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Onaje Allan Gumbs: Music Heard, and Felt


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I found a whole variety of sounds that got my attention. They end up being called R&B, straight ahead, jazz, whatever. I just love the music.
Onaje"I recently did it on a gig and one of the patrons told me, in her words, she was 'messed up.' It affected her. I gave a little intro into where the song is coming from. The band got into it. I finished the tune. Went through a whole bunch of other songs. When I got off the stage, she grabbed my hand and said, 'Onaje, I just want you to know I'm kind of messed up by that song.' It took her through a roller coaster of emotions. I was sorry she was messed up, but happy that I made my point.

The words are that of pianist, composer, arranger Onaje Allan Gumbs and the song is "Lament, a poignant ballad found on his latest recording, Sack Full of Dreams, released early this year. It was written years ago as a tribute to those who died in the infamous Attica State Prison riot. Its haunting voice and subject matter is what affected the young woman so much at that nightclub. It's brought to life on the CD by the slow, luscious tenor sax of Mark Shim and the intricate voicings and delicate runs by Gumbs on piano.

Gumbs has been successful in a wide array of musical styles for more than thirty years, from arranging and performing pop and R&B tunes for Phyllis Hyman, Norman Connors and Noel Pointer, to blowing on top- notch straight-ahead stuff with Woody Shaw and Betty Carter, among others. And things in between. But it is songs like "Lament and the title cut to the new CD that exemplify a big part of what is behind the work of the masterful, if relatively unsung, musician. Dare to Dream (MCA, 1991), an early Gumbs album, and Remember Their Innocence, a 2005 Ejano release dedicated to the children of the globe caught in an uncertain world, portray in their wording that they speak about things beyond music. "Owner of the feeling is one of the Nigerian translations of "Onaje. It suits his music, no matter what genre, and his warm spirit.

In 1986, Onaje received the Min-On Art Award from the Min-On Culture Center in Tokyo, "in recognition of his great contribution to the promotion and development of a new musical movement for people with the aim of the creation of peace. Other musician recipients include Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter and Buster Williams. He says it was his mother who impressed upon him that music isn't just notes, but important to the human spirit and therein lies its importance. So whether it's a hit like "Betcha By Golly Wow, that he arranged for Phyllis Hyman, or the arrangement of "Stella By Starlight" he did for the New York Jazz Repertory Company in 1974 as part of a concert honoring Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall, or "Lady in My Life, with Stanley Jordan, that helped propel the album to the top of the Billboard charts, it's all done by Gumbs with feeling—and professionalism.

There are a great deal of other elements and parts to Onaje, as his work has shown over the years. In 2003, he did a live club recording, Return to Form (Half Note), at the Blue Note, and with his latest offering, Gumbs returns to the old-fashioned way of studio recording. Sack Full of Dreams was cut, save for a vocal overdub, in two days.

"I wanted to make sure the setup was such that I was in close proximity to the band, still allowing for the separation so there was no real leakage. I really wanted to have a live feel, says Gumbs. "So that's what we went in there with. Usually a studio session will go a few days. Sometimes a couple weeks. It contains songs penned by Herbie Hancock, Freddie Hubbard and even the three guys that wrote "The Fishing Song (yup, your ears are hearing right ... it's the Andy Griffith theme song. But very hip here).

The title cut is a song of hope that Gumbs hopes will resonate. He's known the tune, and its author Gary McFarland, for many years. "I always thought it was an incredible piece of music with almost the same kind of urgency that you hear in 'What's Going On,' or 'Someday We'll All Be Free,' says Gumbs. "A lot of my titles have dealt with that kind of observance of what's happening around us. I had an album, Dare to Dream, which was a song of motivation. Previous to this album I had a project called Remember Their Innocence, which is dedicated to children. I wanted to somehow be a part of a healing process. I felt that this song, at this time, was very pertinent and very much needed. I felt I really wanted to revisit that song because it means a lot to me.

Gumbs got his friend, singer Obba Babatunde, to sing the song. Ironically, Babatunde had been looking for the song. "I sent him the lyrics, thinking he might not know the song, and asked if he would do it, Gumbs recalls. "He ended up e-mailing me back. He said, 'Onaje, I'm having tears in my eyes because I've been looking for the song. I've been wanting to do this song for a long time, and no one seemed to know where I could find it. If you want me to do it, the answer is: yes.' That's how it started.

