Interviewing international jazz star Eric Darius was not going to be an easy task. Initially we were to meet before one of his recent concerts, but that did not work out. Imprecise communications with the event promoter caused an unforeseen scheduling conflict. This, however, was the least concerning issue.
Darius, a native of New Jersey, is a resident of Florida; I, a Michigan native, am an avid fan of both Detroit Lions and New England Patriots of the National Football League. Probability of conflicted conversation was likely. “Well…as long as we don’t talk about sports, then it’s all good,” says the popular saxophonist, laughing. Having played basketball, soccer, and track, he admits sports is his second love to music. “I always tell myself had I not been a professional musician I probably would have been a professional basketball player.” Apparently he made the right career choice. Coached by the legendary Dave Koz, Eric Darius has amassed an adoring legion of fans the world over. His innovative soul-fused stirrings continue to hit nothing but net with all who listen.
Soul Train: Eric, what would you say has been your “slam dunk”?
Eric Darius: Wow… Well… [laughs] there’ve been a lot of slam dunks, so it’s really hard to define one. One of my slams dunks and crowning achievements was my Goin’ All Out album. It went to #1 on the Billboard charts! That was such a defining moment for me. I always dreamed of seeing my name at the top of the charts, and that was a dream-come-true for me. I hope there are many more slam dunks to come, but when I look back that comes to mind first.
Soul Train: What was it about music that lured you away from pursuing your dream of becoming a professional basketball player?
Eric Darius: The difference, really, is touching people’s lives. It’s one thing when you’re playing sports and having a time great, but it’s different when you’re on stage in front of thousands of people and you know your music is having an impact on someone’s life. That’s more meaningful to me than anything else, being able to give something of myself to help others. You don’t get that type of reward from playing a sport.
Soul Train: If you were to compare the way you approach jazz to being an athlete, would you be more like a quarterback, a pitcher, or a point guard?
Eric Darius: Hmmm…That’s kind of a difficult one. I’d probably say more so the quarterback. When it comes to my music it’s all about me and my experiences, and I pour that into the music I create. I always surround myself with a great team of musicians and people, and as the leader I’m naturally the quarterback.
Soul Train: You tour a great deal, getting to see a lot of your fans together as an audience. A quarterback stands in the backfield behind their offense line and has to see the entire field. When you’re on stage how well do you see the audience?
Eric Darius: I see the audience very well. On stage I read the crowd, I feed off the crowd’s energy. We’ll even change songs or our set based off that crowd. It’s really important you pay attention to the people in front of you because they’re the ones coming to see you perform. I cater to what they want.
Soul Train: How much of yourself do you “throw out” to them?
Eric Darius: 100%! I don’t hold anything back from my fans. I always want to be true to myself and always give the most of myself on stage. I always perform as if it’s my last time! I never hold anything back!
Soul Train: Okay, since you were a basketball player I have to ask you this: Would the 2012 USA Olympic Basketball beat the ’92 Dream Team?
Eric Darius: [Lets out a big sigh] That’s a tough one… Honestly…I don’t think so. The ’92 team of Michael Jordan, Bird, Magic and all those guys just had that experience…not to mention size! That’s what this 2012 team is lacking. They only have one guy, Tyson Chandler, as a center. And of course they have the rookie Anthony Davis. I don’t think this team has the experience. This team is more athletic, but you can’t beat all that experience; so I would have to go with the Dream Team.
Soul Train: Let’s say you’re the coach and you had to assemble a 5-member Dream Team of Jazz: who would be on it?
Eric Darius: Wow…my own Dream Team…I would have to have Herbie Hancock on keyboards, Marcus Miller on bass. On drums I’d have to have Teddy Campbell. On the guitar…so many good ones…I’d have to have Paul Jackson Jr., and Lenny Castro on percussion. There are so many great musicians out there but those would be the top guys I’d bring in.
Soul Train: Those are all-star choices! But if you had to add a vocalist to this team who’d make the roster?
