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Greg Adams: Cool to the Touch

By Published: June 21, 2007

If you can make people understand what you say with fewer words or notes in this case, then you will be able to get through to more people.

Greg AdamsGreg Adams is a pioneer. As one of the founding members of Tower of Power, the trumpeter helped to create its signature sound. He has, since the age of eighteen, been the luminary behind an astonishing number of hits for countless artists, himself included along with the likes of Rod Steward and Elton John. Few horn sections have not played one of his riffs. He is credited on over a thousand recordings which have led to both Grammy and Emmy award nominations. He has performed with everyone from Carlos Santana to The Eurythymics and has loved every minute of it.

Katrina-Kasey Wheeler caught up with the pacesetter to discuss his multifaceted career.

All About Jazz: You have had great success with your career and that doesn't happen overnight. That starts with a solid foundation. How did you become interested in the trumpet, is there someone who inspired you to play?

Greg Adams: Both of my parents were musicians, they were missionaries for the Salvation Army. My mother was a pianist and my father played the clarinet. When I was about five years old I sort of picked it up and dragged it around for five years. The Salvation Army always had summer camps so I would go to the music camp and I would learn about music theory and I would play at a young age it just kind of came naturally to me. When I got into junior high I played in a band. When I got to high school I had a great musical experience with a great teacher and started to learn to write and arrange music. I am a real product of public education. I wanted to go to college but I decided to join Tower of Power instead. So for the past forty years music has been my life.

AAJ: Was that a tough decision to join Tower of Power instead of going to college?

GA: Not at all. I knew when I was sixteen that this is what I wanted to do, that I wanted to be a musician. I always tell people when I do music clinics, "Don't pass up the opportunity to go to college. Sometimes I wish that I would have done that, but then again, I was offered jobs to go into the studio and record on an album. One of the things about going to college is that you can't get a teaching credential if you don't go to college, and that is something that you can always fall back on. A lot of musicians do not make it; it is a tough gig to be a musician. I have been fortunate to have had some really great opportunities to work with a lot of different people in this business over the years. I have literally played gigs with everyone and recorded with everyone. It has been a great experience.

AAJ: On your release, Cool to the Touch (Ripa Records, 2006) although the tracks themselves are contemporary the titles are evocative of the 1960s jazz lifestyle. What was the impetus behind that?

GA: If you look at the CD cover it kind of has that minimalist approach, it is reminiscent of, say, an old Blue Note cover. They didn't want to spend any money on the cover; the labels just weren't going for it in those days. Cool to the Touch was almost Smooth to the Touch, we thought it was a little hipper. It is kind of evocative of the '60s but once you open it up and listen to the CD it is contemporary. With titles like "Hi-Fi, "Life in the Key of Blue and "Bongo Baby it's just fun. It is doing well, its selling well and it is getting a lot of radio play which is fortunate because it is on my own label.

AAJ: You have complete artistic control which allows a lot of freedom over what you put out for the audience.

GA: It is one of those things where you want to make sure that you can fit into a format that radio plays. Radio these days is so fickle; it is a mess out there. Thank god for all of the internet radio sources, because FM radio is just crazy. I try to strive for a better product every time that I do a record. With each new project I always want it to be better than the previous. Hopefully I am getting better; I think that Cool to the Touch is my best work to date. The songs are strong; it has a nice pattern and a common thread. You have to go with a concept and, like a flower, let it bloom and open up to see how good it smells.

AAJ: Going back to what you said about the minimalist approach of your CD cover, I think it was a great idea to do that because the music speaks for itself. You see a lot of image overpowering musicianship in the music business today. Image has always played a role and is an integral part of the process but now, more and more you see image taking over the actual artistry.

GA: Yes, we all have an image. I like the minimalist approach in this because as you grow older and have more life experience in everything that you do, you tend to see that you can say more with less. When you are a young guitarist for example, and have a million licks like Edward Van Halen, as he has gotten older, he plays fewer notes and he makes the notes that he does play more meaningful. If you can make people understand what you say with fewer words or notes in this case, then you will be able to get through to more people. The minimalist approach is kind of ironic if you think about it; trying to get your point across with the least amount of words.

AAJ: You employed some great musicians on this project, on the track, "Felix the Cat, you had a horn section that included some of the best sax players. I think that was a very fresh idea.

