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Ron Aprea's Tribute to John Lennon


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We recently caught up with saxophonist, composer/arranger and educator/clinician, Ron Aprea and spoke with him about recent activities and his current recording project—his personal John Lennon/Beatles tribute.

All About Jazz: The last half of 2013 and the time so far in 2014 have been quite positive for you. Let me ask you first about Remembering Blakey. It received excellent reviews and media attention.

Ron Aprea: We got off to a great start with that project. The reviews were all good and it was also up for Grammy nominations in three categories—Best Jazz Album, Best New Artist and Best Jazz Arrangement for "Cherokee." We had a good run and actually made it up to the final cut. The exposure was good for me. It did well as CD Baby keeps sending me checks and asking me for more CDs. There are 29 Five-Star reviews on my page there and many elsewhere.

AAJ: I also see that you've been performing regularly with your big band gig at Trumpets Jazz Club & Restaurant in New Jersey.

RA: Yes, with my vocalist—and wife—Angela. I've been doing Trumpets with Angela and my small group for years. One night we were hanging with the owners, Kristine and Enrico, at a barbecue at our house and they had no idea that I had a big band book—with Frank Foster's charts and mine -as well. So, I had him listen to some demo things I had. I really had no interest in doing that, since it's a lot of work—and, as you know, not a lot of money. But, they kind of rekindled the big band flame that's been smoldering around in there and I'm glad they did. Jimmy Young, who I've been playing with since the 60s and who knows all the great New Jersey Area players, has been helping out with the contracting for us. And, it's been going great and we're having fun.

AAJ: Who's on the band?

RA: Cecelia Coleman's playing piano, Jimmy Young's playing drums, Bob Millikan is playing lead trumpet. Arthur Barron, who is a ridiculous trombone player. Eddie Xiques on baritone, Marty Fogel on tenor. Nathan Eklund, Dave Roberts, Justin Hernandez are the trumpets. Mark Friedman and a young monster on alto named Marc Schwartz. Marc studied with me through high school and got his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Eastman Conservatory and he's just tearing it up around New York. The band is a nucleus of players as most good players are busy. So, for example, if Bob Millikan is busy, another strong lead player will fill in.

AAJ: And it's a regular monthly gig?

RA: Yes, the last Sunday of each month. We'll be there for the next four or five months at least.

AAJ: You've mentioned on both Social and Broadcast Media that you have a John Lennon/Beatles project in the works. Can you tell me about it and your involvement with Lennon?

RA: Sure, I did an album with John Lennon in 1974 entitled Walls and Bridges. It was his first attempt with horns-this was after he had left The Beatles. It was a five horn section that he used—all jazz players, with the exception of Bobby Keyes, who is known more for his rock solos. Frank Vicari was on tenor, Howard Johnson on bass sax and baritone, Steve Madaio on trumpet and I played alto. It was a big album for John. As a matter of fact, his only Grammy was for "Whatever Get You through the Night" from Walls and Bridges. I have wanted to do a Lennon album for years. I guess what inspired me to do this album was through Ginger Broderick who does a television show on MNN. It's a weekly show that broadcasts live from New York every Friday and is called "Ginger New York." I did her show earlier this year and, knowing that she's a huge Beatles fan, I played two Lennon tunes, "Imagine" (with a Bossa/Jazz feel) and "Happy Christmas" (with a 6/8 feel). When we finished playing and I went to sit down for her interview, I saw that she was quite overwhelmed to the point she was welling up with tears. So, I thought: "If my treatment of John's music has that effect on people, maybe I should do the Lennon tribute now. And, it just seems like the right time."

AAJ: How did you hook up with Lennon in the first place?

RA: That's a funny story. Steve Madaio and I have been friends for many years. We were both living on Long Island at that time. And, at that time he had been touring with Paul Butterfield, the The Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder and others. We were talking on the phone one night -as we still do, even though he now lives out in Palm Springs—and Steve says: "What are you doing tomorrow? I have a small recording project you might want to do." From the casualness of Steve's voice in the middle of our conversation, it sounded like a jam session, demo date, or things like that that we would regularly do. I said I was good and I had no idea it was with John Lennon.

AAJ: What was your reaction when you walked into the studio and saw Lennon?

RA: Well, right before we hung up, I asked him "Who's the record date for?" Steve said: "Oh, it's for John Lennon!" That's Steve! That's my man! He's pretty casual. He drops the bomb. He likes to shock you.

