June 12, 2024


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Interview with James Hughes: We as musicians must always be expanding our musical intellect and nourishing our souls: Video

Jazz interview with jazz saxophonist James Hughes. An interview by email in writing.

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

James Hughes: – I grew up in Detroit in a home where music was central to our lives. My mother was and still is a very active amateur singer and would take me when I was just a baby to wedding ceremonies, funerals, Sunday church services, and community choir concerts. I was begging for piano lessons when I was three years old. Besides a healthy dose of Bach and Beethoven, my folks would play Ahmad Jamal, Stan Getz, Glenn Miller, Peter Paul & Mary, and many more, but those are the ones that I remember most as a kid. I picked up Saxophone at age 10, mostly because my older sister played it first…I was always following her footsteps.

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

JH: – My first Saxophone teacher was a protege of Larry Teal and Don Sinta, she had that American classical sound. She never told me explicitly what to do other than try and sound like her. When I went to school for music, my jazz teacher opened my sound up a lot through intense long tones, overtones, pitch bends, etc. My second teacher at music school was Larry Nozero whose sound was incredibly sweet, pure, and silky smooth. He was a big fan of Art Pepper if that helps get an image in the ear. He said to me “the best compliment a musician can receive is when someone tells you they could recognize your sound before they saw you.” I have always thought about that and it helped motivate me to relentlessly pursue my tone. Ultimately, your sound is a combination of what you listen to most, what you practice, and your physical traits.

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

JH: – I am always coming up with a new way for me to play through the basics…scales, triads, intervals. Everything in all 12 keys, up/down half steps, while steps, minor thirds, major thuids, etc. As far as rhythm goes, I always use a metronome and chart my progress when learning something new. I play things rubato, then very slowly and inch up the metronome 2-3 clicks at a time until I feel satisfied.

JBN: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?

JH: – I like to juxtapose harmonic styles and “sneak” things into tunes I write. I play a wide variety of gigs and I like them all! Straight ahead is where my heart is, but I play avant grade, top 40, motown, smooth jazz, classical, salsa, soul music. I try to take a harmonic thing form two different genres and juxtapose them. A good example of that is a tune I wrote called “Ice on Snow.” The main part of the tune harmonically speaking comes from Horace Silver, with a little Wayne Shorter mixed in, but I added a Portishead thing in there, too. I think the overall effect is seamless, so much so that most people wouldn’t hear it as juxtaposed!

JBN: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?

JH: – I don’t want to prevent that! That’s the beauty of jazz expression, you can mix it all up, as long as it’s swinging and going somewhere, it’s all good.

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

JH: – I think the most important thing to have as a musician is INTUITION and that one’s intellect and one’s soul contribute to it from two different places. We as musicians must always be expanding our musical intellect and nourishing our souls as to improve our intuition. When we rely on our intuition, and our intuition is honed, we sound our best.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?

JH: – I want to please an audience, I want to connect with an audience…but I also want to share with the audience something they don’t know, or haven’t considered before. It is most definitely a two-way street!

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

JBN: – No memories?

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

JH: – I don’t think age has anything to do with appeal. Age of listener, age of musician or age of repertoire. When the number one selling burger in America is from a fast-food place, that tells me most people have bad taste. Most people can’t sit in silence, let alone an hour of specially crafted sound. In fact, young people seem to pick up on jazz more than middle-aged folk. Most of the young people I encounter that like jazz, like the old classics.

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

JH: – In the bible, the word spirit come from the Hebrew word “Ruach” which means “wind, or breath.” And in Greek it comes from he word “Pneuma,” which is similar. I like to think that the spirit is an invisible influence … you know it’s real not because you see it, but because you see the results of it. I think Coltrane’s music was his spirit, he was able to attain the highest state of musicianship in that his mind, his way of thinking has been transferred to all how have studied his music.

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

JH: – There are so many things! As you know, it is very difficult to make a living in the music business, as a performer, composer, arts organization, writer, venue, sound engineer, etc. I would like to see the required curriculum in high schools and universities to include Arts and Humanities. Imagine millions of young folks learning what sonata form is, or why abstract expressionism. Expanding the minds of people along these lines would lead to a larger pool of jazz appreciators.

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

JH: – I have been a big Saxophone kick lately…Joel Frahm, Mark Turner, Will Vinson, Marcus Strickland all have been bending my ear. I have also been totally smitten with vocalist Emily King, fun tunes, clever lyrics, nuanced delivery, and fantastically creative production.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

JH: – I always write tunes with a purpose. Empathy, regret, nature, patterns of conversation, colors, aromas, frustrations, friends, food. I guess my message would be: Find the song in every moment.

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

JH: – Alright, let’s go to NYC, 1964 to hang with Elvin Jones. Check out his discography that year. He recorded with Coltrane, Gil Evans, Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Tony Bennett, Kenny Burrell, McCoy Tyner, Grant Green, Larry Young, Stanley Turrentine, Bob Brookmeyer, J.J. Johnson, Sonny Rollins, and Andrew Hill.

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

JH: – You have conducted many interviews, what are some of the common themes that keep coming up?

JBN: – Thanks for answers. Yes, of course …

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

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