Mastering the Groove: A Chat With Organist Reuben Wilson

C. Andrew Hovan By

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We were free to play pretty much what we wanted to and Blue Note was all about finding somebody fresh. They accepted what you were going to do and they didn?t dictate anything.
In hindsight, it is possible to get too much of a good thing. Back in the '50s and '60s when a plethora of jazz recordings hit the jazz market like never before in the music's relatively short history, it was easy to take it all for granted. This was especially true of the organ combo records that ushered in the soul jazz movement of the late '60s. And with a critical backlash against the B3 organ as a viable jazz instrument as an added burden, artists such as Lonnie Smith, Big John Patton, Larry Young, and Rueben Wilson got somewhat lost in the shuffle.

For Wilson, who settled in New York and formed his first trio the Wildare Express in 1966, even an inventive series of recordings for Blue Note, beginning with 1968's On Broadway, seemed to be of little consequence outside of the Big Apple. It wasn't until his Cadet single 'Gotta Get Your Own' started to turn heads on UK dance floors during the height of the Acid Jazz craze in the '80s that Wilson's star started to rise. Thanks to Guru, Us3, Tribe Called Quest and Nas, all of which have sampled Wilson's classic grooves, the 68-year-old organist is once again on the scene touring and recording new music. Recently, he sat down to chat on the phone from his home in New York about the past and his current tour with the Masters of Groove.

All About Jazz: So how was it to record for Blue Note Records back in the '60s?

Reuben Wilson: It was a very important label at the time and so it an honor to get on that label. We were free to play pretty much what we wanted to and Blue Note was all about finding somebody fresh. They accepted what you were going to do and they didn't dictate anything. I think the only dictation I got from them was they didn't really want me to record any blues and that was kind of a staple for jazz, but that was all right with me because I had another thing in mind anyway. I wanted to take straight ahead jazz and mix it with pop.

AAJ: Did you start out on the organ or did you play piano first?

RW: My route was directly to the organ immediately. It was a fresh sound in many ways and I listened to other prominent organists at the time and I thought I could probably get into that mix so I went right into that.

AAJ: After your Blue Note sides now you did a few things in the '70s for Groove Merchant and Cadet.

RW: We had a really big record with Cadet and that particular record did very well in Europe, but that's a really long story. A thing called 'Got To Get Your Own' was huge and allowed me to go to Europe for many years.

AAJ: But now there wasn't much jazz happening in the '70s, so how did you pay the bills at that time?

RW: I did some pop and disco things with the Fatback band and so I wasn't left out in the cold really. The synthesizers came on the scene and there was the challenge of adapting, which was pretty much what I did. During that time my record ['Got To Get Your Own'] became very big in Europe and I didn't know about it until a little later and a little further on up the road I was able to go back to playing the organ.

AAJ: Then, of course, the whole sampling thing hit with the success of Us3 and Guru going back and grabbing stuff from your classic records.

RW: Those were big items and Us3 was definitely gold and it brought a new interest for me and my audience. It's very good because I don't think people knew so much about the original artists such as myself on those things, but it did kind of put the name back out there at the time for people who knew about it in the past.

AAJ: You ended up touring with Guru, right?

RW: Yeah and we had some pretty good artists, like Donald Byrd, Kenny Garrett and Bernard Purdie. We did a lot of hip hop things, but then performed some of our own material as well, so it worked out real well.

AAJ: Now how did this whole Masters of Groove thing come about?

RW: This was an idea that my manager had and he had an idea for a James Bond 007 type of a CD and so I brought it home with me and listened to some of the originals and it didn't really hit me right away because I though we would need to do a lot with it to kind of update it. So we didn't really expect a lot from it and a lot happened.

AAJ: On this record The Masters of Groove Meet Dr. No you get to work with Grant Green's son, Grant Green Jr.

RW: That's right. He's very funky and right into the groove and that's what I like.

AAJ: Plus, you have Bernard Purdie on hand. Talk about a master of the groove!

RW: He's a master of the groove all the way and we're able to get the type of sound that we like to do.

AAJ: You know, over the years, you've worked with a lot of great guitarists, like Melvin Sparks and Ed Cherry. Is there a special connection you develop when you use a line-up with organ and guitar together?

RW: You know you can do organ without guitar, but I think it's a perfect marriage between the organ and guitar because you're carrying the bass line and it's good to have the guitar fill in those points where you need them, so it's just a good all around sound.

AAJ: Andy Simpkins once told me that when he would go to Japan people would recognize him on the street and yet here in the United States nobody really knows all but the biggest jazz names. What has been your experience with audiences abroad?

RW: Years back there was a stronger thing for American artists in Europe and Japan, but now I find that you get a pretty strong following right here in the States. In general, we have a very young audience. I don't get a lot of senior citizens, but occasionally we a get a few sprinkled in there. It's good music if we can go through generations like that.

AAJ: Before we wrap things up, what's new on the horizon for you?

RW: We're finishing up a [new] Masters of Groove, but it's time now to go in a new direction and so that's what I'll do on my next date under my own name. I also have one on the shelf that I did with Marc Ribot.'

To listen to The Masters of Groove Meet Dr. No, check out the sound samples at jazzateria.com.

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