Randy Napoleon: Playing for the Jukebox Crowd
When guitarist Randy Napoleon titled his latest effort, The Jukebox Crowd (Gut String Records, 2012), the jukebox he referred to was not some nostalgic 1950s era one that sits idly in a corner. Rather, she is a much sleeker, hipper, and more modern version. She is cool and, of course, jazzy, and she commands center stage. One trait she does share with her older cousin is that she is filled with songs that are worth paying to hear.
According to Napoleon, "I named the record The Jukebox Crowd because the musical direction is diffuse, and I was looking for an image that would tie the different bags together. We interpret straight ahead jazz, soul, blues, and even doo-wop on this record. Hopefully, it's the kind of instrumental jazz that's catchy enough that people would want to hang around a jukebox and put a coin in to hear their favorite song. There was a time when all these music lived side by side, when jazz musicians had hit songs. You might hear [trumpeter] Lee Morgan's 'Sidewinder' side by side with singer Ray Charles' latest record. I hoped that the title would convey that sort of musical landscape, as well as a social environment where people are kicking back and having fun."
He continues, "This record has a little bit different focus than my last two. The solos are shorter; the emphasis is more on the ensemble sounds. This is as much a blues or soul record as a jazz record."
Though Napoleon was born in Brooklyn and currently lives in New York City, he still considers Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was raised, home. Explains Napoleon, "I feel like something of a hybrid, though. I've been in New York City for thirteen years and I'm starting to absorb the east coast attitude."
While Napoleon has played stringed instruments since the fifth grade, beginning with the violin, it wasn't until he picked up a friend's guitar and started playing that the love affair began. "I really remember holding the guitar and playing it the first time. I was immediately excited about it." Fortunately for Napoleon, his friend had two guitars, and was willing to loan him one of them. "I stayed up all night just trying to figure out a song. I did know that as you went up the fret board, the pitch was going to get higher. I had some idea of how stringed instruments worked from the violin. I just started messing with the guitar. It was truly love at first sight!"
A few years later, while in high school, the emerging guitarist heard bassist Ray Brown's trio for the first time and decided to seek a career as a jazz player. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he crossed paths with two musicians who would play pivotal roles in his career. Brown's trio included pianist Benny Green and drummer Jeff Hamilton. Explains Napoleon, "They ended up being two of my early employers; I feel like I was preparing specifically for that sort of thing. Many of the gigs that I've gotten don't feel accidental for me; they feel like where I was supposed to be. I look up to them and am hoping that someday I can play a fraction as great as they play.
"Not that I feel like I could keep up with those guys in any way," Napoleon continues, "but I do feel that we had common direction. Maybe they picked up on the fact that I really loved their music and I wanted to play in that direction. There's some luck, too, but this whole process has a feeling of fate, almost from the first time I played the instrument. It feels like something that I am supposed to be doing."
Napoleon first connected with Green shortly after moving to New York City. "I came to New York and Benny [Green] had just released a CD with bass, guitar and piano. He needed a guitarist for the tours. My timing was very lucky."
Green recalls, "I first heard Randy with his college big band under Ellen Rowe's direction, at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival where I was among a panel of judges, in the mid-1990s. He knocked us all out with his musicality. He played so melodically, passionately and showed considerable content and a mature use of space. It was very clear to all of us that he was a real thinker and he certainly stood out to me from the other college musicians I heard that day."
Randy reintroduced himself to me on one of my gigs in New York City shortly after he moved there, a year or so later, and he let me know that he'd like to play with me. We got together to jam at my house, and it felt great. I soon learned that he read music well and was eager to rehearse, and I felt it was the natural thing to hire him and that it would be inspiring to receive his youthful enthusiasm, and as well, I respected his clear dedication."