A Warm Velvet Ocean from the Sax of Kevin “Blue” Woods

Kevin Woods Blue Woods City Life CD cover

Tenor sax player Kevin Blue Woods can serve up a sumptuous band of silky sound that hugs the soul and swaddles the spirit. In his latest CD “CityLife” that fat-and-happy sax sound presides over a collection of tracks that have bop and beat, soul and purpose.

“Can’t Believe” is a tasty, bright song with a golden hook. “Doin’ Fine” has a sultry throb and a rich counterpoint of vocals (female, then male) that tell a story of moving on, a message affirmed by masterful horn work. You’ll catch some hyper-funk at work in “You Got Me” and while “Years Ago” does smartly hearken back to old school R&B, Blue Woods’s sax punches through with style and sass.

There’s also a cover of the classic “Nardis.” Though Miles Davis’s melodic attack was uniquely his, in this version Blue Woods puts forward his own sweet assertiveness and incorporates several inventive turns with the addition of spoken word and a few fascinating overdubbed snippets of interviews with Mr. Davis himself.

Notably and not to be missed, the purity and perfection of Twanée’s voice sweeten these tracks to another degree altogether.

You’ve worked a lot in both the straight-ahead and smooth realms. What to you are the prime differences?

I’m not sure my music lands directly in the smooth genre, I guess I think of it more as contemporary instrumental R&B, but I approach the two quite uniquely.

They are two completely different head spaces. Straight-ahead jazz is much more about the challenge, the technique and the free creativity, while my popular-oriented music is inspired by my roots in R&B, soul, and funk West Coast. For them, it’s all about the groove, the energy, and the audience.

I never play the two genres in the same performance. The only exception to that are my smooth arrangements of “Blue Train” and “Nardis,” both of which I have applied hip-hop drum beats and spoken word raps to.

What do you love most about the tenor?

You know, I started on alto, as most young sax players do, but in college I bought a beautiful old Selmer tenor from a classmate and I was a tenor player from then on. What I like most is that it’s voiced in almost the same acoustic range as my own baritone voice, so I hear in my head what I want to play, almost like vocal melodies.

What stands out as some of the your most enjoyable session work?

First was my jazz recording session at Tedesco Studios in Paramus, NJ where I recorded “Straight Ahead Time.” We recorded live in an old school method: each track was recorded three times through, no stopping. Then we chose the best of each of the three takes for mix and mastering; no overdubs, no inserts, no tricks!

Second, I’d have to say “CityLife.” I was fortunate and privileged to play with some of the most talented players around. The rhythm section – including the incomparable Shawn Pelton (longtime drummer in the house band for Saturday Night Live and innumerable world renowned artists), Mike Visceglia (bassist for Suzanne Vega since 1985 and numerous other top performers), and Bennett Paster (he performed worldwide with the likes of Keb Mo, Robben Ford, Kurt Elling, Curtis Stigers and Rufus Reid) – was incredible and took my music to new heights. And Twanée on vocals brought that earthy soulful vibe I was so searching for.

How has the smooth jazz itself evolved?

I think the issue is the term “smooth.” That was derived some time ago, and I think it might be holding the music back. What I’m learning about my new release is how many people consider it jazz without any reservations.

Talk about why you like to work in spoken word.

It gives me a voice to tell the story of jazz and how it has brought us to this incredibly diverse and rich tapestry of musical genres today. We all have stories to tell, and whether we have the voice to sing it or not, it has to be told.

What’s “White Trash”?

“White Trash” was a NYC-based rock/punk band on Atlantic Records that I joined for a national tour.

I guess I’ve always been a “styles” player. You had to be to make a living; whatever style band you could perform with you had to adapt. Those were the early days when I was working cruise ships, Disney World, whatever, wherever.

Sounds like a dream to play on a cruise ship.

No…

Why not?

It was steady pay, but you sacrificed any home life, if you had one. Most of my fellow performers were single and had no permanent home, while I had an apartment and a girlfriend I was missing back home.

Gigging is a whole other subject. When I first came to NYC you could get a band a gig at a small club or pub and make $50-100 per man for a five-piece. And you could play a full three-set night at a club with an audience ready to enjoy your music.

Now you can only get a 45-minute set where the club owner demands you guarantee to bring the entire audience and then you only get a small portion of the door.

I respect the effort that my players provide when they perform with me, so I pay them a fair scale. And so, with my new group at a minimum of eight performers, that’s an expensive proposition. I’m interested in opportunities that are cost-effective. I hope we can help shift the economic burden from the artist back to the club owners…like it used to be!

What specifically inspired “CityLife”?

It’s a musical exploration of my life experiences in NYC. City living is the struggle, the challenge, the inspiration, the joy, the reward, the desire, the dedication, the failure, and the success. It’s full of stories of love, pain, history and inspiration.

Does it have an overall message?

Absolutely! It was written to be a journey from the first tune “We’ve Got To” to the last “You Got Me.”

There is an emotional journey that takes place through this album and I felt it was important to present it that way. The message is, don’t avoid what life brings, but endure, grow, and always be ready to change and to be better.

What was your favorite track to produce and why?

“Doin’ Fine.” I like the tune because it has all the elements I love to bring out: a strong rhythm and blues foundation, prominent female vocal melody and lyric, integral horn arrangements, and signature male rap. This tune was chosen for our upcoming video, so that really made it special.

How did you meet Twanée and what was it like collaborating with her on the album?

My producer, Mark Christensen of Engine Room Audio, introduced me to Twanée as one of several female vocalists we considered for the project. She was the hands-down choice and I couldn’t have been more impressed with her talent and professionalism throughout the entire tracking.

Twanée comes primarily from the hip-hop genre and has a huge following there, but I heard such an incredibly soulful and expressive voice that I knew from the start she would just blow us away with her talent…and she did!

In working with her and other younger artists, do you think their interest in jazz is waning or growing?

Well, I’m already getting a lot of positive feedback from younger listeners commenting how much they like this music from both jazz and other genre perspectives. So all I can take from this is that there IS an interest from young people coming up. We need to make sure to foster that and use it as a jumping off point to engage them in other forms of the genre, and grow their interests even further. One way we can accomplish this is to fuse blues and jazz with the contemporary expressions of these younger audiences.

How do you want to grow as a musician?

My pursuit of music is lifelong. I can always practice to improve my technique or interpretation. I can always tell another story through composing. I will always be striving to express more deeply and directly.

Growing never needs to stop.

For more information visit www.bluewoods.com/#music.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Kevin Blue Woods.
© Debbie Burke 2019

The author’s jazz books can be found at http://bit.ly/DebbieBurkeAuthorPage.

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