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Jeff Lorber: Chemistry in Fusion

Jim Worsley By

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Swing is one of those things you arrive at and can't be learned in a linear fashion. —Jeff Lorber
I don't know that anyone would confuse Jeff Lorber with a mad scientist, but you know, as they say, if the shoe fits. Lorber is far from mad, so okay, let's take that out of the equation. However, if the art of music can be further developed and shaped by scientific measures then Lorber resembles Albert Einstein. Perhaps more on his mother's side (that's a joke). Seriously now, the chemistry that the Grammy winning multi-talented keyboardist, composer, and producer captures with his bandmates brings another element to the table. It would be too obvious to make a periodic element table pun here, so, of course, I won't do that.

Fortunately for music listeners, Lorber's love of music, coupled with his innate musical skills, won out over his pre-med courses. Thus charting a course that has now spanned some forty years on the music scene. His band, Jeff Lorber Fusion, embraces an amalgamation of jazz and bebop genres that take the word fusion well beyond the standard perception of jazz/rock connectivity. In the following recent conversation, we talked about the variances and commonalties of his fusion endeavors, the ups and downs of his career, his fun and musical childhood, his life-threatening medical condition, his new and exciting project with Mike Stern, and much more. He even tells a great joke!

All About Jazz: Although we all know you as an instrumental artist, I was just thinking back this morning of you being on American Bandstand with Dick Clark many years ago with a vocalist.

Jeff Lorber: Well, I should give you a little background to that. That band started out playing in Portland, Oregon, which was great because there were a lot of really great places to play. As it turns out, it was a great place to start a band. The people there supported local music and local jazz. There were some good musicians there that I was able to avail myself of. So, for about three or four years, we played mostly the Pacific Northwest. Mostly around Portland, but also Spokane, Seattle, Olympia, Salem, and all these other little towns. Then I put out an independent record and that got the attention of some major labels. That led to me signing with Arista. I put out a number of records for Arista and it was going very well as an instrumental group. Then, at some point, Clive Davis decided that he wasn't interested in jazz. He basically got rid of the entire jazz department at a certain point. Before that happened, I was on maybe my sixth record for Arista, and he really wanted me to start using vocals. If I had the hindsight I do now, I would realize that it wasn't necessarily such a good idea because I was a jazz artist and doing the vocal thing might just lose all my fans. Which is kind of what happened. So, basically all the TV shows we did with the vocalists was at the behest of Clive Davis. It was interesting in that I sort of switched careers for a while, becoming a studio musician in Los Angeles. Between 1986 and 1994, I didn't really put out any records. I did learn a lot about producing records in working with many great record producers. It turned out to be very positive in that way. It was a great learning experience, but eventually I got sort of tired of not having creative control. So, I started back into my recording career, which I am very happily still doing.

AAJ: At the outset that seems strange that Clive Davis would axe jazz. But that had to be about record sales, yes?

JL: Yeah, I guess. He was focused on vocal artists on the label such as Whitney Houston and other big sellers they had. When the crash happened, it was the jazz and classical divisions that were the first thing to go with all the major record labels. That's the way it goes sometimes. It's a fashion industry. So, you have to be in fashion. Every musician learns from the school of hard knocks.

AAJ: So, going the vocalist route was something you didn't really want to do but more or less had to?

JL: If I wanted to have my records promoted or, frankly, even to be able to record them I had to do it the way Clive Davis wanted it. Clive was very hands on. That was his style. Before he would let me record, I would have to bring demos in, and he had to like what he heard. That's kind of good in a way. That shows that you are involved and a certain quality control to a degree. But then there are labels like Warner Brothers that sign all these fantastic acts and then leave them alone to be creative. That works out better I would say.

AAJ: One positive, it would seem, is that even though you lost your fan base at one time, you later found out just how much your instrumental music is really working when your fans came back and then some.

JL: Yes. Absolutely right. When we play our shows, there are always people coming up to me and talking about those early Arista records. Those people still support the music when we come to town.

AAJ: Now the Brecker Brothers came from the same Philadelphia suburb as you, correct? Did you play with them growing up?