"The other thing about 'Sack Full of Dreams' is that usually folks who know my work, especially doing covers, is that I kind of like to re-work songs and do all kinds of stuff with it. This song I decided to keep it as it was, with that bass line and the harmonies. I did a slight variation with the solo, which is really just a change to another key. But I kept the song in tact with its original flow. The thing I added to it to make it slightly different from other versions was the conga flow that goes through the song. With the percussion, I wanted to present an African tone with the congas underneath. You almost don't hear them. They're there, but I didn't want to make it obtrusive. It's almost like a drone that carries the tune through. That's how that came about.

Gumbs also unleashes Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island with a beautiful reworking, almost unrecognizable in its harmonic invention. "Try to Remember is sad and bittersweet, but touching. "Stank You Very Much gets out a bit of the funk that Gumbs is so fluent with. The whole record has a nice feel. It cooks, it soothes. It's one that can sit in the CD player for some time.

Gumbs says in recent years he's veered away a bit from the R&B field, and from heavy arranging or producing. "Moving from my live album to Remember Their Innocence to my present album, I really want to lean more toward the acoustic, straight ahead acoustic playing, more in the jazz element. With the new album, I've found there are two formats that have accepted the album, totally different formats. One is the contemporary jazz format and one's a straight ahead jazz format. So the record is finding its home in more than one format.

Remember Their Innocence, a very sharp album of strong songs and splendid melodicism, has elements of pop or contemporary jazz, but Gumbs points to an underlying straight jazz theme. "It's funny, because if you take away the title track, it is basically a straight ahead record, he says. "In the title track, the melody and the treatment lends itself to the contemporary element because there's no heavy solo. If you were to take that tune out of the mix, it is basically an acoustic jazz record. Even the other softer songs, some with vocals, have the jazz tradition beneath them upon careful listening, the pianist says. "It was done as an acoustic record. My first records, like Dare to Dream, were definitely more contemporary. Not even smooth jazz, because that term doesn't fly with me too well. But it's more contemporary, as was That Special Part of Me (Zebra, 1990).

" I want each record to have its own distinct quality and I want each song to have its own distinct quality, explains Gumbs. "There's a phrase I learned from a producer on a panel discussion we had a few years back. He said, 'The song is the star.' What I feel the song needs usually will dictate what the instrumentation will be. It'll vary from one to the next. I was very influenced as a little kid by soundtracks. I was introduced to Henry Mancini's music at age 8. He left an indelible impression on me as far as composition and melody. My songs become like a soundtrack to life, so they will vary from one to the next, whether by genre or instrumentation.

Gumbs appreciation and affinity for a wide range of musical styles comes from his upbringing. Growing up in St. Albans, Queens, he heard a lot of sounds. He started playing piano at age 7 and later attended Music and Art High School in Manhattan and was introduced by a classmate to his father, Leroy Kirkland, who had played with the Erskine Hawkins band and was the composer of "Cloudburst, made famous by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. He was also heavy into R&B as a musical director and arranged the hit "Our Day Will Come, by Ruby and the Romantics.

"He was like my first mentor. He would introduce me to these artists. I would do rehearsals, says Gumbs. At the same time in school, he was playing in a Latin band, a big band and playing piano duets. He was listening to records made by Motown and Blue Note, "so my interest in R&B and the contemporary is just as natural to me as my interest in straight-ahead or Latin. I grew up that way. It wasn't something where I had an acquired taste or was moved into it because of an industry or pressure. I'm also West Indian. My mother was from Montserrat and my father was from Anguilla in the British West Indies. So that is part of my makeup also.

"I find it interesting, Gumbs continues, "when people have a problem with me moving in directions that aren't straight ahead. I did not grow up in a straight ahead jazz family. I grew up in a family where we listened to calypso and steel bands. I found a whole variety of sounds that got my attention. They end up being called R&B, straight ahead, jazz, whatever. I just love the music.

