Our Conversation with Saxophonist Najee

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As smooth & contemporary as he can be on the flow of either the sax or flute, sax master Najee chills out with our publisher, Terrill J. Hanna, & takes a moment to explain his thoughts about his career, his latest release “Rising Sun” & an outlook into the jazz industry! Enjoy!!

Terrill: Hey!! The Urban Music Scene.com…., we got Najee in the house. What’s up baby.

Najee: Hey man. How’s it going Terrill?

Terrill: It’s going on man! How’s everything on your end?

Najee: It’s good man. Getting ready to drop a new CD and, you know, the whole run, so…

Terrill: Are you excited about the Rising Sun project?

Najee: I am! It’s a little bit of a fresh direction. It’s two years since my last CD and so I’m excited about it. It’s always some excitement around anytime I release a new project.

Terrill: Absolutely! You are considered one of the most premiere contemporary jazz, smooth jazz, or even urban jazz, artists in the game?

Najee: Oh! Thank you!

Terrill: And looking at the “Rising Sun” project, it looks like you’ve been working with Chris “Big Dog” Davis. What’s it like to work with Chris?

Najee: Well Chris is a great keyboard player & producer. He’s one of those guys, I think, who’s better times are coming real soon. He’s what, I think, is up and coming. Just beginning to work with a lot of different people and he’s very refreshing as a producer and songwriter to work with. So, the chemistry is always great musically for us.

Terrill: Good! Are you looking to come in with a different approach with Rising Sun as opposed to your last release?

Najee: Well yes. A little bit. I mean there are elements obviously when you hear it, it’s me. But we did go a different direction. We used John Grant, who’s an up and coming producer from Baltimore. He produced a song called “Clarity,” which is a John Meyer Song – a rock and roll song actually. And then a little different straight ahead on there. Did “Moody’s Mood for Love”.  I’ve been hearing for years that I need to put one on my album. People hear it at my concerts…I played a little flute. Two songs on flute, so…

Terrill: You know you are the flute master! (laughs)

Najee: You say that!

Terrill: I mean, who’s going to ever forget the cover album that you did on Stevie Wonder?

Najee: Oh yes, yes!

Terrill: Who’s going to ever forget that! Especially when its a masterpiece! Just to hear you on the flute on that album again just reinforces, just rehashes the idea that you’re the master behind the flute other than the sax. And I noticed that James Lloyd came to play too!

Najee: Oh yes, and you know – James and I have been friends for many, many years. We actually met back in the late 80s while I was touring with Chaka Kahn and her band and he was with “Pieces of a Dream”. They were the opening act for us. Ever since we met, we were friends and he worked on one song on my last album – ‘My Point of View’. So I had to go back to my friend and say ‘Hey man! Let’s do it again!’.

Terrill: That’s what I’m talking about! Considering the sound that you’re bringing out today is refreshing because it’s a real contemporary jazz album.

Najee: Thank you. Yes, that was the goal as well as to keep my elements to some of the R&B, but at the same time, try to introduce some things that I like to play and hear as well.

Terrill: Um hum. So let me ask you this – How do you feel about your music today, as opposed to your first release, “Najee’s Theme?”.

Najee: Well, The first stuff is hard for me to listen to because I think I have developed as an artist, as we all do in the game. As time moves on, you get better at doing it. I did not have a clue as to what I was doing when I first started. I had extremely successful records. Those early records are definitely very, very dear to my heart, because I was able to build a career as a result of people responding. But of course every album –  I think I get better at doing it. And I am always looking forward to the next thing. So I am excited about doing the next album.

Terrill: Thank you man! And I look forward. Do you have any tour dates coming soon?

Najee: We have.  I’ve been going in and out and doing different dates and different places. Right now, we are negotiating for Asia in 2008. But yes, we have the Long Beach Jazz Festival coming up in August. This weekend I will be performing at the Berkeley Jazz Festival. We just did Essence Music Festival. I am going to do a week at a club in Washington D.C. – The Blues Alley. So we will do some very different things for that particular date. I think that in 2008, we just have a lot going on right now on the table… so we’re excited about it!

Terrill: I’ll take it deeper into your history on jazz…May I?

Najee: Sure!

Terrill: Considering where jazz is today, what’s your opinion about it? Do you feel that jazz is losing its edge, is it gaining its edge? Do you find that jazz need to return to its roots and get going again? Because word has it that jazz is beginning to lose a little bit of its listeners but not players like yourself. I mean are you happy with where the state of jazz is now or do you think there needs to be a change of direction?

Najee: Well I think change is good, ultimately. I think we’ve been there. The audience, if that is true, it’s because the audience has heard everything already. The industry, the way it is structured, is being motivated with everything. It’s about money, profit, market share, & all that kind of stuff. It has a major impact on artistry. Over the years, the things we’ve seen the industry change in a way that it’s not well. It’s becoming less important to the music industry overall from a financial perspective. In terms of market share, I think the smooth jazz market doesn’t really command a whole lot at this time. And part of that has to do with its direct connection with an audience that’s buying the music. There are a lot of great names and a lot of great artists but there’s no personal connection from the audience to them other than some of the smooth jazz format radios. When I first started, I had my first four albums went gold and from what I hear my first two albums were platinum. So but back then we had outlets. Like we were able to have BET who played my videos back then. VH1 played my videos back then, TV international overseas played my videos. You could get your record played on R&B stations other than a smooth station other than the quiet storm format. You had radio stations that would take a chance and play an instrumental in between their normal play time. They may have a Bobby Brown and decide to throw Najee in there you know. All of that has changed now. We’re kind of confined, we’re limited in our access to the audience. In addition to that you have major organizations like the Grammys – who don’t even televise the jazz portion. So a lot of that, I think, has hurt us in terms of our connection to our audience from our artistic point of view. I think that some of the artists have gotten caught up in that spin. Where unfortunately our music is becoming uninteresting to listen to. Nobody wants to rush out and buy anymore.