GA: Whenever I write arrangements I have always used a lot of trumpets, trombones and saxophones, it is my signature sound. After I left Tower Of Power I basically took that sound with me because I don't write arrangements for Tower Of Power anymore. I thought it would be kind of hip if we used five saxophones in contrast to the trumpet. So I just threw it out there and asked these people who I have known for years, if they were game and interested in coming into the studio and doing it. So I got Eric Marienthal, Boney James, Richard Elliot, Mindi Abair and my saxophonist Johnnie Bamont. We had a saxophone quintet—two altos, two tenors and a baritone—and it was like a big band setup for the saxophone section of a big band.

A lot of people ask me if they did their parts separate or if we did it all together, and of course we were all in the studio at the same time. We had set up the session in the valley [Los Angeles] for noon and Mindi had a TV interview in Hollywood at eleven; she was not going to miss this session for anything. When she got to the TV studio she said that she had to leave by eleven-thirty to get to a very important recording session. She was a little late but she got there and we all had a ball.

On the cut "Life in the Key of Blue, I had Tom Scott playing—he is one of the greatest tenor saxophone players in the world. Paul Jackson, Jr. played guitar on the record, Leland Sklar on bass and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums, who used to play with Sting and he still sometimes does. We are all old buddies we have known each other for years. I think I have known Paul the least amount of time but Vinnie and I go back about twenty years. It was so cool to have those people on the record. I was so grateful that everyone was able to get their schedules together to come and do this. It made it a little more special.

AAJ: It is always great to have that element of camaraderie.

GA: I always work with my co-producer and co-writer James Wirrick who also plays guitar and keyboards on some tracks and basically is a programmer. You know you have to get people on your records you just can't sit in a room with ProTools and hammer out drum machines; we did that on my first record and while it sounded good, the sound today has grown into a more organic state. I have a great band that tours with me and I always use them on so many tracks.

AAJ: Surely, if it isn't broken, don't fix it.

GA: Everyone is on a track, at least one, so that they are part of the whole thing. We tour quite a bit; it really is a great band.

AAJ: Your song "Burma Road is one of my favorite songs. All the great trumpeters have a distinctive tone. What do you feel gives a trumpeter that ability?

GA: "Burma Road is one of those songs, that keeps on giving; it withstands the test of time. That song is ten years old and it still gets tons of radio airplay, as much airplay as "Smooth Operator, which was my first single off of my first solo album [Hidden Agenda (Sony Music Entertainment/Epic, 1995)]. It is amazing, I play it live and it is a great song to open it up for solos, and it really gets going. I think it really appeals to that world music scene.

The uniqueness of a trumpeter's tone or the versatility that sets him or her apart and gives that special brand that they bring to the table is, in my case, less is more. I try to say it in fewer notes and make those notes count so that the listener is able to imagine rather than have to take in data. I can play fast and furious and I can bebop with the rest of them but my approach is such that the listener needs to take relax and take it all in, and decide what they get out of it. On "Burma Road it is so minimalist what I do except for the solo, and even so the solo is very melodic as opposed to acrobatic. The bottom line is you need to practice to find your niche.

AAJ: That is what makes that song all the more intriguing. You have arranged numerous songs for countless artists. What does that process entail? How do you go about channeling what you perceive to match with an artist and what the artist hopes that you can provide them?

GA: It is kind of funny. Since I was in high school, I have always had a knack for writing. During the last two years of high school my teacher would go in his office and grade papers and whatever he needed to do while I basically ran the jazz band. I wrote and I learned from my mistakes, I was pretty much self-taught; I just had that flare for it. When I got into Tower of Power that was a five-piece horn section, and so they wanted me for that talent that I had. They needed someone to organize it and I brought that to the table. I molded it and made the sound my own.

We started to get calls from people to do recording sessions. Linda Ronstadt's manager, Peter Asher, knew this record producer who was working with Elton John. There was a famous horn section, whose name I will not mention, and they were on the track and Elton John did not like what they contributed. Linda, who we knew, told them, "You know they ought to try Tower of Power. We ended up doing that which was one of our first really high profile recordings; Caribou (Polygram Records, 1974) was right after Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Polygram Records, 1973). After that, we were getting calls left and right, we started to work with everybody.

What I found out is the key to being a good arranger is being a chameleon—you have to change your colors and adapt. You must have a sixth sense about what the artist is looking for, and many times the artist or the producer will have ideas, which are always very welcome. If you really want to shine as an arranger you have to give them what they are looking for and I have been fortunate. There have been a couple of times where I have had to do a rewrite but even then that tests your ability to work under pressure. That is the whole thing—you have to be flexible and adaptable. It has been a great experience to work with so many people.

AAJ: Yes, I would agree; it certainly is a gift to have such a versatile career by having the opportunity to work with countless artists.

