lorber: Jazz Funk (Heart and) Soul

Pianist, composer, producer and bandleader Jeff Lorber originally formed Jazz Funk Soul with saxophonist Everette Harp and guitarist Chuck Loeb. They released their eponymous album in 2014, which was followed by More Serious Business in 2016. Loeb died on July 31, and on the new Jazz Funk Soul album, Life and Times, Lorber and Harp are joined by guitarist Paul Jackson, Jr., to pay tribute to the legacy and inspiration that their longtime friend and collaborator left behind.

JAZZIZ spoke with Lorber about his time with Loeb, what Jackson Jr. brings to Jazz Funk Soul, and about some of his views on the current state of jazz as well as how his own approach to making music has evolved over time. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: As you reflect on your career so far and release Life and Times with Jazz Funk Soul, how do you see the current jazz landscape?

Jeff Lorber: If you look back at my career and the type of music I made, those records were going gold in the mid-‘70s and ‘80s. There were more people interested in jazz and instrumental music, and it was a really exciting thing. Now, it’s become more of a niche thing where you have a much smaller audience. So, if you look at it that way, my glory days are past. But from another standpoint, I have kind of reached that equilibrium where I do have a loyal fan base and there’s a certain base of jazz festivals and clubs that we can play.

Why do you think people were more interested in instrumental music back then?

Because that was a time when all the major labels had jazz divisions and they used the money they made from their pop hits to support jazz music, and to market and promote jazz artists. I was lucky because I made the cut-off and from the mid-‘70s, for ten or fifteen years, I would get nice budgets and the power of major labels with their marketing and promotion dollars to get my name out there and find an audience. In fact, that’s who comes to see me a lot when I travel around the world to today; they’re the people who heard about me from that time.

Have things gotten tougher for younger jazz artists?

I think so because I don’t think they have that support anymore and record companies aren’t like that anymore. Most of them don’t even have jazz divisions and if they do have anything that has to do with jazz, it’s either minuscule or focuses on artists like Michael Bublé. They just consider jazz like some sort of adult pop music. So, it is tougher but I am impressed with some of the artists who have made it, like Snarky Puppy, Kamasi [Washington] and some of the younger acts that have figured out a way to use social media to find an audience, and to get out there and do instrumental music in their own way for the younger generation. What I think they lack most of the time is the experience of working with real, experienced music producers. That’s because the jazz base is so small that everybody is basically self-marketing, self-promoting and self-producing.

How has the current jazz landscape influenced your own approach to music, especially as far as writing and experimentation are concerned?

It’s interesting because when smooth jazz was popular in the ‘80s and the ‘90s, it had all these radio stations and major markets all over America. If you played instrumental music, that was really your way to be heard. So, most of the artists who tried to make instrumental music played smooth jazz and really put themselves in a box in the area of experimentation and being really imaginative style-wise. The kind of music I’ve done has always been bebop influenced. It’s jazzy, funky instrumental music. I didn’t change anything to fit in, but at the same time, I always listened and still listen to new music because I’m always trying to make my music sound innovative, fresh and interesting. The new technology also helps with experimenting by making things that used to take a long time take a lot less time.

Plus, your own interest in science means you have certain affinities with experimentation…

Well, I was pre-med chemistry at Boston University for a while. That helped me a lot, especially when music became all about technology. When I got into computers and got into learning how to use all this software, I would just take things step by step like I used to in the lab.

Another thing about scientists is they’re not allowed to use pencils. They’re supposed to use pens because if you make what you think are mistakes, they’re not really mistakes and have information that’s really valuable. The recording studio is like that because some of the coolest things happen just because of some mistake – like, some piece of equipment not working right and giving an unexpected sound or playing a different part of the song that you didn’t think was going to happen. You always have to be open to these accidents, and to just think about, “Wow, that’s pretty cool, maybe we should do it that way!”

Would you say there was good chemistry in Jazz Funk Soul with Chuck Loeb and Everette Harp?

Yes, absolutely. We originally put together the group with Chuck, who was a fantastic guitarist, and Everette Harp, playing saxophone. Initially, it was just sort of a band that we’d put together to play gigs before we decided to some recording. The chemistry was great, we had fun and the people seemed to like what we did. Unfortunately, Chuck passed away. It very, very sad for us because he was a really special guy. Besides being a great musician he was a real peacemaker. The three of us were all bandleaders and Chuck was always the peacemaker. Everette and I would kind of butt heads sometimes and Chuck could always come in and smooth things over. That’s just the kind of guy he was.

We miss him so much because he was a great musician and a great producer. He loved bebop and the two of us used to have a lot of fun working in the studio, writing songs together. When Chuck was ill, he was battling cancer, we had Paul Jackson, Jr., fill in on some of the gigs that we had booked. I’ve been friends with him since I first moved L.A. around 1980 and he’s played guitar on almost every project I’ve ever done. We like the group dynamic of Jazz Funk Soul now and we decided to continue writing. The fact that all three of us are very different in some interesting ways and also, obviously, there are some commonalities, means there’s an interesting chemistry between us.

So, Life and Times is both celebrates the legacy of Loeb and marks an evolution for the band.

Yes, absolutely. And it’s a little different. Everette and I and have been friends with Paul for many years and I know Paul as one of the finest rhythm guitarists on the planet. Chuck was more of a jazzer, so he would tend to lay out sometimes and let me cover the rhythm, whereas Paul and I, we have played on and off together for many years and we just love playing the rhythm together. That kind of gives the band a different character.

How would you describe that dynamic in the studio?

The three of us like to collaborate a lot and there’s a lot of interaction between us. We settle on an approach but at the same time, we want the record to be varied and an entertaining thing to listen to from beginning to end, so that it doesn’t end up being the same kind of vibe all throughout. When you improvise, you’re trying to reach new heights and for me, writing melodies is like crystallizing improvisations – it’s an improvisation that you can refine and crystallize, and hopefully turn into something memorable, something that will live on. You try to keep that same kind of excitement you have on stage that gets spread out over time into the studio environment and it’s part of trying to keep the musicality at a high level. There are so many elements that go into a recording. There’s melody, the grooves, the drums, the orchestration, the mix… You have to herd over all those different parts of the production and make sure that they all combine to make something great.

So, the energy of live performance influences the recording process.

Yes, and we love to play live together. We love to play anywhere there’s an audience that wants to hear what we’re doing. We get a bigger thrill from playing bigger venues for more people, especially if it’s outdoors in a beautiful environment like the Hollywood Bowl or the Perugia Jazz Festival. And every night, it’s different. You don’t know what you’re going to play. Everything’s improvised so it’s a chance to reach new heights every time you get on stage. And the audience is the key thing. If the audience is really into it and likes what we’re doing, it gives us the energy we need to do our best.

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