May 19, 2024

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Interview with Jeff Ponders II: Soul is a gift from God: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist Jeff Ponders II. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?

Jeff Ponders II: – I grew up in Detroit, MI. I came up in the time before digital music… I still remember original vinyl, 8 tracks, cassettes and good ole regular radio. My parents tell stories about how I was fascinated by music at a young age. To be honest, I thought I’d be the next Michael Jackson as a kid. My life soundtrack was shaped by MJ, gospel, 70s soul music, and jazz from WJZZ (local Detroit jazz station). When my parents were away,  8 year old Jeff would  get into classical. Reggae, country, pretty much anything I could get ears to. I studied piano when I was 3-4 and I would write poetry and lyrics, but it wasn’t until I heard a sax on the radio that I became obsessed with creating music.

JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the saxophon? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the saxophon?

JPII: – When I was 8 or 9, I heard a jazz tune in the radio and literally said to myself “they should have played this…” And hummed a line to myself (I still remember the lick!) I told my parents I was going to play sax, and a few months later my aunt surprised me with an alto sax! I joined the band in 5th grade and took private lessons for my first 6 months and realized it was a natural fit. By the time I got to middle school (6th grade), I was traveling across the state for solo recitals and competitions. Despite my natural affinity for the sax, I actually almost stopped playing at one point because I changed schools in middle school to a smaller more academically rigorous program and there was no band. Fortunately i started playing with the band at my church and it kept me surrounded by opportunities to play with others… Where before all I had was CDs and cassettes of the greats to play along with. When I got to high school I joined the band and was fortunate to be mentored by my band director Willie McAllister Jr and Detroit jazz greats Donald Walden, Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney and others. They helped me not only capture the language of jazz, but appreciate the value of being easy to work with, always being purposeful, and respecting the power of our gifts.

JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?

JPII: – I was obsessed with Bird for many years. What Saxophonist isn’t though! One thing that I always embraced was the challenge to be original. It’s not about being better than anyone else, but being better than I was yesterday. As far as styles, I pull influence from everything. All genres of music, different forms of art, even business (I’m as passionate about being an entrepreneur as I am about being an artist). My goal is always  to communicate truth and inspiration through my artistry. It’s not about speed or perfection (I do care about being technically sound)… It’s about saying something meaningful and compelling the listener to a better life through a rich musical experience. It sounds ethereal, but everything I do is designed to make life better for others.

JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?

JPII: – Scales, arpeggios, triads, and the metronome are my favorite friends. I try to develop my own exercises and scale patterns to feed original thought- but I also take time for transcription to learn more vocabulary from others.

JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now?

JPII: – I love 9s and 7s, but I’ve found myself lately really digging into 13 harmonies. I love  blue notes and colors that make you feel like someone is giving a big warm hug.

JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

JPII: – This balance is EVERYTHING. Intellect is the know-how. It’s having the right tools to do the job. Soul is the real key though. Soul keeps you from using a saw to bang in a nail or from using a hammer to smash a housefly on wet plaster.  Soul gives us the wisdom to play the right thing at the right time. Intellect is easy. Soul is a gift from God.

JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

JPII: – So many stories lol. I remember the first time I got to play with James Carter. I was 15 or 16. He’s from Detroit also and I was obsessed with his JC on the Set album. I would go to jam sessions on Thursday nights at Bomacs, an old jazz club in the city. Every night when I walked in,  they would announce me and declare that it was my “21st birthday.” This particular night, Rudy (can’t remember his last name) was on organ, LaDell Abrams on drums, tons of other folks in the house, and in walks JC. I never heard a sax sound that big, let alone the expressions he was able to extract from the horn. I got to trade with him on a tune – and he blew everyone away. Afterwards, he shared many words of wisdom. It was a magical experience.

JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?

JPII: – The challenge isn’t the younger generation. It’s those of us who carry the torch. In one of Miles’ last interviews he talked about this same  topic. It’s ok to respect history – but the nature of jazz isn’t to live in the past. It’s to always push forward and build on the holistic body of musical work. Miles referred to songs from Prince, the Beatles, and Michael Jackson as standards right along with songs from Duke, Bird, and the others. We won’t engage the next gen by forcing them to fit our paradigms. We must help them see how the language applies to what they already know. Artists like Robert Glasper, Terrace Martin,  Kamasi Washington, Marcus Miller, and many others are doing a fantastic job of making honest, accessible music that is bigger than but respectful of the past. It builds on our history, but offers great entry points for new listeners of all ages to love this music called jazz.

JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?

JPII: – I believe God created us to give glory to Him and to connect with one another to learn how to live love. The beauty of music is that it transcends the language of our tongues. Wherever we’re speaking to God or to each other, music can pierce hearts and minds beyond the limits of spoken word. I believe that there are perfect melodies that speak truth to the listener. Time Space Words from my album is one of those songs to me. I often ask people what they interpret from the song and the feedback has been consistently powerful and life giving. Blue in Green from Bill Evans is another example of a perfect melody in action. This is what I believe Coltrane spoke of and the pursuit of his most progressive years.

JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

JPII: – The one change would be to not cut corners to chase dollars. I believe in capitalism and profitable work, but not if it means we sacrifice quality and integrity. Much of music is compromised in pursuit of likes, follows and profit. If we as holders of the truth and creators refuse to sacrifice our integrity and deliver life-breathing quality art, our business and our world become better.

JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?

JPII: – My listening is still all over the map! Lately I’ve been listening to Christian Scott, Braxton Cook, Marcus Miller, Brandy, Sean Jones, The Baylor Project, Brandon Williams, Eric Roberson, Tank, Fred Hammond, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar…. I could go on and on.

JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?

JPII: – I’d want to sit in on studio sessions in the 70s. The music was rich, warm, and honest. It’s some of the most timeless art ever made. I want to soak up that soul and bring it forward.

JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…

JPII: – How do you make the business work in 2018? I love bringing all of my passions together. Just like Miles was a prolific sketch artist, I often think about how can I bring my love for jazz and business together. Subsequently, I find myself speaking to companies and organizations about how to apply lessons and techniques from jazz to unlock creativity and better performance. It’s one of the most fulfilling things I do and I’m incredibly blessed to be able to bridge my passions.

JBN.S: – Thank you for answers. All okay …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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