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Ron Aprea: Passion Supreme


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Ron Aprea is a saxophonist's saxophonist. After all, none less than the late, great Frank Foster called him friend, confidant, section mate and leader. And Foster wasn't alone in this regard. Aprea has been a mainstay and graced the sax section in the bands of Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman and many others. A multi-faceted musician with impeccable alto playing, superb composing and arranging chops, Aprea has produced dozens of successful recordings, including for star vocalist, Angela Deniro (Mrs. Ron Aprea). His second CD as leader, Remembering Blakey (CD Baby, 2013) has received rave reviews, significant airplay, and has been submitted for a Grammy nomination in multiple jazz categories.

All About Jazz: Please tell us how Remembering Blakey came about.

Ron Aprea: The album came about in an ambiguous kind of a way. Originally, it was going to be a big band album. I had spent close to a year writing big band charts. Had a couple of rehearsals in town and the band sounded wonderful, the music was fine but, I then realized that this big band production was too big for my budget. So, I decided to scale things down and add some new tunes and decided to record with the sextet. In re-writing the music, I kept hearing "Blakey"—Blakey's name kept popping up at different times while I was in the process of re-writing the music. Still, I hadn't thought about calling it "A Tribute to Art Blakey," or Remembering Art Blakey, but, sometimes things evolve. I remember Vince Cherico coming into the studio and asking me what kind of feel I wanted, I said: "Blakey." So the whole thing had a "Blakey vibe" to it right from the beginning. Shortly after the session I realized that I should really dedicate this album to the person who inspired it—Art Blakey. It was his influence right from the beginning that dictated the style of my arrangements. And it was the memory of complete ecstasy for me as I sat in the Birdland gallery listening to Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers tearing it up. So Remembering Blakey kinda' seems appropriate.

AAJ: Are there any Blakey compositions or tunes on the recording?

RA: No, actually there are not. These arrangements are in the Blakey style. Blakey, as most people know, was a great drummer, not a composer that I'm aware of. This wasn't an imitation or remake of Blakey material. This is music played in the "Blakey style" which is Hard Bop—with background riffs behind the solos. A "Jazz Messengers" style to it without actually playing any tunes that Blakey recorded.

AAJ: Paul Brusger did a number of original tunes for the recording. Can you tell us a little about his writing style and why you selected those compositions?

RA: Paul Brusger and I have been great friends for many years. Paul and other various rhythm players would meet here and play. I have a recording studio here in my home. We would get together here and play—an artsy-fartsy get-together—and Paul and I were both composing songs. So, these sessions were a great place to fine tune them. Paul was knocking all of us out with his writing. So, I thought it was about time that Paul's tunes be recorded in a setting that would do them justice. I'm happy for Paul, he's a wonderful composer.

AAJ: Having listened to the recording, I think that Paul has really captured the "Blakey vibe" or sound in the compositions and the performance.

RA: Paul is from that Hard Bop school. He's also a fine bassist, and hard bop is his meat. I thought his tunes would be perfect for this project. We recorded six of Paul's originals, plus some standards. But, it's fun playing his tunes; they are a challenge and some of his changes are different and interesting.

AAJ: I believe some of his tunes here are based on other tunes' changes—"Flown the Coop" on "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "Andrea's Delight" on "Giants Steps" or "Ladybird?"

RA: "Andrea's Delight" is not either. They're his own chord changes—he goes through a number of key changes on this tune. He'll write tunes on standard changes and he'll write tunes on his own chord changes as well.

AAJ: Please tell me about your choice of personnel on this recording. Why these players?

RA: Well, I hand-picked people who understand this style. I couldn't think of a better horn section than trumpeter, Joe Magnarelli and tenor player, Jerry Weldon. They've spent years playing together. They have their own Hard Bop quintet, and they've both played in the Harry Connick Jr. Big Band together. And they're great friends and great friends of mine. I couldn't think of anybody who could have played this music any better.

AAJ: And the rhythm section?