GA: It is something that comes naturally to me and I don't take it for granted. It is something that I taught myself to do by listening to other people. I really have had a great time working with so many people.

AAJ: You are involved heavily in the music community and you are obviously committed to music education in public schools, etc. You benefited tremendously from programs such as these, is that why this is so important to you? What are your hopes for the future of jazz in regard to future generations building upon the current foundation?

GA: I am a big on education. I do music clinics and I am on the board of governors in the Los Angeles chapter of The Recording Academy, which is most famously known for the Grammy awards. Music education is a big part of the organization—making sure that schools have instruments. The first things that get cut in the public school systems are the music programs. The arts are always the first to suffer and we can't let that happen. Music is like a language: Italian, French, etc...the language is lost if it is not taught.

AAJ: Music is so important for young students because a lot of the time the music programs or athletic programs are what motivate some students to stay in school.

GA: The kids who are in music programs do better in math and science. Also there is something inherent in it that enables you to get along with people. Music is something that you really have to fight for, to make sure that it stays in the school systems.

AAJ: Right, it is a win-win situation and a light at the end of a tunnel for many.

GA: It is our future. Jazz is our national music. It is a product of New Orleans, and you can't teach jazz because it is an expression of freedom. Some people go off into classical music or country music but with jazz, you have to keep the torch burning.

AAJ: What would your advice be to an aspiring musician, in terms of becoming a professional and having a long spanning career?

GA: It is like the old joke, A man walks up to another man on the street and asks him "How do I get to Carnegie Hall? And the man answers, "Practice, practice, practice. You really have to apply yourself. You have to practice. You will feel the vision if it is meant to be, if it is your passion.

AAJ: It comes down to the determination to stay on the path to follow your bliss.

GA: You have to be around people that can nurture. You need to have different role models. It is great to come from a family oriented lifestyle, where the parents nurture the children, but sometimes that isn't the case so you have to find it and if you have the passion, you will find it.

Greg Adams AAJ: The MySpace phenomena has really had an impact on jazz, in that it has helped expose the genre to different audiences, making it more available. What has your MySpace experience been like? Have you benefited from it? Do you think that artists can truly benefit from it? It has definitely proven to be another avenue for advocacy of the jazz genre and really every genre.

GA: Yes, you know it is an interesting phenomenon. I have had it up for awhile, and I have had several thousand people come on to the page and listen to my music and buy my CD; it is a great tool. We have such few outlets now for people to get their music out there and this is a truly basic way to do that. Record labels these days are conglomerating and going away, and there are all these labels that are dropping artists. I have been on every label since I was eighteen years old and I have been dropped by all of them; it is inevitable. That is why I decided to create my own label.

AAJ: A lot of artists are doing that now; it seems to be a beneficial move in the wake of all the regrouping going on in the business.

GA: You have the independence of knowing that you can go any way that you really want. If you have a concept you stick to it.

AAJ: Like anything worthwhile you have to work at it. Will you be hitting the jazz festival circuit this summer?

GA: Yes, in fact I played the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. We were encored and received a standing ovation. I was thrilled to be on a more straight-ahead billing, which included Nancy Wilson. I feel that it is important for artists to put their best foot forward and keep musicianship up to a very high standard.

Selected Discography

Greg Adams, Cool to the Touch (Ripa Records, 2006)
Greg Adams, Firefly (215 Records, 2004)
Greg Adams, Midnight Morning (Blue Note, 2002)
Greg Adams, Hidden Agenda (Sony Music Entertainment/Epic, 1995)
Tower of Power, TOP (Epic, 1993)
Tower of Power, Monster On A Leash (Epic, 1991)
Tower of Power, Power (Cypress Records, 1987)
Tower of Power, Tower of Power Direct (Shefhield Lab, 1981)
Tower of Power, Back on the Streets (Columbia, 1979)
Tower of Power, We Came To Play (Warner Brothers, 1978)
Tower of Power, Ain't Nothin' Stoppin' Us Now (Warner Brothers, 1976)
Tower of Power, Tower of Power Live (Warner Brothers, 1976)
Tower of Power, Drop In The Slot (Warner Brothers, 1975)
Tower of Power, Back To Oakland (Warner Brothers, 1974)
Tower of Power, Tower of Power (Warner Brothers, 1973)
Tower of Power, Bump City (Warner Brothers, 1972)
Tower of Power, East Bay Crease (Warner Brothers, 1970)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Bettie Miner
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Greg Adams' MySpace Page

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