JL: Yes, they are. And so is saxophonist Andy Snitzer, who is featured on three JLF albums. Pianist Marc Copland is from there as well. He was Marc Cohan back in the day but changed his name because there is a singer by that same name. Anyway, Marc was very good friends with the Brecker's. Those guys were all like four or five years older than me so normally I wouldn't have played with them. They were already pretty established. Especially Randy, when he joined Blood, Sweat, & Tears. You know, somebody from the local area making it big in that group was a big deal. That band was huge at the time. I was playing acoustic bass in the school orchestra. When Marc found that out, he invited me over to play with his friends. So, even though I couldn't play much more than a downbeat at the time, I had a little bit of exposure to them.

AAJ: I know you grew up listening to your mom play the piano and obviously were influenced by that. What songs or what type of music was she playing?

JL: She played mostly romantic music. Some Chopin and "Rhapsody in Blue." Beautiful music. I just loved it. It just seemed like fun and I wanted to get into it. As soon as I was big enough to play the piano, I started to take lessons. It became clear pretty quickly that I had a good ear and that I could figure things out. I didn't become the best reader, but I could hear what was going on. I knew I really liked it.

AAJ: I'm sure there was other music going on in the household as well.

JL: My older sisters were really into folk music. Bob Dylan and all that stuff. It was really big at the time, but I just wasn't feeling it. When the family would get together, they would hang out and play guitars and sing folk songs. I would instead hang out with my cousin who was listening to blues and stuff like that. He lived downtown so he used to see John Coltrane play at a place called the Stage Box or something like that. I got a little bit of a jazz indoctrination early on. He gave me a copy of Monk's Dream which became my favorite album when I was eleven years old. That made a big impression on me. A few years later, when I was like fifteen or sixteen, I found out about John Mayall and became more of a blues fan. And the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, I was a huge fan of that band. I used to go to New York and here them play at the Café A Go-Go and the Fillmore East. That was the era where parents let their kids do whatever they wanted (laughing).

AAJ: (Laughing) Yes, I recall those days as well.

JL: They weren't really paying attention. It worked for me!

AAJ: Growing up in our era, you had to also be exposed to The Beatles, and then hard rock, and prog rock, etc.

JL: I have to say that to this day that I am a huge, huge, Beatles fan. I just love their music so much. But when they first came out, I had two older sisters, and you know if my sisters liked them, then I just couldn't.

AAJ: Ah yes, having to be contrary, of course (laughing).

JL: (laughing) Yeah, but then I heard this record called "You Can't Do That" and that sold me.

AAJ: Oh yeah, what a great tune.

JL: Yeah, they made a great impression on me. When I was in high school all this great music was coming out. But whenever a Beatles record would come out everything would just stop. You would do nothing but listen to that record over and over again.

AAJ: Yes, I remember when The White Album came out. It was very much like that.

JL: Yeah man, just incredible. But then there was all this other stuff like The Doors, Jefferson Airplane, and all that unbelievable stuff. I have to say, though, that when I went to the Berklee College of Music I kind of became a bebop snob. I kind of gave up all that and studied bebop. I really stopped paying attention to other stuff for a while. After graduating high school, I went to the Berklee not knowing at that point if I could make a living as a musician but I sure wanted to find out. I needed to learn the jazz vocabulary and how to play it. I will say that Berklee was a great school for that. It is kind of like a music vocational school. It is very practical. They give you tools to solve musical problems in a modern context. It was very much a 'learn this stuff and go get a job' kind of school. I studied with Madam Chaloff. She was amazing. Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea used to come in and take lessons from her. Also, Alex Elin was incredible too. He focused on transcribing Red Garland and Wynton Kelly solos from classic Miles Davis records. He really focused on the swing rhythm, essentially playing bass with his left hand. Swing is one of those things you arrive at and can't be learned in a linear fashion, Both of those teachers forced me to focus on real simple basics and conquering each thing before you moved on. That was a great way of learning. While I was at Berklee I started playing with John Scofield. He was a student there at the same time. It was obvious that he was very talented back then. Another guy I played with there was alto saxophonist Greg Hawkes. He took the one semester of keyboards that all horn players take and went on to be successful with The Cars.
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