Jazz Monthly: Well, my next guest at JazzMonthly.com is one of the most fantastic sax players that I’ve ever seen. He is “Groove Du Jour,” serving up some ultra funky grooves and some seriously phat melodies. You’ve got to hear this cat’s latest offering. It is called Once In A Lifetime, he’s got some incredible players on there, and as you will see, he’s not only a great musician, but he is a fantastic producer. Please say hello to my friend, the incredible and amazing Mr. Darren Rahn. Darren, how ya doin’, my friend?
Darren Rahn (DR): Great. That’s quite an intro there, Smitty. I’m honored.
Jazz Monthly: Well, the honor’s all mine, my friend, because it’s funny how paths cross in such strange ways.
Jazz Monthly: Before I heard your music ever, I kept getting compliments of you from people across the country and across Canada.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, so it’s just been a cool thing and it’s just great to finally sit down and talk with you and really express my appreciation for the great things that you’re doing with music both on the stage and in the studio.
DR: Well, thank you very much, Smitty, we have a lot of mutual friends in the industry and same thing to you. I hear so many great things about you and what you’re doing with your Web site and, of course, I’ve read all the interviews too. You’re just doing a fantastic job, so hats off to you too, my friend.
Jazz Monthly: Well, thank you very much. That’s a great compliment and that’s quite a compliment coming from someone like yourself because I know you are a friend of the groove and you know every note there is out there, and I tell ya, you have been a part of some of the most fantastic music I’ve heard over the past 20 years, so I take that as a seriously cool compliment from you.
DR: Very cool.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, man. Now, you have been somehow saturated with music practically all your life, haven’t you?
DR: Yeah, I grew up around music and my parents were always into music, and it started as doing music together as a family in church. Our family had a little gospel group. We traveled around and did little gigs here and there, and as we got older, my mom really encouraged us kids to learn piano. We each took a couple years of piano lessons, which at the time I wasn’t too excited about, but in retrospect, I’m very glad that happened, because that’s where I learned to read music. When I joined band in grade school I already knew how to read music, so that was a great way to start. Having taken those couple years of piano really paid off. Then in high school when I began to study jazz, I was learning jazz on both the piano and on saxophone. Back then I never knew that I was going to be a producer and need that piano background—it just happened—and now I’m very grateful that those keyboard skills were in place because I use them every single day.
Jazz Monthly: Well, that’s kind of interesting and I think that’s a very cool thing. Now, for the up and coming artists out there and the aspiring artists that are five, six years old, ten years old, that are now being told to sit down at the piano and take lessons and that kind of thing, what would you say to them based upon what you just talked about with your past?
DR: Well, it’s important. If you want to have a future in music, I think we live in a day and age now where you have to be very versatile. People who can play several instruments and have a wide variety of skills will have greater opportunities down the road. I would say I see equal importance in learning to read music, understanding music theory, and developing your ear. There’s a lot of people that don’t have both of those skills. They’re either strictly kind of technical from the reading side or they have great ears, but can’t do both, and for me both have been crucial. Playing-wise and production-wise it’s invaluable to me. I’m very grounded in theory and have good ears, but lately I’ve been working to strengthen my ears even more. I have some friends in the industry that have incredible ears. Guys like Jeff Lorber or Eric Darius, they can hear anything and just boom! Play it right back to you instantly no matter how difficult it is. Their ears are just unbelievable
Jazz Monthly: Well, I’m sure Eric and Jeff certainly appreciate those compliments, my friend.
DR: They are insanely talented.
Jazz Monthly: True that. The other reason why I asked that question is because what you mentioned earlier about taking lessons and not really liking it at the time and didn’t see how it would even be of any value to you later on. I think that’s what a lot of individuals are thinking at that age.
Jazz Monthly: And to encourage them to stay with that format or that mode of learning is key, and so to hear that from someone like yourself who is very accomplished and relying on those skills that you obtained at an early age, I think it’s great for individuals at an early age to hear what you just said. I think that’s a very cool thing. I’m glad you mentioned that.
DR: Yeah, I can also look at a friend of mine like Mel Brown, who we both know, who is also one of the most gifted musicians I’ve ever had the opportunity to work with, and I know Mel can speak to that very directly too because he started out learning a lot by ear and as he got better and better, he saw that the missing component for him was a total understanding music theory and really strong sight-reading. He devoted himself to that and really mastered those skills. Those skills propelled him to a whole new level. I remember shortly after I met him, he got a call to do Michel Camilo’s gig, and he had to show up and sight-read that book. I’m sure you’re familiar with Michele’s music, that’s a heavy, heavy gig to sight-read.
Jazz Monthly: Yes it is.
DR: It was one of the first gigs that really put his reading skills to the test, and because of his diligence and hard work, he passed that test with flying colors, but that’s an opportunity that probably wouldn’t have been there for him otherwise.
Jazz Monthly: Right, and I think Mel can pick up anything that he wants to anyway, you know? He’s just a great and a gifted cat as well, yeah. Well, now, talk to me about how you came from a devoted gospel musician to jazz. I know that when you were in school you started to study jazz, but I’m trying to bridge that gap in how you gravitated to jazz, which is a cool thing.
DR: Sure. I did a lot of gospel music as a kid. In grade school I played clarinet in band and in junior high there was an opening in the jazz band and I wanted to join, so I taught myself saxophone. The first time I had the experience in jazz band, I mean, it was unlike anything I had ever done before. I knew at that moment that, hey, this is something that I really wanna do. I guess that was in seventh grade. That’s when I started practicing hard. Then I think it was my sophomore year in high school, I ended up getting a really great band director that knew more about jazz. He started teaching basic improvisation and I remember standing up and I was getting ready to play my solo and he pulled the music away and made me improvise. I was the single most terrifying moment of my musical life, but when it was done, the feeling of having created something spontaneously on the spot was also the biggest musical rush I had ever had up to that point, and once I experienced that, I was hooked and I knew that that’s the route I wanted to pursue.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, well, that was a great way to win you over.
DR: Yeah, he didn’t leave me much choice. I have to say I was a little upset when I saw him pull the music stand away because it was a moment of great vulnerability, to go from being confident in how to play an instrument technically to creating spontaneously. It is so much more than just understanding the technical aspects of your instrument. It’s that spontaneous creation right on the spot and it was. It was very terrifying at the moment, but by the time that experience was over it was total exhilaration.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, it kind of reminds me of the story that a lot of people tell about when their dad threw them in the swimming pool and said “Go do it.”
DR: Uh-huh, yeah, just throw you right in.