Eric Darius: Ooooooo…I really dig Esperanza Spalding! She’s not only an incredible vocalist but a great bassist. She’d be a nice addition to the team.
Soul Train: You’d take Spalding over…Al Jarreau?!
Eric Darius: I like the youthful approach she brings to music. Me coming from the younger generation, that’s what I’m all about! I would have to take Esperanza, for sure.
Soul Train: You picked the ’92 Dream Team over today’s NBA/Olympic best because of experience. But with music you’re more about displaying youth than experience?
Eric Darius: A little bit of both. I listen to a lot of old school – John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Stevie Wonder, Al Green. I bring all those old school experiences and mix them with the new. You’ll hear elements of Jay-Z, Alicia Keys, and contemporary music all fused together. I like to have a mix, a balance of traditional and new school.
Soul Train: You just mentioned four prominent vocalists. I think one of the traits making you unique from other musicians is your ability to make your instrument sing. Of course you’re only blowing into to it, but how much of your voice gets in there?
Eric Darius: Really, all of it! I approach the saxophone as if I were a singer. I listen to vocalists to hear how they approach melodies, their notes, the differences in inflection. I try to copy that. Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite artists of all-time, hands down! He’s an incredible vocalist! If you listen to all the different things in his voice, everybody all over the world tries to emulate what he does. As a saxophone player I try to mimic that also. I try to sing through my instrument.
Soul Train: I’m sure that took lots of practice. Did playing basketball or the saxophone require the most investment of time?
Eric Darius: Well…what I did with my instrument, it’s all about putting time aside to practice, devoting yourself to your craft. In school it was all about sacrifice for me. I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. I went to performing arts high school so I studied music; I was in the jazz band, the jazz ensemble, the jazz combo, the marching band; I was also on the basketball team, soccer team, track team, I was doing 4 or 5 shows a week with my band… I was constantly just busy! My drive and focus was always my music. I always kept it as my top priority.
Soul Train: That no doubt took a lot of physical conditioning, as I’m sure it does today with your live performance demand. How do you maintain your social stamina?
Eric Darius: It’s tough. It’s really tough to juggle your professional life and your personal life, but I’ve always managed to do that. I’ve been friends with the same people for 15 to 20 years. My bass player has been playing with me since high school, my percussionist has been playing with me for 14 years, and we’re great friends outside of just being musicians on stage together. It’s important to keep my professional life intact and my personal life intact.
Soul Train: Eric, do you feel winded more so after a long performance or making preparations to get to those performances?
Eric Darius: It’s making the preparations to get to the performances! One of the most difficult aspects of being a touring artist is really the travel. When you’re going from one city to the next, you’re not getting enough sleep, you’re not eating properly; it really takes a toll on your body. That’s when I feel winded, when I don’t have as much stamina and energy as I’d like to! That’s the nature of life on the road. But I know my limitations. I’ve gotten to the point now when I know when I need to rest, when I need to eat, when I need to stop and shut it down. I don’t want that to affect my performance on stage. I have to take a time out.
Soul Train: Let’s call a time out now: Imagine yourself back in the gym…but with no spectators, completely quiet. It’s just you, a saxophone and a basketball. In that setting what thoughts in your head would loudly distract you from grabbing one or the other?
Eric Darius: Any unresolved issues with family, or any internal issues. We all go through personal struggles regardless of what it is; a little bit of unrest between friends and family, those kinds of things definitely affect me and would be a huge distraction of my creative process. It’s hard for me to really get into that creative zone unless my mind is free of ANY of those distractions.
For more on Eric Darius visit his official website ericdarius.com, or catch him in between shows on Twitter @ericdarius.
–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. Former Editor In Chief of both XPOZ Magazine and The Underwire Interactive Magazine, his work has graced the pages and covers of Hear/Say Now Magazine, Notion Magazine, Kalamazoo Gazette Newspaper, MLive.com, and AllHipHop.com. He loves to create, loves that you read. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker. Also visit TheGrooveSpt.com and ByMrJoeWalker.blogspot.com.