Gerald Albright: among the most respected, multi-dimensional and sought after saxophonists to straddle the fence of jazz and R&B. Stax Records: the legendary Memphis-based recording company that defined southern soul from the late `50s to the mid `70s. Turn the former loose on the latter and what do you get: Sax for Stax, a soul stirring stew of down home rhythm and blues chased with a mason jar of jazz. Consisting of eight passionately rendered covers of Stax classics (three with vocal guests Will Downing, Ledisi and Philip Bailey), plus three originals written with Memphis in mind, Sax for Stax (in stores June 24) marks the sax master's eleventh solo project and second for Peak Records, which along with Stax, is a division of the Concord Music Group.
Los Angeles native Albright (currently residing in Colorado) was approached by Peak Records Senior Vice President Mark Wexler with the idea of doing an album that tied into Concord's re-launching of the Stax label and Stax's 50th anniversary. Albright, who grew up listening to that music, loved the concept and immediately began selecting material, zoning in on classics from Johnnie Taylor (the feel-good blues tunes "Cheaper to Keep Her" and "Who's Making Love") to Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood"). "I went through two box sets with over 20 CDs to pick songs that felt good and would work well melodically for the saxophone," Gerald states. "Then my co-producer Rex Rideout and I split the list down the middle." Preliminary recording began in October 2007 with the bulk completed in January and February of 2008.
Sax for Stax opens with the scintillating "Theme from 'The Men'," a piece that Isaac Hayes was commissioned to compose for the ABC-TV adventure series about three "rugged individualists" after he won an Oscar and a Grammy for his far more famous "Theme from 'Shaft.'" "Rex raised an eyebrow when I brought that one to the table," Gerald says of Hayes' relatively obscure 1972 single, "but I thought it would be a great intro to the entire album. It would have been more obvious to do 'Shaft,' but I wanted to give people something they may have never heard. Isaac always wrote great instrumental arrangements so I took the challenge of making this one more like me." To do that, Gerald took a big band approach with his horn arrangement, "stacking" all of the alto, tenor and baritone sax lines, as well as flutes, himself! In addition, he played bass guitar on four of the musical selections on the CD. He also hired a top shelf band for this song and most of the album that consisted of drummer Teddy Campbell, bassist Melvin Davis, guitarist Errol Cooney, percussionist Lenny Castro, keyboardist Tracy Carter and string specialist Mark Cargill - a gentleman that Gerald played with for years in the late great O.C. Smith's City of Angels church band. "Like I do with saxes, Mark overdubs himself playing violin, viola and cello, which gives the music that real bow-on-string sound instead of synthesizers."
Authenticity and purity have always been crucial to Albright, especially on the soul music of Sax for Stax which demands an all natural approach. "Music has become too homogenized which I believe has contributed to the demise of so many radio stations in major markets across the country," Gerald laments. "I'm trying to bring back real music with heavy orchestration for people to appreciate all over again."
Gerald found like-minded contributors in the ever-busy co-producer and keyboardist Rex Rideout whose resume, like Gerald's, reads like a who's who of today's jazz and R&B. Then there is Gerald's longtime friend Will Downing - currently recovering from the debilitating muscle disorder Polymyositis - who made Albright one of his first calls when his strength returned. "I had been respecting his privacy and was shocked when he called," Albright shares. "He said, 'Gerald, let me record something here at home. If it works, cool. If not, no problem.' From his bedside, he recorded his vocals for 'Never Can Say Goodbye' (a Top 5 hit for Isaac Hayes at the exact same time the Jackson Five took it to the R&B chart top in 1971) and after Rex and I layered his parts they sounded great. Will truly enhanced the song with his signature silk. I was honored to include him on my album and welcome him back to recording in addition to his own latest album, After Tonight (which Gerald also played on)."
