Sound Check: Najee – Breathe

The soprano saxophone weighs just over two pounds, lighter than the average newborn baby. Like an infant the sax requires a parent to give it life. Jazz musician Najee has been parenting for more than three decades. His guidance has made him a globally acclaimed platinum-selling legend; the amount of air needed to keep his instrument performing requires physical discipline. “Playing an instrument is honestly a real physical thing, it does require some physical exertion,” says the Jamaica, Queens, New Yorknative, real name Jerome Najee Rasheed. “It’s always healthy to keep some form of exercise. When I’m riding my bike or walking I practice my breathing. But it doesn’t require a whole lot of extraneous work.” A career does.

Najee began his career working out with the likes of The Main Ingredient and Chaka Khan before releasing his classic solo debut Najee’s Theme in 1986. Known for reinterpreting popular slow jams as jazz numbers, Najee has since released 14 albums – including current LP The Smooth Side of Soul. While throughout he’s collaborated with an extensive list of stellar standout artists–including George Duke, Herbie Hancock, Pattie Labelle, Will Downing, and the late Vesta Williams–the saxophone has remained the constant.

In this SoulTrain.com exclusive interview with Najee he opens up about being a trendsetter, jazz being stereotyped as “sad music”, and explains the relationship between a musician and their instrument.

Soul Train: It seems like when a jazz musician reaches a certain level of prominence the instrument they play almost takes on a personality of its own. Najee, at this stage in your career do you feel you’re collaborating with your saxophone?

Najee: Honestly? It does have an identity of its own at this stage. As a young musician you go through experimentation, imitating people, or trying to sound like this or that. But I always ended up sounding like myself. Over time that has become my signature sound, as people would say. Most people when they hear it they know it’s me.

Soul Train: I hope this question isn’t too strange: What song do you think your sax sounds best on?

Najee: I don’t know if I can answer that. I’ve recorded probably… 4 or 500 songs by now! [Laughs] I don’t think I can decide on that particular one. And it might sound better today than it did yesterday. Who knows?

Soul Train: Fair enough. Has anyone ever complimented just your saxophone instead of complimenting you for playing it or how you sound playing it?

Najee: Yeah. For example: I have a video out featuring Phil Perry for the song “Just To Fall In Love”. I’m using a very beautiful looking saxophone. Sometimes those real pretty ones aren’t always the best ones. At concerts women will see it and say, “Oh, it SO pretty!” [Laughs] But it’s not as nice-sounding as that old one you don’t like looking at. It’s the ones that don’t look like anything that usually have the best sound.

Soul Train: Have you ever known a musician to become overwhelmed by their instrument?

Najee: Definitely. The sax is a very demanding instrument. It requires a lot of attention in terms of consistency. There’ve been periods when I’ve been overwhelmed or put in challenging situations. It feels as though you’re challenged in ways you’ve never been challenged before.

Soul Train: You spend so much time carrying it around and being behind it. People hear it sometimes before they even hear your voice. Is it easy to lose sight of who you are underneath the instrument’s weight?

Najee: I’m not really sure that has to do with the physical instrument as much as the person themselves and their relationship to it. The instrument is really just a vehicle to communicate the music, but the sound…  The sound, the music itself, is in the person’s spirit, in their head, in their mind, in the way they think as a musician. It’s in their experience. I’ve owned a lot of saxophones, and they may all sound a little different from each other. If I put any of them on a record they’re all going to pretty much sound like me. So the instrument really takes on the character or the identity of the musician.

Soul Train: I understand the instrument is not a living thing, but I’ve also heard other musicians refer to their relationship with their instrument as a partnership. Can you explain what that means?

Najee: I think what they’re really trying to say is they have a relationship, the instrument communicates the way they hear themselves playing the music. They’re able to develop a certain relationship with the instrument physically to be able to communicate their ideas or how they feel through sound.

Soul Train: Since you brought up feeling… How did you handle the news of Vesta passing?

iTunes:

The Smooth Side of Soul - Najee
Buy music from Najee on iTunes


Najee: It hit me pretty hard. I have a story I’d like to tell you. I have two, actually. One: The last time I saw Vetsa we were recording a TV show at the Capitol building in Los Angeles – the Will Downing Christmas special. I hadn’t seen her in many years. She came to me and said, “I want to apologize to you.” So I said, “Why…do you feel the need to apologize?”  She went on to explain when she performed with me on my Tokyo Blue album that she never received her payment. She thought we never paid her. The problem was she went on the radio saying, “Najee never paid me for this song”. She felt inclined to apologize because it wasn’t true. We paid her manager – that was the standard procedure. And he never forwarded her money. So she resolved whatever issue she had with me, and, as fate would have it, I never saw her again.

