Fans will find this hard to believe. There are still people who believe contemporary sax great Gerald Albright is just a jazz head, with roots planted in nothing less than the finest "Bird" and "Trane" staples. Well, Albright "ain't too proud to beg.to differ," and commences to prove it all over Kickin' It Up, his eighth album and second for Verve subsidiary, GRP Records.
"This is a really upbeat project," he comments. "Fused with my jazz roots is a heavy influence from Philadelphia International Records, James Brown, Motown, and `70s funk bands like Cameo, Brick and The Bar-Kays." In fact, one unique aspect of Albright's artistry is not only does he play all of the saxophones (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone), he plays electric bass all over this album (except for the occasional selections that were better suited to keyboard bass). "This project has weight on the bottom with the drums and my bass playing," he states, "where as I keep it melodic and simple on top with my sax so people can sing the melody. Being inside of the rhythm section as well as a saxophonist gives me a dual perspective."
That vibe is here on the Albright originals "4 on the Floor" and the slickly syncopated title track "Kickin' It Up" (featuring George Duke on piano), as well as three collaborations with co-producer, Jeff Lorber. There's the streamlined first single, "To The Max," the JBs-esque "On The One," and "Throw Your Hands In The Air," which recalls vintage Jeff Lorber Fusion, then "kicks up" another notch on the chorus.
Albright and Lorber's relationship stretches back three decades. "I had the pleasure of playing with Jeff right after Kenny G left his band," Gerald shares. "We went on a 5-week tour. It was interesting when I came out on the first few shows. Kenny had been a fixture in (The Jeff Lorber Fusion) and here I come not looking or sounding like him. I got heckled a few times, but once I started playing, it was cool!" Gerald not only reunited with Jeff on his album, they've embarked upon another touring chapter: an all-star tribute to Grover Washington Jr. called Groovin' For Grover. "He just gets better and better."
Another standout of Kickin' It Up is "Walker's Theme," a tribute to show-stopping Motown tenor sax legend Junior Walker, whose hits stretched from the electrifying dance classic "Shotgun" to the sublime balladry of "What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)." "Whenever you heard one of his songs, you knew it was Junior," Albright marvels. "He had conversations with his horn versus just playing it, allowing the instrument to sing. Between his fingerprint vocals and his rhythmic approach to playing, he was a true legend." More than a mere fan, Gerald holds the distinction of Walker recording one of his early compositions "Make It Good To Me," a song he wrote especially for his hero. "That was the biggest compliment," Gerald remembers. "I did not play on that session, but I was in the studio. To take part in the historical Motown sound was quite an honor and a learning experience. And Junior.he was a fun-loving guy to be around. A lot of people don't know it, but he could really play jazz, too."
Gerald Albright is a master when it comes to covering songs. In the past, he has worked wonders out of modern day soul hits such as Tony Toni Tone's "Anniversary," Luther Vandross' "So Amazing," Johnny Gill's "My, My, My" and (from Grooveology) a galvanizing rendition of Donnie McClurkin's contemporary gospel gem "We Fall Down." On Kickin' It Up, he reaches a bit further back to one of the earliest gold-selling gems to come out of Kenny Gamble & Leon Huff's Philadelphia International empire, "If You Don't Know Me By Now," recorded in 1972 by Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass. "(Verve President) Ron Goldstein heard it coming into work one morning and thought I'd sound good covering it," Gerald shares. "That song is an anthem - a very heartfelt ballad that gives you a lot of room to express yourself. (Producer) Rex Rideout did a stellar job of employing all the right elements."
The album's second cover is "Why Georgia," originally written and recorded by one of rock's freshest and well-rounded young talents, singer/guitarist John Mayer, from his platinum selling debut, No Room For Squares (2001). A formidable challenge to give the Albright treatment, the song now stands as a true highlight of the album, featuring special guest Peter White on acoustic and12-string guitars. "I really took a chance on this tune," Albright says. "It's totally set apart from what I usually do. We wanted a song that might broaden the demographic of people who listen to my music."
