Gerald Albright's 'New Beginnings'

Contemporary jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright talks with Ed Gordon about his expansive career, musical influences and his latest CD: New Beginnings.

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(Soundbite of music)

ED GORDON, host:

Jazz saxophonist Gerald Albright can be heard on nearly 200 albums. Whether he's up front or making a guest appearance, Albright is always stellar. His latest solo project, New Beginnings, puts this sax virtuoso on center stage. Albright was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, and he was just a young boy in 1965, when racial tensions there escalated into what is historically known as the Watts Riots.

Mr. GERALD ALBRIGHT (Musician): We were very fortunate that we weren't in direct fire of, you know, the riots themselves. I mean, they were maybe two or three blocks away. And as a kid, it was a little traumatic for me, but with the support of the family and, you know, our neighborhood kind of came together and protected one another. Now it's just like a chapter that we got through, basically, you know.

GORDON: And the reason I ask that is we often hear about a village raising a child, and being in a situation, as many African-Americans were at that time, so many of us forced to live in one area, and there was this sense of occupation, but there was, as you note, this sense of familia, if you will. And I found it really interesting when reading about you when you talked about your high school and how much they had done to really foster music. Talk to us about that a bit.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Well, I came along at a time at Locke High School, which was in South Central L.A., the funding for the music program there was at an optimum, and the teachers at that point in time were very dedicated to making sure the students were being groomed musically for whatever they needed. And I went to school with folks like Patrice Rushen and Gary Bias, who's now with Earth, Wind & Fire and has been for many, many years. And the teachers, they would put in 10, 12, 13-hour days between rehearsing the concert band, and after school in the marching band. And we won many competitions there, national competitions and state competitions, and it was because of the efforts that the teachers gave to us on a daily basis, and then the passion that the students had. So it was a good time to attend Locke High School, and I always remember those times.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: I was glad to read - you mentioned someone as a major influence, and it's someone who I think is very, very underrated when people start talking about saxophonists, and that's the man that James Brown really made famous in calling him out: Maceo, Maceo Parker, big influence.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Maceo Parker, absolutely. My brother had a collection of James Brown records - this is along the time where I was just learning the saxophone - and Maceo's sound, even at the age of 9 or 10 years old, really caught my ear.

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Mr. ALBRIGHT: And the thing I really loved about it was the clarity of his sound, the percussive nature. I mean, if you can imagine him imitating a drummer as he's playing the horn. He really caught my ear, and later on when I wanted to delve into jazz improvisation on a much higher level, I explored Cannonball Adderley, who, to this day, keeps me humble as a player, because he is, to me, the best at what he does.

GORDON: Sometimes you look, after you've been in the business for some time, for that kind of extra kick. I know one of the extra kicks that you've been able to enjoy is that you were one of ten saxophonists that was picked to play at President Clinton's inaugural ceremony in '93.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Yes. That was quite a memorable experience for me. President Clinton and I are, and I say this with the greatest of comfort, dear friends. You know, talking to him, you forget he's the President. He's just, you know, one of the most down-to-earth people that you ever want to talk to, and we've had on occasion, several occasions, the opportunity to talk shop about music or about just world things, and to pay tribute to him on his inauguration and be selected as one of the many saxophonists in the nation who could have been there for that inauguration event, I thought it was the greatest honor to be one of those ten saxophonists.

GORDON: Let's talk about the new project. It is titled New Beginnings for a number of reasons, part of which you moved from your native California to Colorado. Talk to me about how that has influenced your music.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Absolutely. I reached a point at the age of 48 where I just wanted a new chapter in my life, so we all went as a family and it just - it's really been working for us. And since I've been here, just unbelievable things have been happening. I mean, my new record debuted at number one on the jazz charts and Billboard, and, you know, just wonderful things. The record's selling great. Everything is just really, really coming together. And we moved to Colorado as a step out on faith. We didn't know what was going to happen once we got here, but it seemed to be some level of a calling in terms of moving here, and I'm glad that we accepted the call and moved.

GORDON: One of the things that, over the years, people have loved about your CDs is you normally take a familiar song and put your interpretation on it. Talk to me about how you got in the habit of doing that, and the latest.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: A song really has to hit me in a very passionate way. I mean, it has to mean something. When I do a cover tune, it's just not for the sake of doing a cover tune; and currently, Georgia On My Mind is one that people love to hear.

(Soundbite of song "Georgia On My Mind")

Mr. ALBRIGHT: When I take a cover tune, I try my best to make it my own arrangement, as opposed to duplicating what's already there.

GORDON: Before we let you go, I want you to talk a little bit about, so fans can gear up and get ready to go to it, you'll be part of what has become a very popular tour. Talk to me about that.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: Guitars and Saxes includes myself, Richard Elliot on saxophone, Jeff Golub on guitar, and Peter White on guitar, and the four of us have a great two-hour show. You know, we like to involve the audience in it. We love to have a party.

GORDON: All right, and I know many fans will do so. As we said, a national tour, that's Guitars and Saxes, and of course, the new CD is New Beginnings. The saxophone man, and we should note that he is a true musician and plays a number of other instruments. That's Gerald Albright. And, Gerald, thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. ALBRIGHT: My pleasure, Ed. Thanks for having me.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

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