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Kind of Purple: Jazz Musicians On Prince

Kurt Gottschalk By

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I think everyone knows that Prince's music expresses genius whatever that is. And like true geniuses it does not rest on one approach or style. Stevie Wonder and Duke Ellington come to mind as other extremely popular artists who exemplify this. There really is not a differentiation between the populist aspects of their music's appeal and the at times more esoteric or evolved means of its realization. You can listen to it in a more fundamental way and enjoy but the further in you go the deeper it gets. So I think it is certainly understood by everyone who listens, but Prince is able to communicate effectively, hence his popularity. There are many things in there that a lot of people may not notice at first or subsequent listens if they are not paying close attention. It is just deep music for the most part.

Are you familiar with Prince's "jazz" project Madhouse? What did you think of it?

Yes I am familiar with Madhouse. It was a fun project as I recall, still very much a Prince kind of sound but with more blowing room. That had a lot to do with tenor saxophonist Eric Leeds who is originally from Pittsburgh. I met Eric a few times in Minneapolis just when I was moving to New York. Prince had such great musicians in his bands and projects like that gave them an outlet and a chance for expression still within his overall aesthetic. I know some of the NPG musicians from the '90s bands and they are some of the best instrumentalists in the Twin Cities, Michael Bland on drums and Tommy Barbarella on keyboards and piano to name a couple.

Who's your favorite Prince keyboardist (and why)?

Matt Fink was nice and Tommy Barbarella is a great player. I have a strong interest in Lisa Coleman as I am a huge Wendy and Lisa fan. Morris Hayes is soulful and musical and of course Renato Neto is very pianistic and technically complete. But my favorite Prince keyboardist is definitely Prince himself. He has a great sound and feel on a variety of keyboards and also does much of his own programming and sound design. Joe Zawinul, Stevie Wonder, Prince all did their own synth programming as opposed to using factory presets. This skill separates the novice from the true professional in electronic music. An anecdote from Teena Marie was that when she and Prince were both the opening acts on Rick James' Fire It Up tour Rick was so enamored of Prince's personally programmed synth sounds that after the tour he ended up taking Prince's synthesizers (without Prince's permission or knowledge) and using the sounds on the Street Songs recording session before sending them back to Prince with a thank you note.

Do you think Prince is past his prime?

I think Prince is probably in a second prime of a sort. He is still as productive as ever and one of the more successful artists in the world if you take into account his entire career and not just media celebrity. I think conflating creative or even career prime with media hype is problematic because a lot of the most popular touring groups don't have that much to do with a certain kind of social visibility. The litmus test is more about how active and productive an artist is able to remain. In that regard Prince has never really let up. And he is one of the most successful live acts around right now. He is always selling out his shows which are not small venues.

What sort of project or direction would you like to see Prince take on that he hasn't?

I really can not think of any idea for him that I would have that would be truly compelling. Call it a failure of imagination on my part. Prince has always surprised me with his output and I find it difficult to devise some kind of context or project that would suit him. I would rather just hear what he decides to do next. A personal wish is that there would be some kind of reunion or collaboration with Wendy and Lisa because I think that their tenure with the Revolution was a very special time. They were like the Gil Evans to his Miles Davis and there is a certain kind of magic in those records and performances that I miss although there is certainly an abundance of other magics in all of their work post Revolution.

Matt Mitchell: "Forever in My Life"

You picked a song that some people might not know, or at least remember. What is it about "Forever in My Life" that grabs you?

The economy of production... it feels very "full" but there's a lot of air in it. Perfect vocal performance, so soulful and beautiful. It has a spontaneous feeling to it even though it is undeniably "produced." Surprising and brief "outro" with the acoustic guitar figure. Overall, perfect balance of "artful" and "catchy."

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


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