When guitarist Randy Napoleon titled his latest effort, The Jukebox Crowd
(Gut String Records, 2012), the jukebox he referred to was not some nostalgic 1950s era one that sits idly in a corner. Rather, she is a much sleeker, hipper, and more modern version. She is cool and, of course, jazzy, and she commands center stage. One trait she does share with her older cousin is that she is filled with songs that are worth paying to hear.
According to Napoleon, "I named the record The Jukebox Crowd
because the musical direction is diffuse, and I was looking for an image that would tie the different bags together. We interpret straight ahead jazz, soul, blues, and even doo-wop on this record. Hopefully, it's the kind of instrumental jazz that's catchy enough that people would want to hang around a jukebox and put a coin in to hear their favorite song. There was a time when all these music lived side by side, when jazz musicians had hit songs. You might hear [trumpeter] Lee Morgan
's 'Sidewinder' side by side with singer Ray Charles
' latest record. I hoped that the title would convey that sort of musical landscape, as well as a social environment where people are kicking back and having fun."
He continues, "This record has a little bit different focus than my last two. The solos are shorter; the emphasis is more on the ensemble sounds. This is as much a blues or soul record as a jazz record."
Though Napoleon was born in Brooklyn and currently lives in New York City, he still considers Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he was raised, home. Explains Napoleon, "I feel like something of a hybrid, though. I've been in New York City for thirteen years and I'm starting to absorb the east coast attitude."
While Napoleon has played stringed instruments since the fifth grade, beginning with the violin, it wasn't until he picked up a friend's guitar and started playing that the love affair began. "I really remember holding the guitar and playing it the first time. I was immediately excited about it." Fortunately for Napoleon, his friend had two guitars, and was willing to loan him one of them. "I stayed up all night just trying to figure out a song. I did know that as you went up the fret board, the pitch was going to get higher. I had some idea of how stringed instruments worked from the violin. I just started messing with the guitar. It was truly love at first sight!"
A few years later, while in high school, the emerging guitarist heard bassist Ray Brown
's trio for the first time and decided to seek a career as a jazz player. Unbeknownst to him at the time, he crossed paths with two musicians who would play pivotal roles in his career. Brown's trio included pianist Benny Green
and drummer Jeff Hamilton
. Explains Napoleon, "They ended up being two of my early employers; I feel like I was preparing specifically for that sort of thing. Many of the gigs that I've gotten don't feel accidental for me; they feel like where I was supposed to be. I look up to them and am hoping that someday I can play a fraction as great as they play.
"Not that I feel like I could keep up with those guys in any way," Napoleon continues, "but I do feel that we had common direction. Maybe they picked up on the fact that I really loved their music and I wanted to play in that direction. There's some luck, too, but this whole process has a feeling of fate, almost from the first time I played the instrument. It feels like something that I am supposed to be doing."
Napoleon first connected with Green shortly after moving to New York City. "I came to New York and Benny [Green] had just released a CD with bass, guitar and piano. He needed a guitarist for the tours. My timing was very lucky."
Green recalls, "I first heard Randy with his college big band under Ellen Rowe's direction, at the Notre Dame Jazz Festival where I was among a panel of judges, in the mid-1990s. He knocked us all out with his musicality. He played so melodically, passionately and showed considerable content and a mature use of space. It was very clear to all of us that he was a real thinker and he certainly stood out to me from the other college musicians I heard that day."
Randy reintroduced himself to me on one of my gigs in New York City shortly after he moved there, a year or so later, and he let me know that he'd like to play with me. We got together to jam at my house, and it felt great. I soon learned that he read music well and was eager to rehearse, and I felt it was the natural thing to hire him and that it would be inspiring to receive his youthful enthusiasm, and as well, I respected his clear dedication."
Green became more than an employer to Napoleon; he was also one of the guitarist's first landlords in the Big Apple. Recalls Napoleon, "I was bouncing from sublet to sublet. Some of the landlords in New York won't let you sign a lease if you don't have a guarantor in the Tri-State Area [New York, New Jersey, Connecticut]. So, Benny let me stay with him for a couple of nights. I was sleeping under the piano so his cat wouldn't jump on me! Benny would get up, and he would practice for six, seven hours straight. I mean straight, not a rest. That would be just warming up his hands."
Green also became a mentor to Napoleon, giving him honest, at times brutally so, advice and invaluable insight into life as a professional musician. According to Napoleon, "Benny was really intense. He put his money where his mouth was. He wasn't just someone who was resting on his laurels. He really, really puts his heart into the piano, and then it comes out when he plays. You can hear his influences because he's dug down deep enough to bring them out."
"Benny, more than anyone else, really made me aware of how far it was possible to go. He was very candid with me, in encouraging ways, about my potential, and he believed what I was working at was important. He was also painfully honest with me about what my current limitations were and what I was going to have to do to get past them. Some of the things he would say to me were very hard to hear, but they were necessary, and the lessons were coming from someone who could demonstrate a better way. He really picked apart my playing. This was when I first moved to New York, and I was coming from Michigan, where I had always been praised, where it had been just victory after victory. It was a very humbling experience for me, but in a good way. It made it clear to me how large jazz is and how much there is to explore."