35 years of experience, 17 albums, a Berklee College of Music education, and Jimmy Haslip in the producer's chair. There was no way Jeff Richman's newest album Big Wheel could be anything but spectacular. The album opens with a funky groove that never lets up for the rest of the album, and features a great cover of Stevie Wonder's That Girl. Richman talks with Abstract Logix about what went into making his new album Big Wheel and what influences and inspires him as a musician.
Abstract Logix: You have a created a larger discography. What sets Big Wheel apart from the rest of your catalog?
Jeff Richman: If you had to label me, I guess I would be known as a jazz fusion guitarist, and composer. I have had the incredible opportunity to work with some of the best musicians on the globe on all my recordings. What sets this new collection of songs apart in “Big Wheel” is that even though my compositions and solos are similarly familiar, the underlying pulse of the music seems to be void of “fusion”!! Not that it is a pop or smooth record, because it just isn’t. My writing is too complex for that. It feels to me that the music is coming from a different place, another home, different city, different setting. But it’s still me writing the same music. Kind of hard to explain.......
Ablx: When composing the songs for the record, how much freedom did you allow the other musicians to improvise?
JR: I give the musicians a lot of freedom. I do, in fact write charts out for all my music. These charts are very clear and well written from beginning to end. But what occurs when you’re fortunate enough to be surrounded by very creative people like the ones on this record, things change! Along with producer Jimmy Haslip and Jeff Lorber, we explored various options and possibilities. Since these guys have been very successful in their career’s, Jimmy and Jeff have bold, innovative ideas. The goal being ultimately for the music to be the best it can possibly be. I had to really be open and let go, and not be defensive. I needed to be patient and see where it all would lead to. On four songs I hired keyboard, arranger whiz George Whitty to get creative and put his expertise to work. I gave him the charts along with a handful of instructions and ideas. Away he went and came up with super great stuff! In both of these situations I needed to trust that these people I chose to work with, were going to improve and invigorate my music. I think we succeeded and I’m very pleased about it.
Ablx: How was it to work with Jimmy Haslip as a musician and as a producer?
JR: My last three albums (“Aqua”, “Like That” and “The Line Up”) I produced all by myself. Honestly, I was very happy with the outcome of these previous three albums, but this time I felt like I wanted to relax a bit more and have someone I trust handle some of the details. I’ve known Jimmy for 30 years plus. We met at an audition for a tour with Flora Purim and Airto in the late 70’s!! We both got the gig and toured the US for 6 months! This was before the Yellowjackets. Jimmy went on to became a very successful musician. He is one of my all time favorite people. Every time we get together to play, record or just hang out, I have such a great time, there’s always lots of laughter and joking. He has always mentioned that he’d like to produce me sometime. Well, I finally took him up on it. Jimmy was a breeze to work with, everything just seemed to fall in place easily. He had many wonderful ideas, some were last minute inspirations and some were very worked out and thought through in detail detail. Jimmy is responsible for getting Steve Gadd on the record, just that alone makes the music come to life in a different way. He was also extremely supportive and aware of his role as a producer: to be really “there” for me in every way. The end result came out way better than I ever could have imagined.
Ablx: You studied and grew as a musician at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but what initially inspired you to pick up the guitar and pursue music?
JR: My mom played folk guitar and sang, so I was listening to music and guitar at an early age while growing up. I think the first guitar sounds that started me up were “The Ventures” and all their guitar driven, twangy “surf” music. Then came Jeff Beck with the Yardbirds, that did it for me! I was fortunate to have grown up in area where I got to see lots of life changing live music. One of the most mind blowing concerts was Led Zeppelin on their first tour. After that I started buying some “jazz” related records which were fascinating. When I bought Miles Davis’ “Bitches Brew” I didn’t know what was going on. At about that time I realized I wanted to learn more about contemporary music, and in particular, jazz. Berklee was at that time, the only music school for this kind of music, so it was an easy choice to go there. I was lucky to be surrounded by incredible teachers and classmates. Just to name a few: Pat Metheny, Bill Frissel, Mike Stern, Mick Goodrick, Vinnie Colaiuta, and Jeff Berlin. I also saw many incredible live performances that were unforgettable: Miles Davis, Whether Report, Chick Corea, Keith Jarret, Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, Charlie Mingus, The Brecker Brothers, just to name a few.
Ablx: Fusion music can often become nothing more than noodling, and a frenzy of notes, but on Big Wheel, every song held its own music identity. How did you go about to make sure there was meaningful musicality in each song?
JR: I think its the collective years of influences I have had. All the listening to live and recorded music, and all the gigs and recordings I’ve done have make me realize that every note is very important, that’s why I’m careful not to over do it. The well known phrases “less is more” and “the notes you don’t play are just as important as the notes you do play” are useful here. The other thing is, I don’t have amazing chops (speed and technique) so I have to rely on other things to get over. Things like phrasing, sound, time, feel, and melody. Most importantly, I focus on the compositional aspect, I am constantly trying and working towards creating a unique voice through my writing.