The very first records Gumbs purchased were Henry Mancini and Horace Silver. He enjoyed listening to Mancini's televisions scores for Peter Gunn and Mr. Lucky. Through the radio, he started hearing Dizzy Gillespie, Lalo Schifrin, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane. Gumbs would tape music on his reel-to-reel recorder. Other times he would write down the names of players from the radio, then go out to get their records. "I was really into it. I was into the sounds. They got my attention, as opposed to trying to put things in a category. I just liked the music.

He first started playing along with Silver's records because, "He wasn't like Oscar Peterson, Gumbs says, chuckling. "He was very melodic, which is something I gravitated to, to make the solos as melodic as possible, regardless of the tempo.

Gumbs studied music at the State University of New York at Fredonia in upstate New York. He met an engineer who would let him work with concerts tapes he had made of his college performances in various settings, including some of his arrangements. At one point in 1971, Leroy Kirkland introduced him to renowned Detroit guitarist Kenny Burrell. The young pianist wound up giving a tape to Burrell. A recent graduate, he still wasn't confident in his abilities as a player, as much as a composer and arranger. Burrell told Gumbs he might get a phone call in five days or so.

The very next day, Burrell called and spoke to his mother.

"I thought that was odd. So I called him back and the first thing he said was, 'Do you want a gig?' I said, 'uh ... uh... yeah,' says Gumbs, chuckling at the recollection. "I was petrified, but I said yes. I wasn't going to say no. My first major gig was with Kenny Burrell at Baker's Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. I got a chance to play with one of the masters, which was Major Holley on bass. Major, especially, was like an uncle. I was a kid. He really embraced me. I think it's a Detroit thing because I got that same kind of warmth and nurturing from Thad Jones. Later, I had a chance to sit in on Monday nights with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra. He had the same nurturing feeling. He took you under his wing and really made sure you were OK. That was history for me to play with Major Holley and Kenny Burrell.

Not long after that, Gumbs met Norman Connors in Buffalo, who was looking for an arranger for an album that became Dark of Light (Buddah, 1973). He got the job to arrange the title track. "A lot of my arranging for strings and horns in my career came through Norman Connors, he says.


Gumbs reputation grew and he began landing gigs across musical genres. One stop was with the brilliant jazz singer Betty Carter. "In the early '70s, when I came back to New York, I found myself, along with Victor Lewis, doing a lot of gigs with Buster Williams. He was going to be doing some things with Betty. She didn't have a pianist at the time. So he recommended that I come in to play. I had a great time with Betty. There have been stories about how hard she was to work with and that kind of stuff, and kind of a tyrant on the bandstand. But we got along great. Never had any problems. I had the good fortune to record, not all the tunes, but a lot of the tunes on The Betty Carter Album (Verve) in 1976.

"Around that same time I was doing albums with Cecil McBee. I did Lenny White's first two albums Venusian Summer (Nemperor, 1975) and Big City (Nemperor, 1977), which was more rock oriented than anything else. It was the only album Al DiMeola and Larry Coryell did together. Larry Young was on organ. I didn't realize the enormity and the greatness of this man [Young], and I'm sitting in the same studio with him. The eclectic thing just seemed to be happening.

Gumbs recorded Moontrane (Muse, 1974) with Woody Shaw and Pinnacle (Muse, 1975) with Buster Williams. After Cannonball Adderley's death in the mid-'70s, his brother Nat put a band together and he landed the piano job through his friend, drummer Buddy Williams. He worked with Nat for about a year, "where I learned so much about presentation. His brother was a master of that. But I learned more being right under Nat. About the importance of talking with the people and carrying them on a journey. I learned it all from Nat.

Soon after, Shaw took him on as musical director for a tenure that included the Rosewood (Columbia, 1977) album, among others. "I spent almost two years with Woody, which was an eye-opening experience as far as how to put a set together and how to connect with the people and how the band connects with each other, he says. "That was something I learned from being with Woody Shaw.

At the same time, the versatile Gumbs was also part of the Noel Pointer band, and toured with Pointer after his first GRP album. "I was playing electric piano and the whole nine yards. Then I'd get called by Woody and I'm back to straight ahead again. There was always an overlap. Folks who heard me with Woody, even though it was a straight-ahead tune you would hear some funk in there. Maybe in the comping I did behind Carter Jefferson or Woody. And with Noel, there might be some other kinds of chords I would play that would come from my straight-ahead discipline, says Gumbs.

