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Ron Aprea: On John Lennon, Jazz Legends, And Life In Music

Dan Bilawsky By

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The biggest challenge was to not fall into [a musical] "No Man's Land." The scary part was [the possibility of] pleasing nobody because I'm doing a jazz album with rock songs or pop songs...
Picture this: The year is 1974 and you've just gotten off the road with Lionel Hampton. The phone rings, and on the other end of the line is an old buddy of yours. After a little small talk, he asks if you're available for a recording session. You indicate that you're free and ask him about the session. That's when he tells you, nonchalantly, that it's for John Lennon.

That little episode may sound like it's coming straight out of some fictitious film script, but it's actually biographical in nature. It's part of Ron Aprea's story, and his is a story that deserves to be told. Over the course of the last four-plus decades, Aprea has been an important and under-appreciated figure on the jazz scene, leading his own bands and performing at various times with vibraphone pioneer Lionel Hampton, Latin legend Tito Puente, the great Woody Herman, trumpeter Nat Adderley, and numerous other jazz giants. And while part of his under-the-radar standing can be connected to his lack of leader dates, having only one album to his name prior to 2013, he's making up for that these days. Aprea turned plenty of heads with Remembering Blakey (Self Produced, 2013), a hard-bop based sextet date that cooks in all the right ways, and now he's ready to turn some more with the long-awaited Ron Aprea Pays Tribute To John Lennon & The Beatles (Self Produced, 2015). This conversation started there, but Aprea was open to discussing a variety of topics during the interview.

All About Jazz: How did your latest album come about?

Ron Aprea: I recorded with John Lennon in 1974. I was on an album called Walls And Bridges—the first album he used a horn section on after he left The Beatles. I was part of that horn section—the "Little Big Horns." There were five horn players [in that group]—Steve Madaio was on trumpet, Bobby Keys was on tenor, Frank Vicari was on tenor, Howard Johnson played baritone, and I played alto. It was a pretty successful album for John, and he had a couple of number one hits on that album for the first time as a solo artist, so it turned out to be a pretty nice thing. So that's my connection to John Lennon.

Over the years I've been thinking about this idea, but what inspired me to do it was [what happened when] I recently did a concert at B.B. Kings [in New York City]. I was invited to come and play one of the tunes from the Walls And Bridges album. After my segment, a young, pretty lady named Ginger Broderick got a pass and came backstage. We were talking, and it turns out that she's a TV host. We stayed in touch, and I sent Ginger a copy of Remembering Blakey, and she invited me up to do her show. Knowing that she's a Beatles fan, I arranged a couple of Beatles tunes with a jazz style. I put a rhythm section together and we did "Imagine" as a jazz bossa, and we did "Happy Xmas." I had Marcus McLaurine on bass, Cecilia Coleman on piano, and Jonathan Mele on drums. We opened the show, and after my segment, when I went over to do my interview with Ginger, I noticed that Ginger was in tears. Hearing these Beatles songs got her emotional, so I'm thinking, "gee whiz, if I can make people cry with this music, maybe it's time to do the album since I'd been putting it off for forty years." That inspired me. And seeing that reaction, even to a jazz version, kind of surprised me. So there was that...along with something that Marcus said after the session. He said, "You know, John Lennon never really worked with a lot of people. He only worked with The Beatles and a handful of other musicians ...so it's a pretty unique thing, and you should seriously consider doing a tribute to John Lennon. That might be something that's nice, and the story that goes with it is kind of cool." So, between Marcus and Ginger, I was inspired to go home and start working.

AAJ: How long were you working on the album from conception to completion?

RA: About a year-and-a-half. It took me a couple of months to just go through all of the material. I have every piece of material that he wrote. I went through every song, one by one, and played them for a while until I felt fairly comfortable with them, trying to figure out which ones would work in the style that I had in mind. So when I finished that process, I almost felt that I was home.

AAJ: Was there ever a thought about making it just a Walls And Bridges-related project or did you want it to be more expansive, covering his entire solo career and The Beatles?

RA: No. And there's only one tune on the album from Walls And Bridges. The rest is a hodgepodge from various periods of his life. I chose a lot of songs that he co-wrote with Paul McCartney; "Imagine," of course, [is also on the album], but that wasn't on Walls And Bridges. So the only Walls And Bridges tune is "Whatever Gets You Thru The Night."

AAJ: The number one hit.

RA: Yeah, that was his big hit.

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