Terrill: The good news is that you have music that some ad mediums, television programs are trying to pay homage to. Old School Music or at least pay homage to some credible music. It’s funny that you did bring up BET (j channel) because I saw your video classic from “Najee’s Theme” last night, “Betcha Don’t Know” (What’s Going On)!

Najee: Get out of here! Really? Wow!

Terrill: Man I got, that’s exactly what I said last night! Whoa! It’s good to see that they’re playing those Video Soul (Feat Donnie Simpson & Sherry Carter) episodes that features yourself, Gerald Albright and Bobby Lyle.

Najee: That’s right! George Howard and even Grover! But that’s what I am saying. We had more direct contact with the audience. More! There was a personality that people could look at and see on TV. We had Arsenio Hall whose shows I performed on many times. We had Good Morning America. Things like that. It’s much more difficult to do those things now. It’s a different day and time and if anything, I think that jazz suffers from that now.

Terrill: And we also noticed that many of the jazz festival and jazz cruises are implementing a different mix of music genres. With the jazz, you got R&B songstress Indie Arie for example or even some Old School groups. Yesterday they had an Old Pasadena Jazz Festival with the Average White Band playing along with Boney James and Brian McKnight. And you’re comfortable with that right? I mean you’re comfortable playing anywhere that you can get exposure?

Najee: Well sometimes. It depends. It has to make sense. But you’re right. I think all of that is to help increase the ticket sales. Because festivals are very expensive to put on. The artists fees are not coming down, you know (laugh). Doing business is a very real economic reality. I think a lot of the promoters are finding creative ways to expand the audience and expand the ticket sales. I don’t necessary see that as a negative. Where it does become a negative is when when it’s called a jazz festival and you have very few jazz artists on there.

Terrill: Right and that’s why I asked that question. Because it’s not a jazz festival but more of a multi-faceted musical affair.

Najee: Yes!

Terrill: But see moving right along in this, I listened to Romance The Night the other night

Najee: Oh ok.

Terrill: With Phil Perry?

Najee: With Phil on there yes.

Terrill: And I love Phil!!

Najee: Yes, me too! He’s a great guy!

Terrill: He’s a great cat, man. What was it like? What was your experience working with him in the studio on that track?

Najee: Well he actually caught me by surprise. We were actually near the end of the record and I called up Chris. I call him ‘Big Dog’!

Terrill: Yeah me too!

Najee: I said like Yo man, I need like one more song – just that one. Listen, I got this one song here. I’ll play it for you, just come on up to Connecticut and hear it. So I went up there, drove up from New York and went up into his house and he had he played it for me and I’m like who’s that singing. He said Phil. I said get out of here!

Terrill: That’s what I’m talking about!

Najee: Yes man, it’s totally unexpected. You know…

Terrill: And you know it’s awesome, it’s just to see his career revived and he’s got a new release as well that just came out.

Najee: Yes..

Terrill: Oh definitely. It’s just refreshing to see him added to your project. I tell you, this project in my opinion and based on my many of my other writers and others we have already listened to, we got a review coming onto the urban music scene very shortly in fact.

Najee: Oh thank you so much man, I really appreciate it.

Terrill: No man. The bottom line is Najee and this is not really not so much coming from a fan standpoint,  this is coming from a critic standpoint. This is one of the best contemporary jazz CD’s of the entire year man.

Najee: Oh well man, I’m very honored to hear that.  I got to be honest with you. When I’m doing this stuff, I’m trying to do it the best that I can with what I’m working with.

Terrill: Right ’cause I’ll tell you..

Najee: We appreciate hearing that and I hope that it can be one of the albums that help generate interest back into the industry you know.

Terrill: That’s the pinpoint. That’s basically the motivation. Not just for the review itself, but having the honor to interview you today. It’s just that you’ve been in the game for a long time now Najee, and you’ve left a staple, a foundation for many of the other younger sax players to step right into and that’s very important.

Najee: I hope so. You know I can’t take credit alone for it. There’s obviously a force of us out there. When I started, in the mid 80s when I first started.

Terrill: Yes!

Najee: We had Grover who you know, was a Grammy winner and George Benson. We had Ronnie Laws, we even had David Sanborn and Bob James and so many others. Even when you go back to the Crusaders and people like that, in the late ’70s. I believe George Benson changed the culture of jazz as we understood it.

Terrill: Yes…absolutely.

Najee: Actually, the next wave that came was guys like myself, Kenny G, Gerald Albright, George Howard – all of us during that time in the late 80s, mid to late 80s. We just kind of went that next level and every generation has been that way since. Then the 90s came and people like Dave Koz and Everette Harp. Then we have some really great young bloods out there like Mike Phillips and  Eric Darius and a few others. So I see it as in every generation, we’re just picking up from where it left off.  I’m hoping we’re expanding the game a little better.

Terrill: Absolutely! That’s by staying consistent. Your consistency speaks throughout all the music, all your projects Brother! It’s just awesome! We’re just very privileged to have you here with us today and God bless you my brother.

Najee: You too my friend. I really appreciate it!

Terrill: You know I look forward to seeing you when you come to Southern Cal, man!

Najee: Alright my friend, thank you so much. I really appreciate the time…

Terrill: See you soon…

For more information on Najee, please visit his website at http://www.myspace.com/najeeonline

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