"For me, it's not like I went from one thing to another. Everything was an extension of the other. It's like different recipes I adapted to the situation I was in. It was natural for me to flip the script, so to speak, and go from one to the other. It was also challenging in that I always wanted to see what I could do. How can I bring the best to this situation, that situation? It feels great to do that.

Gumbs is rightfully proud of his accomplishments in all those idioms. "I feel very honored about 'Betcha By Golly, Wow,' for Phyllis Hyman. By this time I had done about three albums with Norman [Connors]. He asked me to arrange this song, which I really didn't want to do. But he was adamant. The song was already done with Jean Carn singing. But she got signed at Philly International, which bumped her from doing any other vocal with any other label. He still was determined to do this song. He found Phyllis Hyman. The rest is history.

"It still stands as one of her signature features, Gumbs continues, "which I feel honored between 'Betcha By Golly Wow' and another song she did called 'The Answer is You,' and the instrumental I did with Stanley Jordan in 85, 'Lady in My Life.' They pretty much stand as signature songs... I feel honored that I was one of the few who can say they contributed a signature arrangement or a signature sound for certain artists.

And well he should. But past laurels don't automatically mean continued success in a climate where music has become too much commerce and too little art.

"A lot of the situation with the music industry has changed. It's a different animal now, where you have club owners who are not like the owners of the past, the Max Gordons who loved the music. It's not like that anymore. It's like, 'How much money can you make?' It's not about the music anymore, says Gumbs. "It makes it very hard for artists to do that and they have to end up doing other things. That's why, even early on, I wanted to do more than just be a pianist. I wanted to be an arranger, I wanted to be a producer. I wanted to be a composer. I wanted people to record my music, where I might not be involved as a pianist; where I can produce a record and I don't play.

Onaje "The industry overall, is suffering, continues Gumbs. "It's because music has taken a back seat to everything, the money, the theatrics and everything else. Even talent. You don't have to be talented to get out front. What happens is really talented people get left behind.

Gumbs feels good about Sack Full of Dreams and its potential to make some noise. "I think it's some of my best playing as a leader, he says. "Looking back, I feel good about the work I've done, especially with Woody and some people. But for myself as a solo artist, this album right here lays some of the work that I always wanted to do as a performer on my own title.

There is not yet a tour planned around the music, but Gumbs is hopeful it can happen. But he's already looking ahead to other projects, including a duet project with South African pianist Hotep Galeta, and possibly a tour with vocalist Gino Stitson of Camaroon, who also has an album out on the 18th & Vine label.

The humble and compassionate Gumbs remains resolute, "I can't give up because I know I have a mission with my music. As I know other artists who also have a mission.

Selected Discography

Onaje Allan Gumbs, Sack Full of Dreams (18th & Vine, 2007)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Remember Their Innocence (Ejano, 2005)
Clifford Adams, Love's Gonna Get You (Orpheus, 2004)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Return to Form (Half Note, 2003)
Ronald Shannon Jackson, Puttin' on Dog (Kitting Factory, 2000)
Ronny Jordan, A Brighter Day (Blue Note, 1999)
Pieces of a Dream, In Flight (Manhattan, 1993)
Carmen Lundy, Moment to Moment (Arabesque, 1992)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Dare to Dream (MCA, 1991)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, That Special Part of Me (Zebra, 1990)
Billy Cobham, Power Play (GRP, 1986)
Buster Williams, Dreams Come True (Buddah, 1978)
Woody Shaw, Stepping Stones: Live at the Village Vanguard (Columbia/Legacy, 1978)
Woody Shaw, Rosewood (Columbia/Legacy, 1977)
Onaje Allan Gumbs, Onaje (Steeplechase, 1976)
Noel Pointer, Hold On (United Artists, 1976)
Betty Carter, The Betty Carter Album (Verve, 1976) Norman Connors, Saturday Night Special (Buddah, 1975)
Lenny White, Venusian Summer (Nemperor, 1975)
Roy Ayers Ubiquity, A Tear To A Smile (Polydor, 1975)
Woody Shaw, Moontrane (Muse, 1974)
Norman Connors, Dark of Light (Buddah, 1973)

Photo Credit
Top Photo: Rick Gilbert

All Other Photos: Courtesy of Onaje Allan Gumbs

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