Onaje Allan Gumbs: Music Heard, and Felt

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

About Onaje Allan Gumbs
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