The softer side of Kickin' It Up is also represented by "Condition of the Heart," a bittersweet composition from the pen of the prolific Brian McKnight that was first recorded by young Justin Guarini (from the first round of American Idol). Here, Albright plays a supporting role to Boyz II Men's Shawn Stockman, a singer whose angelic high tenor voice is a natural for conveying the hurt and sensitivity of the song's storyline. "Ron Goldstein asked for this one, too," Gerald says. "I love the chord progressions and what the song has to say lyrically. To put Shawn on it was a godsend. Last summer during a show I was playing with Anita Baker in San Diego, Shawn came and sat in with her. I was recording this song at the time and thought he'd be perfect. He did a great job and I appreciate him being a part of it."
Most poignant of all is "Father's Lullaby," a very special song that Gerald co-wrote with Luther "Mano" Hanes (a talented producer, keyboardist and vocalist who also worked on Grooveology). "My father passed away this past September," Gerald shares. "We were very, very close. I wrote this song for him. It takes me back to my childhood and all the great times we've had as father and son. I miss him so much. So, I had to do something for Dad on this record, reflecting on the kind of man and father he was to me, my older brother.and Mom. I know he's still around - smiling down - so it's all good. This song is definitely a bridge that keeps me in touch with him."
Since his recording debut as a leader with 1987's Just Between Us, Gerald Albright has been serving up "sweet pain" on his soulful saxophone for an ever-growing audience that spans across R&B, "Quiet Storm," traditional jazz and smooth jazz lines. He was born in Hollywood, California and raised in south central Los Angeles. His mom and dad had him taking piano lessons at age 7, but he didn't like it much. Noting his disinterest, his teacher George Turpeau intuitively dug an old alto saxophone out of his garage to see if Gerald liked that better. Almost instantly, young Gerald found an axe he could, literally, embrace. His primary influences became alto legend Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and tenor greats John Coltrane and Eddie Harris. Gerald's playing was nurtured to fertile fruition upon attending famed Locke High School (an inner city magnet for exceptional musical talents) and the University of Redlands (where he took up electric bass after seeing Louis "Thunder Thumbs" Johnson of The Brothers Johnson in concert).
After graduating, Gerald hit the road as a member of Locke alumnus/keyboardist Patrice Rushen's band. After recording a now signature tenor solo on her Top 5 R&B smash "Forget Me Nots," Gerald swiftly found himself a first-call fixture on the studio and touring scenes. His saxophone and electric bass work have graced hundreds of recordings by legends such as Nina Simone, Barry White, Nancy Wilson, The Temptations, Stanley Clarke, Lamont Dozier, Randy Newman and Teena Marie.to name only a few. Among his personal bests was playing seductive alto sax on Quincy Jones' "Setembro" (featuring Take 6 from Q's 12-weeks-at-#1classic, Back On The Block).
Spotted backing Anita Baker, Gerald was personally signed by Sylvia Rhone to Atlantic Records in 1987 where he recorded six albums (and a fine The Very Best of compilation) that cemented his reputation as a chart-topper with critically acclaimed chops. He made a move to Verve Forecast in 1998 for the collaborative album Pleasures of the Night with singer Will Downing that struck chords across Urban AC and Smooth Jazz radio lines. He then moved to GRP in 2002 with the solo album Grooveology.
Since the mid-`90s, Gerald has also been an integral ingredient to superstar Phil Collins' albums and concerts. Gerald even contributed the song "Chips and Salsa" to The Phil Collins Big Band CD, A Hot Night in Paris. This year, Gerald will accompany Collins on his Farewell Tour, prominently showcased on such mega-hits as "One More Night" and "Against All Odds." In between, Gerald will continue as part of the Groovin' For Grover tour, sharing the stage with Musical Director Jeff Lorber, plus fellow sax men Richard Elliott and Paul Taylor. Reprising his own recording of Grover's "Winelight" (which he recoded on Jason Miles' 2001 tribute To Grover With Love) as well as "Mister Magic," "Soulful Strut" and the especially wicked "Black Frost," Albright will be the only one to play tenor, alto and soprano on the show.
Through all of his personal, industry and global concerns, music remains the balm that keeps Albright Kickin' It Up. "Whenever I'm in the studio developing music, I'm in my element. Nourishing music is like watching an infant grow. You've got 'musical family' around you being team players and making the best music possible for you. It's a great place to be. That's what keeps me in this business."