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Onaje Allan Gumbs: Music Heard, and Felt

By Published: March 20, 2007
"The other thing about 'Sack Full of Dreams' is that usually folks who know my work, especially doing covers, is that I kind of like to re-work songs and do all kinds of stuff with it. This song I decided to keep it as it was, with that bass line and the harmonies. I did a slight variation with the solo, which is really just a change to another key. But I kept the song in tact with its original flow. The thing I added to it to make it slightly different from other versions was the conga flow that goes through the song. With the percussion, I wanted to present an African tone with the congas underneath. You almost don't hear them. They're there, but I didn't want to make it obtrusive. It's almost like a drone that carries the tune through. That's how that came about.

Gumbs also unleashes Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island with a beautiful reworking, almost unrecognizable in its harmonic invention. "Try to Remember is sad and bittersweet, but touching. "Stank You Very Much gets out a bit of the funk that Gumbs is so fluent with. The whole record has a nice feel. It cooks, it soothes. It's one that can sit in the CD player for some time.

Gumbs says in recent years he's veered away a bit from the R&B field, and from heavy arranging or producing. "Moving from my live album to Remember Their Innocence to my present album, I really want to lean more toward the acoustic, straight ahead acoustic playing, more in the jazz element. With the new album, I've found there are two formats that have accepted the album, totally different formats. One is the contemporary jazz format and one's a straight ahead jazz format. So the record is finding its home in more than one format.

Remember Their Innocence, a very sharp album of strong songs and splendid melodicism, has elements of pop or contemporary jazz, but Gumbs points to an underlying straight jazz theme. "It's funny, because if you take away the title track, it is basically a straight ahead record, he says. "In the title track, the melody and the treatment lends itself to the contemporary element because there's no heavy solo. If you were to take that tune out of the mix, it is basically an acoustic jazz record. Even the other softer songs, some with vocals, have the jazz tradition beneath them upon careful listening, the pianist says. "It was done as an acoustic record. My first records, like Dare to Dream, were definitely more contemporary. Not even smooth jazz, because that term doesn't fly with me too well. But it's more contemporary, as was That Special Part of Me (Zebra, 1990).

" I want each record to have its own distinct quality and I want each song to have its own distinct quality, explains Gumbs. "There's a phrase I learned from a producer on a panel discussion we had a few years back. He said, 'The song is the star.' What I feel the song needs usually will dictate what the instrumentation will be. It'll vary from one to the next. I was very influenced as a little kid by soundtracks. I was introduced to Henry Mancini's music at age 8. He left an indelible impression on me as far as composition and melody. My songs become like a soundtrack to life, so they will vary from one to the next, whether by genre or instrumentation.

Gumbs appreciation and affinity for a wide range of musical styles comes from his upbringing. Growing up in St. Albans, Queens, he heard a lot of sounds. He started playing piano at age 7 and later attended Music and Art High School in Manhattan and was introduced by a classmate to his father, Leroy Kirkland, who had played with the Erskine Hawkins band and was the composer of "Cloudburst, made famous by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. He was also heavy into R&B as a musical director and arranged the hit "Our Day Will Come, by Ruby and the Romantics.

"He was like my first mentor. He would introduce me to these artists. I would do rehearsals, says Gumbs. At the same time in school, he was playing in a Latin band, a big band and playing piano duets. He was listening to records made by Motown and Blue Note, "so my interest in R&B and the contemporary is just as natural to me as my interest in straight-ahead or Latin. I grew up that way. It wasn't something where I had an acquired taste or was moved into it because of an industry or pressure. I'm also West Indian. My mother was from Montserrat and my father was from Anguilla in the British West Indies. So that is part of my makeup also.

"I find it interesting, Gumbs continues, "when people have a problem with me moving in directions that aren't straight ahead. I did not grow up in a straight ahead jazz family. I grew up in a family where we listened to calypso and steel bands. I found a whole variety of sounds that got my attention. They end up being called R&B, straight ahead, jazz, whatever. I just love the music.

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