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Kind of Purple: Jazz Musicians On Prince

Kurt Gottschalk By

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"Do you know who Prince kinda reminds me of, particularly as a pianist? Duke! Yeah, he's the Duke Ellington of the eighties to my way of thinking."—Miles Davis

The tops of the pop charts isn't where we often expect to find genius. Brilliant performers sometimes, expert attention grabbers maybe more often, but it's not generally where ground is broken.

Prince may not have topped the singles charts in some time, but then the charts aren't what they were three decades ago when three singers, all born in the summer of 1958, owned them. After years of reluctance, Prince now takes advantage of the ways music is distributed in the 21st Century (if, still, sometimes fickley so). And he continues to sell out concerts and be seen as a vital force while his birthyear mates, Madonna and Michael Jackson, well in one case we can only speculate and in the other perhaps we'd rather not.

Prince also earns the respect of other musicians in a way that many million sellers fail to, and not just in the pop and R&B worlds.

On December 11 and 12, bassist Ben Williams put on two nights of Prince's music at Harlem Stage in New York City. Through inventive arrangements and a rotating cast of singers, Williams showed that Prince's music is wide open for interpretation. Although it was a shame that the strongest of the vocalists, Christie Dashiell, only got one shot at the mike, surprise guests Bilal (singing "The Ballad of Dorothy Parker") and a encore improv with flautist Najee brought the audience to its feet by the end.

Trumpeter Taylor Ho Bynum has likewise put on concert-lengths programs of his own arrangements of Prince's music. Trumpeter Steven Bernstein has included covers of "Darling Nikki" and "Sign 'O' the Times" on his records. And James Ilgenfritz, Jamie Saft, Craig Taborn and Matt Mitchell all count themselves as fans. We asked them each to select a song and tell us what it means to them.

Ben Williams: "Darling Nikki"

Tell me why you picked "Darling Nikki."

I've always loved everything about "Darling Nikki." The story, the music, the groove; it's sonically perfect. It has such an edginess and "looseness" about it. The Purple Rain album and the movie visually go hand in hand for me. It's impossible for me to hear any of the songs from that album without thinking about the exact scene in the movie in which it took place and how it fit into the overall story. "Darling Nikki" came at sort of an emotional climax in the film and I always feel that when I hear the song.

"Darling Nikki" is one of the songs he won't perform anymore. Any thoughts on him cleaning up his act, so to speak?

I respect Prince for making that decision, to "clean up his act." He is obviously at a different point in his life and as we all get older, we began to think about things differently. I don't get the feeling that he is ashamed at the content of some of his older material but I believe he looks at it as growth and progression. As artists, our art always serves as a reflection of where we are spiritually in our lives; as we grow and change, so will our art.

How did the "Dearly Beloved" project come about? Do you know if Prince is aware of it?

"Dearly Beloved" is a project that I've had in my mind for a number of years. I've always been a huge Prince fan (thanks in most part to my older brother who is a Prince aficionado) but I really started to dig a little deeper into his repertoire from a purely musical standpoint in recent years. I was familiar with much of his material but I began to realize how deep and revolutionary his music was on a technical level. There was another level, so to speak, of genius that I began to discover in his music; The greatest musician/songwriters have the ability to make even the most complex music accessible and singable. The same sort of genius I've discovered in the music of Monk, Ellington, Wayne Shorter, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, I began to see in Prince's music. Coming from the "jazz" world, I wanted to present his music from a different perspective. Prince's music is somewhat sacred ground for me but I thought it would be a great opportunity for my jazz fan base to realize his genius from a different angle. I'm not sure if Prince is aware of this project (I have had the opportunity to meet him on several occasions).

When did you first become interested in Prince's music?

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