In the four years since the release of Gerald Albright’s last solo album, the Grammy nominated Pushing The Envelope, the versatile composer, producer and saxophonist has enjoyed the spirit of collaboration with two huge hit recordings – 24/7 with guitarist Norman Brown in 2012 and Summer Horns by Dave Koz and Friends, Grammy nominated this past year for Best Pop Instrumental Album. Summer Horns is a tribute to classic horn driven artists like Tower of Power, Chicago, Earth, Wind & Fire and James Brown featuring Albright jamming with Koz and fellow urban jazz superstars Mindi Abair and Richard Elliot. It naturally spawned a successful summer tour last year, and the foursome are spending the Summer of 2014 on the road doing an encore.
The Los Angeles born and raised artist started his career as a session and touring musician working with everyone from Anita Baker, Ray Parker, Jr., Atlantic Starr, The Temptations and Maurice White to Les McCann, Teena Marie, the Winans and Whitney Houston. He launched his solo career in the infancy of what became the smooth jazz format, with Just Between Us in 1987 and has been a core part of the genre with chart-topping albums, countless radio hits and as a member of many all star tours, including Guitars & Saxes and Groovin’ For Grover. In the late 90s, he fronted a big band for and toured with pop star Phil Collins.
His latest Heads Up collection Slam Dunk, in addition to featuring covers of classics by Collins and James Brown and a guest appearance by Peabo Bryson, is influenced directly by the classic R&B he grew up with – James Brown, the Philly International sound and Motown. He collaborates for the first time with top urban jazz producer Chris “Big Dog” Davis. The set also features Albright’s talented vocalist daughter Selina Albright.
JazzMonthly: Congratulations on your latest Grammy nomination for the Dave Koz and Friends Summer Horns album. Tell me how you became part of that and about the process of making that album?
GA: It was merely a call from Dave, who has been a longtime friend. Every time we would see each other, we would say we need to do something together either live or in the studio. So when he came up with this idea, he asked me to be part of it, telling me it would involve both an album and touring. A year later, it continues to be a wonderful venture. It was uniquely conceived as a reflection of all of that great EWF, James Brown and Chicago music and from day one has been a totally collaborative effort. Dave made sure it was a full group situation, not just me, Richard and Mindi as three horn players behind him. The strength of the project is that everyone had a hand in it logistically, musically and conceptually. We all have different styles and when we do the shows we see the most immediate results of that collective effort.
JM: What do you enjoy most about touring with Dave, Mindi and Richard? How does it compare to other all-star tours you’ve done, say, with Norman, Guitars & Saxes or Groovin’ For Grover?
GA: The unique thing is that we all have common ground playing the same instrument. So there’s a lot of “shop talk” about the sax in the dressing room before the show. We’re always comparing notes on how to do something easier or more effectively on the horn, and talking about equipment and the best reeds that can optimize what we do. These are friendships that go way back. I’ve known Dave for a few decades, have toured on and off with Richard several times and while Mindi and I have not done a lot of official things together, we’ve still known each other for a number of years. So I enjoy the friendship and camaraderie. We blend really well and I think the dynamics of the show come from the fact that while we all play sax, we all put a different kind of energy into it. We come from four different schools of playing and there was an instant blend when we first started recording. Mindi grew up on rock, I’m the R&B guy who loved Maceo Parker and Cannonball Adderley, Richard started out with Tower of Power – and Dave is a pop/soul player who still cites me and Kirk Whalum as top influences! People who come to our shows comment all the time about how well we blend and we are all still kind of flabbergasted at how natural and fun it is that we do it so well.
JM: Slam Dunk is your first solo album since 2010’s Pushing the Envelope. In the meantime you’ve had great success doing the dual album with Norman and the Summer Horns project. How did those experiences impact what you bring to the new album?
GA: I think from a production standpoint, I drew a lot from the Norman project because we divided the production down the middle between us, instead of having an outside producer bring it together. That hands on experience helps drive the energy of Slam Dunk. I love writing and producing and it’s great to be back doing a solo project again. But I treat every album as its own standalone project and so in many ways, after four years, I wanted to press the reset button and bring a new energy to it that was different from both of those great collaborations. That inspired my decision to work for the first time with Chris Davis, and many of the tracks reflect the great musical marriage we have created. We’re actually talking about forming a production team and producing other artists.
JM: Is Slam Dunk a concept album in any way or just a great gathering of tunes you had written? How and when did you decide it was time to do another solo album and how did it take shape?
GA: The premise behind it is to bring to the forefront a lot of other instruments I love to play and have a passion for. In my travels and discussions with my fellow musicians, I would always hear, why don’t you play bass more? Flute? Tenor and alto? I’m known for being an alto player but I love the sonic possibilities of playing the other winds, too. Slam Dunk is a platform to bring those instruments front and center, strategically choosing just the right songs, so you hear some bass solos and even a bass melody from me on “Split Decision” coupled with the tenor. I’m also singing background on a few tunes. I’m spreading my wings on this project and consequently the music in my live show is changing. I’ll be playing a lot more live bass. But everything is very organic, where these other instruments fit in seamlessly and shine through rather than jump out in places where they shouldn’t be. My vision for listeners is that they can start at track one and not lift the needle up, so to speak, until the final track is done.