Randy Napoleon: Playing for the Jukebox Crowd
Playing with Bublé in large arenas, night after night, helped Napoleon overcome some feelings of stage fright that he still had been dealing with at that relatively late point in his career. According to Napoleon, "If you are doing it every night, you can't get all tense. At some point it starts feeling like, 'Okay, this is just another day at the office.' Not that you don't get a little bit excited, and I think that's important so that you can bring some excitement to the job. But too many nerves can be debilitating. I used to feel sick to my stomach, and it would be hard for me to sleep before a big show. That helped me because it was practicing a certain kind of thing-practicing getting comfortable with all the energy coming back from a large crowd.
"Also, having managers and business people running around helped me to get used to that kind of thing," he continues. "Especially when we were doing all kinds of TV shows-it was really a lot of pressure. I think it was good, after a certain point, because I kind of got used to it."
Napoleon eventually decided to leave the Bublé gig and found himself a home alongside veteran jazz vocalist and pianist Freddy Cole. Napoleon says, "Freddy heard me many years ago with Benny Green's band, and we stayed in touch over the years until it was the right time for me to come with him fulltime."
According to Green, "The great Freddy Cole, who had heard Randy with my trio in Toronto, asked me for Randy's information, saying that he'd like to try Randy out on guitar with his group. And the rest is history. Freddie was, and is, happy as a clam with Randy onboard-as is Randy, who, like me, is 'old school' by the standards of some young folks today in his love of the traditions of 4/4 swinging jazz, which is melodic and rooted in the blues."
Cole recollects, "I heard him, once, and then another time he happened to be on the same gig with me. I liked how he approached the gig. When I got ready to make a change, I just called him and he came right in. I just liked the way he played, his approach to the music."
Cole continues, "Randy's very enthusiastic. Fortunately, he is the same both onstage and off. When he gets on the bandstand, he's having fun! And that's what I like. All of us, when we hit the bandstand, it all business but we are also having fun."
According to Napoleon, "Michael and Freddy are very different kinds of people and musicians. I enjoyed my time with Bublé quite a bit, and learned a lot about how to communicate to an audience. But, for me, my time with Freddy has been a lot more personally satisfying. There's a lot more room for personal expression in his band, and I have much more responsibility. I've been arranging for Freddy's records, which has been an amazing experience. Freddy loves for the music to go different places every night, so I feel creatively involved every day."
The guitarist continues, "Freddy is like another grandfather to me. I've learned so much from him about life and music I wouldn't know where to begin. One thing that's true in music and life, he's helped me learn how to relax. Freddy has such ease in all things. I've learned thousands of songs from him also. His feel is just amazing; I'm always trying to get closer to that."
Many of Napoleon's musical goals have already been achieved, at a relatively young age. "Everything measurable that I've thought I wanted to do, I've done. I've recorded CDs as a leader, I've toured as a leader, and I've toured with my heroes. I've played really large venues, really high profile stuff. Everything that I could have described in words is done."
Yet, he still continues to try to master the instrument he loves so much. "I want to play the guitar better; I want to play it more consistently. I want to know that every time I pick up the guitar, it's going to be the best that I can give it. These are the bigger goals I dream of, now. It's just me versus my limitations now."
Randy Napoleon, The Jukebox Crowd (Gut String Records, 2012)
Freddy Cole, Talk to Me (HighNote, 2011)
Eric Comstock, Bitter/Sweet (Harbinger, 2011)
Freddy Cole, Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B (HighNote, 2010)
Melissa Morgan, Until I Met You (Telarc, 2009)
Randy Napoleon, Between Friends (Azica Records, 2006)
Josh Brown, The Feeling of Jazz (Josh Brown, 2006)
Michael Bublé, Caught in the Act (Reprise/WEA, 2005)
Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, Live at MCG (MCG Jazz, 2005)
Randy Napoleon, Enjoy the Moment (Indie, 2002)
All Photos: Courtesy of Randy Napoleon
[Editors note: Portions of this interview originally appeared in Richardson's book, The Soul of Jazz: Stories and Inspiration from Those Who Followed the Song in Their Souls. For more information, visit her website].