Soul Train: That is crazy! So, what’s the second story?

Najee: Back when the Tokyo Blue album was out and we had that song – “I’ll Be Good to You” – I was having a little bit of a problem getting on the Arsenio Hall Show. My manager at the time was in a lawsuit with Paramount, and Arsenio wasn’t allowing any of his acts on the show. So he gets a call from my record label saying, “Why are you punishing Najee for this silliness?” And Arsenio’s response was, “Look, the only way I’ll allow Najee on the show is if Vesta comes with him.” That’s how we were able to get on the Arsenio Hall Show the very first time, because she came and performed with me. They didn’t allow me to sit on the couch, but, much to Arsenio’s credit, I think I went on the show 4 or 5 times after that point. Vesta was the one who at least allowed me to be able to establish a relationship with him!

Soul Train: When you and Vesta performed “I’ll Be Good to You” live, how well did her voice blend with your saxophone without studio mixing?

Najee: Very well! I hate to say this, but that’s the only time we ever performed that song! It was when we did it on television. We never had the opportunity to tour together. But it was always natural with her because she was such a professional vocalist. We had similar history; we both performed with Chaka Khan’s band at different times around the same time. Things like that.

Soul Train: Your song together was really groundbreaking at that time. I know Herb Alpert collaborated with R&B acts, but nothing like “I’ll Be Good to You”. That song could have been pop, contemporary; it really didn’t have a genre or was easily defined. You heard a lot of similar songs come behind it. You sparked a trend.

Najee: You’re probably right about that. Yeah, I think so; or we at least continued one.  Prior to that you had people like Grover [Washington Jr.] and Jean Carne who did some nice things together. I believe Ronnie Laws did some things with his sister – Debra Laws. During that time for R&B radio an instrumentalist and a vocalist coming together was really good. And honestly, if I remember correctly, I think that was one of the albums I won a Soul Train Music Award for Best Jazz Artist.

Soul Train: Najee, when people are remembered on television or there’s a sad scene in a movie, why do you think they use jazz music?

Najee: [Laughs] I really don’t know… I wish I knew! I have this one song that was kind of a happy moment in the movie 3 Men and a Little Lady many years ago. The song was in a party scene. I really don’t know though. Maybe it just fits the mood. I don’t like to think of the stuff I do as totally sad. [Laughs] I hope not anyway!

Soul Train: What do you think your music has done for the mood of jazz since you came along into the genre?

Najee: I think I’ve been fortunate. I recall in the 80s there was a decline in the industry. Everything goes in cycles. When I came on the scene there were several artists recording instrumental music: You had Kenny G who’d done maybe four albums, George Howard had done about four, and then I came in with Najee’s Theme and went straight to having a gold record and being #1 on Billboard for 13 weeks. So I think it did help to revive the industry in some way, along with having an audience who was willing to buy the music. I was one of those people for sure.

Soul Train: Najee, through the course of your life, where have you breathed the most life – into the lives you’ve touched with music, the lives of your loved ones, or into your saxophone?

Najee: [Laugh] Obviously I’d like to think it’s touched more than just the saxophone! [Laughs] It’s an inanimate object. It doesn’t mean anything without the player. More importantly, I hope it’s been a vehicle to help some people – young people in particular – be inspired to have a dream and a vision and actually want to do it, to be able to continue on doing it. I was a kid with very humble beginnings, and a simple dream to want to do something I was passionate about. I hope people don’t look at me and I think I was destined to be successful. I don’t see my life that way at all. I see somebody who worked, and when opportunity came…thank goodness I was prepared.

For more information on Najee visit his official website www.NajeeOnline.com

Want to sample Najee’s new album The Smooth Side of Soul? Go here: http://soundcloud.com/shanachie-entertainment/sets/najee-the-smooth-side-of-soul/s-Vgsmw

–Mr. Joe Walker

Mr. Joe Walker, a senior contributor for SoulTrain.com, is an acclaimed entertainment and news journalist published thousands of times regionally, nationally, internationally, and online. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker. Also visit ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com and TheUIMag.com.

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