RA: The rhythm section, with great care, was hand-picked as well—all friends who I've worked with before. Pianist Cecilia Coleman and I have done six recording projects together. This makes seven. Tim Givens also. I met Cecilia through Don Sickler. Don helped me put a band together for a vocal production. The vocalist is my wife, Angela DeNiro and Don put this rhythm section together for that project which was to be called "My Shining Hour." Then came 9/11 and things were put on hold for a year or so. We eventually completed that project, but with slightly different personnel. But Cecilia, Tim Givens, and Vince Cherico were in the original plan, and all three have been involved with my productions and gigs ever since.

AAJ: Can you tell us a little about your background and playing history?

RA: I was fortunate to play in a lot of great big bands. The early part of my career was spent touring with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Les Elgart, Buddy Morrow, Nat Adderley (big band gospel), Frank Foster, and others. Actually, Lionel's was a small band with just three horns. But, I also worked a little bit with Tito Puente's band, subbing for both Don Palmer on alto and Dick Meza on tenor. I also did some Broadway stuff. I did subs for Jon Gordon on the "Song Of Singapore" show. Great show. The band was on stage and it was like playing a jazz concert to a full house every night. Lots of improvised solos and with great players—Oliver Jackson was on drums, Earl May on bass, Dennis Wilson on trombone. I mean this was serious. That's pretty much my background. I did step out of the jazz scene and did an album with John Lennon called "Walls and Bridges."

AAJ: In listening to the ballads on Remembering Blakey—"Goodbye," "Sophia," "My Foolish Heart" and "Lover Man," you play very passionately. Who were some of your playing influences?

RA: OK, I guess, thinking back early on, Johnny Hodges—when I was in high school—"Rabbit" banged it home for me. Later, of course, the usual players—Charlie Parker and in the 60s, John Coltrane. I loved Trane's "outside" high-energy style. I played in Frank Foster's big band which was sort of an "outside" kind of big band, and the only big band really doing that kind of stuff. Other influences were Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Eric Dolphy, Sonny Stitt—I love Sonny's stuff—also Phil Woods. You probably hear a lot of Charlie Mariano in my playing. I spent years studying Charlie's recordings. He did an album called Portrait of an Artist that I totally fell in love with.

AAJ: "Goodbye" is on "Remembering Blakey." I know that you did a "Goodbye" You Tube solo as a dedication to your long-time friend, Frank Foster. Please tell me about your friendship with Frank and how that came about.

RA: When I was old enough to get my driver's license, I'd go to Birdland all the time. I was living in Astoria, Queens, outside of New York City, and Basie's band would always be playing at Birdland. When Basie was in town, I would go down there two or three nights a week and just listen to that band. Frank Foster had already become an international star—an up and coming monster! And he was writing all these great charts for the Basie Band, such as "Blues in Hoss' Flat," "Discommotion," "Shiny Stockings," "Who Me," and many more. And I remember going down there with a couple of my friends around the holidays. We gave the announcer/maître d,' Pee Wee Marquette, a few bucks and he put us at a table right in front of the band...on the "50-Yard Line," sitting right in front of Marshall Royal.

And I remember this photographer gal coming over and wanting to take our picture. One of my friends asked: "If you bring Frank Foster over, then you can take our picture," never thinking that would ever happen. Well, she leaves and about 10 minutes later, when the band took a break, she comes over with Frank Foster—she was determined to make that sale! So Frank then comes over, sits down at the table, and we started chatting. Of course, we took the picture.