AAJ: And, when you went in for the session?

RA: Well, there were five horns on the sessions. So, before we started I asked Steve if I could take a peek at the alto book. He had this frightened expression on his face, his eyes got big and he said: "There's no music." I thought he was kidding me or trying to test if my sight-reading chops were up to the gig. We chuckled and I asked again. He said: "There's no music, but, it's cool. Just listen to me. It gets easier as you go."

AAJ: So Steve did the horn parts?

RA: Yeah. We had five horns with no music.

AAJ: I think he did that in-studio horn lines arranging with Stevie Wonder. They were Steve's licks.

RA: Steve has that great arranging head, not technical arranging with a score pad, but arranging for the kind of stuff he did with Stevie—"head arrangements." And, as the Lennon session went on, as Steve had said, it got easier -although some of the keys were weird Rock 'n' Roll keys—E Major, A Major—and playing in a different genre, which for me, me being a jazz man and just coming off Lionel Hampton's band was different. I basically latched on to him. Then we started adding harmonies. But, we all settled in and I had fun working with Lennon who was a very cool guy to work with.

AAJ: Ron, please tell us about the upcoming Lennon/Beatles Tribute recording, the repertoire, personnel and so forth.

RA: Believe it or not, it's almost completed as far as the playing goes. I've got an amazing band. I've loaded it up with great players. For example, Brian Lynch is sharing the solos with me. Brian is my all-time favorite jazz trumpet player. This is the third recording project I've done with him. I love working with Brian. He's great in the studio and he's a real sweet guy. He stays there until he gets it right. He's one of my favorite people. The horn section is similar to the one we had on the Walls and Bridges Lennon album—Bob Millikan on trumpet, Frank Perowsky on tenor, Steve Greenfield on alto and Marc Schwartz on flute. I'm playing alto, soprano and a little flute. I also have a string section on it. My son, Matt, who is an amazing classically-trained violinist and an Eastman graduate, is playing on it and I decided to showcase him. I had the strings playing like these Charlie Parker Bebop lines on it. So we had to get string players who understood the jazz language. We used a string quartet. The kids were smoking—at my age, everybody's a kid!

AAJ: And where was it recorded?

RA: Right here in my studio. Every time I do another project I learn a little bit more about sound, fidelity and mixing. I was also very happy to also have a friend, Ken Wallace, who has a state-of-the-art studio—Ian London Studio out in Islip -loan me some ribbon microphones and the strings sound delicious.

AAJ: What's the tune list?

RA: The charts are my arrangements of a dozen Lennon/McCartney tunes and one George Harrison tune, "Something," which I did as a real up-tempo swinger—with an almost Frank Sinatra feel to it. We did three Lennon tunes which he wrote after leaving the Beatles, "Imagine," "Happy Christmas" and "Whatever Gets You Through the Night," the one he won his Grammy for. I liked the tune. I put a Latin, up-tempo Mambo feel to it. I think it's going to be pretty interesting. I also called May Pang maybe two months ago. May was associated with John in 1974 at the time he did the Walls and Bridges album. That's how long I've known her. May and I have remained good friends. She has these barbecues at her house and invites me, Angela and my son, Matt. So, I called her and asked her what tune she might like on the album. That's when I discovered that John's only Grammy was for "Whatever Gets You Through the Night." So, I decided to put a Tito Puente feel to it.

AAJ: What's your target date for release of the recording?

RA: We're shooting for some time in the fall.

AAJ: A hypothetical question: What do you think might have been Lennon's take on this recording?

RA: I'm thinking it would be positive. I've heard a lot of jazz versions of The Beatles' music and many of them are excellent. But, many also distort or change the original melodies. With this album, I tried not to do that. Regarding John liking it ... that's kind of hard to say since John and the Beatles were constantly evolving. So, John's musical taste in 1974 might likely be different today. I assume he would like it. I'll probably get some feedback from Paul McCartney and Ringo. I think The Beatles themselves and Beatles fans will love it. I say that because it's a big, well-planned production—not just putting a bunch of jazz cats around a microphone and blowing. With the lushness of the strings, the energy of the rhythm section, a tight horn section, creative soloing and carefully planned arrangements, I think it's going to be well-received.

Photo of Ron Aprea holding two framed pictures from the 1974 recording session of Lennon's Walls And Bridges album. (L) John Lennon's photo-copied face and (R) with Steve Madaio, Ron Aprea and John Lennon.

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