Bandleader, composer, arranger, trumpeter and a guy who found an important place for 34 strings in his latest oeuvre, Rich Willey has just completed a new CD that brims with depth, texture and amazing walls of jazz. “Down and Dirty” is an all-out experience that’s ambitious and brightly reflects the hard work of a group of amazing musicians. The tracks have a generous, upbeat, feel-goodism to them. From the horns’ delicious swell in “Dancing Hippo” to the guitar’s welcome interjection in “How ‘Bout That?”, from a wry sense of humor in “Not So Fast!” to the Latinate energy of “Little Treasures,” Willey is obviously comfortable with a very wide canvas and his multitude of musicians who are painters, scholars and colorists.
What was the first song that turned you on to jazz?
I’m not sure there was any one song. Being born in 1955, I grew up hearing jingles and TV themes and movie soundtracks full of jazz and swing. I played in stage band from seventh grade on and had an appreciation for that style of music. My band director, Donald W. Hacker, took us to hear the Count Basie Orchestra at the Clearwater Civic Center (Florida) in 1968 or 1969, and I was blown away! There was one microphone on stage for soloists and Freddie Green was playing his acoustic guitar with no amp. I’ll never forget that concert . . . simply outstanding!
When did you first pick up the trumpet and why did you hang on to it?
In fourth grade we took those music placement tests and were told that one could only play drums with a score of 100, so I made 100 and wanted to play drums. All through fifth grade I played a snare or bass drum while hearing my buddies playing melodies on their trumpets. In sixth grade I “inherited” a beat-up army bugle. I learned all the bugle calls for my Boy Scout bugling merit badge and asked my parents incessantly for a trumpet, which I got for Christmas. Actually, it was a rental, an Olds Ambassador trumpet, but I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
The first tune I learned how to play was the melody to “Wipe Out” and then the Schlitz jingle (“When you’re out of Schlitz, you’re out of beer”). Due to a lower lip injury I stopped playing trumpet, and switched to bass trumpet and valve trombone starting in 1981. I went back to trumpet in 1995 and have been working at it ever since.
What are the specific challenges of writing/arranging for a big ensemble?
The Big Band genre is uniquely American. It started here and has continued in one form or another.
Today it is challenging to find a way to be commercially successful fronting a big band, but that’s not why I want to do it. There is no other ensemble in jazz that offers the range of possibilities for musical expression and individual creativity that you get with a big band. I have tried arranging for big band and learned that I do best when I write for three or four horns and now I leave the full big band arranging to the guys who really know how to do that. That’s why I hired Mike Abene, Gordon Goodwin, Wally Minko and Chris Walden to write the charts for the “Down & Dirty” CD and also why I hired Wally to write the charts for the “Conspiracy” CD.
French horns with strings. Why’d you choose them?
The French horn parts on the last tune on the “Down & Dirty” CD (on the track “But for the Grace of God”) were written after hearing the chart played and recorded with strings. Suddenly in the preliminary mixing session I realized that the chart needed French horns. My wife Janet is the one who suggested that there needed to be strings on that arrangement and Mike Abene knocked it out of the park.
I guess making those decisions is a little like improvising. You listen to what’s there and the music tells you what might be missing or might sound right. It’s all a mystery, though, which is one thing that keeps me coming back.
“Down & Dirty” finished in three days. What was that experience like?
Recording the music took three days for the full big band, although there was another day when we added the percussion and also the strings, plus one more day when we added the French horn parts. After that were the mixing sessions which went on for four or five days. But what a great experience, and what an education!
In the course of doing that project I learned way more than I did in five or seven years of college getting music degrees. Playing with the cream of the crop Los Angeles cats, watching and listening to them work, watching Gordon Goodwin conducting his arrangements, observing the keen ears and intense conscientiousness of Peter Erskine, seeing and hearing Wayne Bergeron doing what pretty much nobody else on Earth can do, being exposed to all that first-class musicianship and musical sensitivity, and also paying attention to the process of Dan Fornero producing and playing and overseeing the project in its entirety (not to mention working with Tommy Vicari, Michael Aarvold and Spencer Guerra in the studio) — it was just an amazing experience for me that has definitely changed my life in a million positive ways.
What’s your favorite track on it; or the most difficult to produce?
“But for The Grace of God” really took a lot out of me emotionally and was the most extensive production of all the tunes we recorded. Adding 34 strings was only the beginning, and after we added the horns we worked tirelessly to make sure the mix brought out all the power and emotion of those instruments. I laid my track down the last night of the three initial days of recording, and Dan Fornero really brought out all of the emotions of gratitude and grieving that I had been going through in the months leading up to the session.
My other favorite track is probably “Funk Heap” because Wally Minko absolutely nailed the feel of that tune and the band is so killing on it! I love the sax solo exchanges and also was happy that Wally used the soli that I had written on that one. (The only other soli of mine that was used intact was on “Not So Fast!”, the “happy little tune” in a reggae style arranged by Gordon Goodwin.)
Released very close in time is your other recent CD “Conspiracy.” What’s the story on that?
I wrote some promo copy for the CD saying that I’ve embarked on a conspiracy to make jazz music fun and danceable and accessible again, like it was in the earliest days of jazz, but that’s not where the title came from.
“Conspiracy” is almost the opposite of many of those 60s Blue Note albums that had a bunch of straight-ahead jazz tunes and one boogaloo tune. It has ten funk tunes and one straight-ahead jazz tune (“Blues for Bobby”). “Blessed Are the Hip,” I think, is Wally Minko’s masterpiece arrangement on it, and I hope it gets a lot of airplay.
Why did you sign with Wise Cat Records?
I didn’t even know Kenny Shanker had started Wise Cat Records when I sent him two tunes that he and I had recorded back in 2001 (on the CD “Gone With The Piggies” on the Consolidated Artists Productions label). I wanted him to hear Wally Minko’s big band arrangement of “Little Treasures” and Chris Walden’s big band arrangement of “Eyes All for You.”
We talked on the phone a few days later and after I found out about Wise Cat Records we decided to take a chance and put out the big band album on it. Kenny’s publicist has been great and has gotten the CDs out all over the world. We’ve had some impressive charting on the Roots Music Report, at the NACC Jazz Charts and at JazzWeek. I’m working on a recording session for next January and that will also come out on Wise Cat Records.
Favorite festival or large event?
My home town is Clearwater, Florida, and the Clearwater Jazz Holiday is the one that I have played the most times. I will say that there is nothing quite like playing for a large audience that’s there to hear jazz, and I have experienced that at many other festivals as well.
Best advice you ever got about the music business OR about playing jazz specifically?
I got run off the bandstand in 1975 or so for stinking the place up, and one guy said, “Study, buddy” as I left the stage with my tail between my legs. I became determined that one day nobody would ever run me off the bandstand for stinking the place up again.
While I’ve had some rough gigs where my chops didn’t exactly rise to the occasion, I haven’t gotten run off the bandstand since that night. My opinion about learning to play jazz is that we have to do more homework than pretty much any other kind of musician. We have to know hundreds of tunes, be able to play them in multiple keys at various tempos and/or time signatures with all levels of players in all kinds of (sometimes dreadful) gig conditions facing hundreds of variables per gig, on and on, ad infinitum.
We need to figure out how to excel in every situation, and some situations are as far from ideal as you can get. I’ve played whole gigs where I knew about half of the material, so we need to be able to hear what others are doing and respond musically and get it right the first time even when that’s the only time.
For more information, visit www.boptism.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Rich Willey.
© Debbie Burke 2020