I had just put a big band together. My first big band—a rehearsal band. We were playing stock arrangements—you know, Johnny Warrington stocks. In those days, if you needed an arrangement, you wrote your own or bought stock arrangements. So, in talking to Frank that night, I asked him if he had any old arrangements. Frank then said for us to come back one night and he's give us some stuff. So, I went back by myself, and Frank comes over and says "Sorry, I forgot the music. But I don't want you to leave empty-handed." So, the next thing I know, I look up at the bandstand, right before the next set and I see Marshall Royal, Sonny Payne, Frank Wess, Benny Powell, Snooky Young—all my heroes—pulling music out of the book and handing them over to Frank. And he hands me his arrangement of "Speak Low." And, then he apologized—which I never understood, since he had just given me a chart—but he said he wanted to help me get my band going. Then he invited me up to his apartment—he lived on Central Park West. So, I called and eventually went up to his house and he started pulling out all of this stuff—brand new arrangements that the Basie band had just recorded. He allowed me to copy them and asked that I bring the score back when I was done copying. Those early manuscripts were pretty bad, but I eventually became a decent copyist, plus I learned a whole lot just copying his scores. So, that's how the relationship got started.

Frank had two small kids and so did I. Sometimes we'd just get together and take the kids for a walk in Central Park and just hang. But always talking about music. Frank, after more than a decade of playing with Basie, started getting tired of touring and doing one-nighters. He made up his mind to leave Basie and put his own big band together. Since I knew the local scene, he asked me to give him a hand with the contracting, which I did. I also did some copying and was happy that I finally had an opportunity to repay Frank for all that he had done for me.

That was over fifty years ago. We stayed great friends. I played in his band for a couple of years. Got to play with Elvin Jones. We did a gig for the Left Bank Jazz Society in Baltimore. We went down there with Frank's big band and we totally rocked the place. We had Blue Mitchell, Jimmy Owens, Jimmy and Benny Green, Arnie Lawrence, Al Daly, Frank Wess, Major Holley—a star-studded lineup. It just exploded. You know, with most big bands during that period, with the exception of Duke Ellington, and maybe Tito Puente, the band was the feature and the soloists were used sparingly or to set up ensembles. In Frank's big band, it was totally different—the features for him were the improvised solos. So he would open everything up and we would make up riffs behind the soloist and Elvin would be doing his thing. Frank ran his band closer to a small group concept with the emphasis on the soloists—and, never played the form of an arrangement the same way twice.

AAJ: Going back to the album for a second, in listening to the album, there's very much a "live vibe" to it. Was that intentional?

RA: I work hard on this. I built my own studio about ten years ago. And every time I do a project, I get a little better with the sound. I think what a lot of people in the recording industry don't understand is that it's not how much equipment you have, rather it's knowing what musical instruments are supposed to sound like. A lot of recording engineers today don't do acoustic recording, so you can't really blame them. They don't know what a live guitar or saxophone sounds like. It's all electronics and synths now. These kids know their equipment better than I ever will. I don't know the difference between an Hz and a potato. I mix from the seat of my pants and I sit there and play with it until it sounds right. I pride myself on getting a good sound in my studio. Several reviewers, including you, have commented about the good fidelity on Remembering Blakey and I get as big a kick out of that as the positives about the music itself.

AAJ: As we speak today, Remembering Blakey has received outstanding reviews and has even been submitted for a Grammy nomination.

RA: I'm overwhelmed by the response I'm getting from musicians and the reviews. I went on one website and read like eighteen five-star reviews.

AAJ: Why do you think that is?

RA: I don't know. Part of it, I guess, is that a lot of new albums are trying to hard to be different. For this Grammy program, I'm listening to literally hundreds of artists' productions. We share our music and try to gain support. Some of it is great, but many are way over-produced—maybe trying too hard to be different and innovative. And maybe forcing it a bit in some cases. Apparently there is still an audience for straight ahead music that swings.

AAJ: I think it's because it's a very genuine presentation. A fine portrait of the musicians here and the Blakey/Messenger Era and classic Hard Bop tradition.

RA: I think there's simplicity here. Not that the music is simple or easy to play, but simplicity is in the style. It's straight-ahead, toe-tapping, high-energy, happy music and easy to understand. A Hard Bop feel to it. Not many people are doing that anymore. So in that respect it's really different, but it's pretty much what I've been doing all my life.

AAJ: What's coming down the pike?

AAJ: On behalf of All about Jazz, thank you and good luck on the Grammy nomination and all your future projects.

RA: Thank you Nick, and thanks to All About Jazz.

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