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Take Five With...

Take Five With Randy Napoleon

By Published: February 7, 2007
Meet Randy Napoleon: Randy Napoleon is one of the most sought after guitarists in New York today. Just off from a two-year tour with Warner Brothers recording artist Michael Bublé, he has recorded a new CD, Between Friends, released in November 2006 by Azica Records and has been touring in the United States and the United Kingdom to promote the album.

Napoleon's career took off one month after moving to New York City, when he joined pianist Benny Green's trio and achieved international exposure. Since that auspicious debut on the New York scene, he continued to make a name for himself as a forward- thinking musician with a passion for the jazz guitar tradition.

Napoleon played many major European festivals and toured Japan with the Clayton- Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJO), named by readers of Downbeat Magazine as best big band in 2003 and by Jazz Times as #2 big band in 2005. Napoleon's connection to this LA-based Jazz Orchestra dates back to his college days, when Jeff Hamilton heard him perform with the University of Michigan Big Band. In 2004, he appeared on a TV special in Tokyo with CHJO, and in 2005, he recorded with them (Live at MCG Jazz).

He began backing Bublé in the fall of 2004. Since then, he has appeared with the top-of- the-charts crooner on TV in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, London, Milan, Paris, Sydney, Toronto (Canada AM and CityLine) and the U.S. (Letterman; Leno; The View; Today, Regis and Kelly; The Ellen DeGeneres Show; a PBS special, Caught in the Act; The Radio Music Awards, Dancing with the Stars), on BBC radio, and on the stages of prestigious music halls all over the globe. In January 2007, he returned to London to appear on BBC radio and in clubs with his own trio. The trio, a collaboration with organist Jared Gold and drummer Quincy Davis, continues to attract attention internationally.

Napoleon has played with other major artists including Rodney Whitaker and Rick Roe, with master band leaders Grady Tate and Freddy Cole, and with top cabaret performers, including Eric Comstock. He has formed partnerships with some of the finest musicians of his own generation, among them Josh Brown, Gerald Clayton, Julius Tolintino and Sachal Vasandani.

When he isn't on the road, Randy Napoleon performs in New York City. Whatever the setting, he always is happy to pick up his guitar and play.

Instrument: guitar.

Teachers and/or influences? Some of the band leaders I've worked with have had lasting impact on my ideas about music.

John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, Benny Green, Rodney Whitaker, Paul Keller, Rick Roe, Michael Bublé to name a few. I've learned a lot from working things out with my peers also. Sachal Vasandani, Jared Gold, Quincy Davis, David Wong, Julius Tolentino, Ben Jannason, Josh Brown and so many others. Creating your own sound in jazz doesn't happen in a vacuum. The people you play with profoundly affect your development.

Of course on records, the influences are endless: Wes, Bird, Miles etc.

I knew I wanted to be a musician when... The first time I played a guitar, it was like love at first sight. I never had met anyone who was a professional musician, so I didn't quite know that I was going to do that, but I swear that I new guitar was going to be a big part of my life immediately.

Your sound and approach to music: I'm trying to play simply and directly. Hopefully, my playing is accessible and understandable. I feel that a lot of musicians today mistake overt complexity with depth. If you are able to hum along, and the music encourages you to tap your feet, I feel that it's a success. Groove and sound are everything; I'm not trying to do anything that exotic. I don't want to give lip service to swing, I want to prioritize it in everything I play.

Your teaching approach: I don't want to force anyone to play like me. I'd like to share the things that have been helpful for me, and show my students the music that excites me. After that, they are free to do what they want with my concepts, including reject them.

If someone asks me a question, I'll try to answer it. If I don't know the answer, I'll tell them that!

Your dream band: I think the concept of an all star band is a mistake. The magic rarely happens when you throw some high profile cats together who have never played together. Chemistry and a common direction are more important then anything else.

With that in mind, my favorite people to work with are the same as my teachers and influences list from above!

Favorite venue: Every venue that's given my band a home is my favorite!! We really appreciate that. I have a list of venues on my website. Any place that features jazz is doing something difficult and heroic!

One place I've played a number of times that is really special to me is the Kerrytown Concert House in my home town of Ann Arbor, MI. The people who run it really understand the music, and for me nothing beats getting to go home and play for people I care about.

There are a lot of venues I've played with other people's bands that were exciting in one way or another. Royal Albert Hall, Sydney Opera House, Radio City, the Hollywood Bowl, Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center etc.

How would you describe the state of jazz today? There are new exciting musicians popping up every day. Jazz is diverse and vibrant.

Sometimes I'm not excited about all the musical trends that are happening, but the beautiful thing is that there's a place for everyone to find a musical home. My fear for the future isn't with the music, but with the audience and recording industry. The business side is a little harder than it was in the '90s.

What are some of the essential requirements to keep jazz alive and growing? As jazz musicians, we need to take care of the business ourselves. We need to knock on doors, and keep on knocking on them until they open. A lot of the traditional avenues for starting a career aren't as available as they were in the past. We need to recognize that, stop bitching, and find new ways to get our music to people.

This music is alive, it is exciting, people need it. They just might not all know it.

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