Interview with Grover Washington Jnr

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Grover Washington The music we listen to is an ever-changing thing with shifts and moves that can be as logical as they are confusing, but there will always remain throughout the evolution certain constants ? things that will remain familiar and reassuring.

Grover Washington Jnr's music is one of those constants and for well over a decade the great saxophonist has been creating a sound that has transcended fads and fancies and remained simply ... Grover.
Grover is currently plying his music around a good proportion of his country's fifty-two States and it was the morning after one such date in Georgia that we caught up with the Buffalo, New York native to discuss a brand new album for a brand new label.

The album, as you'll soon be hearing, is something you'll be more inclined to call 'classic' than simply 'traditional' and in his usual self-effacing style, Mr Washington Jnr was at pains to ensure that his new collaborators got the credit for their contributions to the set.

Among the musicians working with Grover are stalwart players like James Lloyd, Miguel Fuentez, 'Doc' Gibbs, Daryl Washington, James Simmons and ex-Maze man Phillip Woo, while special guest vocalists alongside Elizabeth Hogues and Spencer Harrison are B.B. King and Jean Carne. Aiding the production and, inevitably, contributing their own musicianship are no lesser names than Michael J. Powell and Marcus Miller.

It's heady stuff as you can see and, to make sure everyone got their dues paid, Grover had me read the list back to him at the end of the call; an attitude that makes itself clearer in the answer to my query of just where has the gent been for a while?

"Well, for the last two or three years I've been doing lots of different things," he told me, obviously racking his brains to provide me with a list. "Of course, there was the production work for Jean Carne, I've been working with guitarist Kenny Burrell, there was the Bill Cosby music you mentioned (his last recorded outing, "A House Full Of Jazz ? Music From The Bill Cosby Show") but I've also been doing things at home, in New York ? like I played the Blue Note there.

"Then, I've just finished a radio series about jazz for a Philadelphia station (the town he moved to in the late sixties, where he married and got his big musical break playing with the famed keyboardist Charles Earland), I'm guesting on violinist John Blake's next album, I'm working on a score for a new play and I recently worked on a telethon charity event and played as part of a Celebration event for Desmond Tutu.
"I even got to play with a group of Russian musicians in a cultural exchange package".

I think you'd call that little lot, if nothing else, diverse, but it taught the man, according to him, one particularly fundamental lesson: "The change has shown that I don't have to be out there promoting my own name all the time. There are things the public need to be made aware of more than me".

Grover Washington Jnr is obviously a man who not only plays but lives his life honestly and I'm sure that pays dividends in the fact that he remains one of
black music's most popular figures. But other great names have fallen by the wayside endeavouring to pursue a new audience, a different market and thus bonus profile and pennies but found that home is where the heart (and the good living) is.

Fusion, off the back of its salad days around the turn of the decade, went looking for streets paved with gold ... but Grover didn't seem to follow the rush. Like, hell Grover, where's all the new technology, for example?
"Well, we've used synthesizers but we wanted the synth sound to support as opposed to be a major part of the dish. We didn't want a whole tune cooking around a synth ... we wanted little tasty touches. You've got to play the instrument, not let it play you".

Grover actually laughed quietly when I pondered the idea that he may have been tempted to try and emulate, as a career move, the commercial peak of his career ? his "Just The Two Of Us" hit with Bill Withers on vocals. The impression was that this was just another ? not THE ? high point in his music-making, a fact made clearer when he talks about what inspires his music, be it a top twenty smasherooni or a 'Summer Song'.

"I listen ... listen to other music, critics, people. But I don't listen AMD listen and over-analyse and try to judge the pulse of the public. When it gets down to it, down to what I really want on an album, I get in with my engineer, Pete Humphrey, and he translates in the studio what is in me. And then I'll go to my wife, Christine, my family, my friends ? people who can say things to me truthfully.

"I just like to keep doing things within my own framework and so the album will reflect my influences, and that means the things I want to do.

"Like I've always wanted to work with B.B. King and, of course, after working on Jean's album, I wanted her on mine. And that's where I met Spender and Elizabeth and they're part of it, too.
"You see, my opinion of a real 'pro' is someone who can perform well within a different idea but not overtake it ? to be a focal point as well as blend in, but know the limit."

You can listen to the man playing well within himself on his new label ("I'm hoping the album's biggest plus is the fact it's on CBS ? I can see they'll go that extra mile") but perhaps the best news of all for his many fans is that the majority of the ensemble gathered on the album will be joining Grover on the stage of The Royal Albert Hall for long-awaited concerts in November.

Grover is looking forward to coming back here because he knows us as an audience but, more importantly, he seems to genuinely understand why he has ANY audience.

"I've always had a strong following because I feel I can transcend fads. I feel they can sense the fun I'm having, that I'm honest. The outlets for my music are relatively limited so when I do it I want to make it count.

"When you put out an album it's there FOR LIFE. I don't want to go back to an album and say 'oh man, I did That. First and foremost, the music has to be truthful to me ... and that's where the rest of you guys come in". (MW B&S)

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