Another vocal guest is another old friend, Philip Bailey, known as both a solo artist and as lead vocalist of Earth Wind & Fire whose distinctive falsetto has graced dozens of major pop hits. "I've known Philip from years of doing sessions for EWF," Gerald shares, "and also from playing bass for him on his early solo gospel dates. I knew the timbre of his voice would be perfect for my Latin take on 'Whatcha See is Whatcha Get' (a 1971 hit by vocal quintet The Dramatics - its title a catch phrase of the sassy character "Geraldine" on "The Flip Wilson Show").
Then there is Ledisi, a singer rounding up new fans wherever she goes via the volcano of vocal power erupting from her cute diminutive frame, who turns in an especially tangy and animated performance here. "I met Ledisi when we both participated in a tribute to Luther Vandross concert at Madison Square Garden," Gerald recalls. "Rex suggested I use her on Sax for Stax, and when we called to see if she'd like to sing the Staple Singers' "Respect Yourself" (a platinum selling single of righteous and timeless relevance...again from 1971), she almost turned a flip. It turns out the Staples are one of her favorite groups...so she killed it!"
Of course, Gerald Albright's tone, particularly on alto and tenor saxophones, is a mesmerizing voice unto itself. This is evident throughout the project and particularly on his bewitching rendition of the backbeat blues boiler "I Stand Accused" (a Jerry Butler classic from 1964 that Isaac Hayes gave the symphonic soul treatment on in 1970). Gerald takes his time to milk every last drop of soul from his horn. The background vocals were handled by his daughter Selina Albright who, like her daddy, layered her voice to sound like female backing trio. "Lina blends with herself very well with inflection and intonation," Gerald shares with pride. "That song was supposed to be completely instrumental, but she was over to the house one day and we started playing around with the track in my studio. She listened to the original, took a few notes and before I knew it, it was on. I sent an MP3 of what we did to Rex and he said, 'Man, this is the bomb!' I also had her do the whispery vocal part on 'The Men.' When I told her she had to sound sexy, it took her a minute...she couldn't stop cracking up!" Selina's vocal parts mark the tenth anniversary of her first three recordings with her father on his Live to Love Lp in 1998.
Turning to the originals, Gerald cooked up the sexy "Memphis Passion" (a smoothie featuring Rick Watford on electric and acoustic guitars, and Arlington Jones on keyboards) and the funky "W.C. Handy Hop," a tip of the hat to Memphis' Father of The Blues spiked with Gerald's inescapable affection for James Brown in the horn parts flown in by way of Augusta GA. How inescapable? The JB vibe is also prominent in the rhythm of "Who's Making Love!" Perhaps most special of the originals is "Walking Down Beale Street," an evocative piece in tribute to Memphis' famed night life epicenter on which Gerald duets with tenor sax giant Kirk Whalum - a native of Memphis. "Kirk and I have been friends for years and recently played together on the 'Guitars and Saxes' tour," Gerald states. "I originally wrote this song for an album we've been threatening to record together, but decided to use it here. It's only fair because I co-wrote and played on the song 'Back in the Day' from his latest album, Round Trip. I guess we'll just have to come up with more stuff for OUR album."
Coming up with more has never been a problem for Gerald Albright. It's what's made him one of the most soulful performers in all of instrumental music. Since his recording debut as a leader with 1987's Just Between Us. Gerald was born in Hollywood, California and raised in south central Los Angeles. His mom and dad had him taking piano lessons at age 7, but he didn't like it much. Noting his disinterest, his teacher George Turpeau intuitively dug an old alto saxophone out of his garage to see if Gerald liked that better. Almost instantly, young Gerald found an axe he could, literally, embrace. His primary influences became alto legend Julian "Cannonball" Adderley and tenor greats John Coltrane, Eddie Harris, and Maceo Parker. Gerald's playing was nurtured to fertile fruition upon attending famed Locke High School and the University of Redlands (where he took up electric bass after seeing Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson in concert).
After graduating, Gerald hit the road as a member of Locke alumnus/keyboardist Patrice Rushen's band. After recording a now signature tenor solo on her Top 5 R&B smash "Forget Me Nots," Gerald swiftly found himself a first-call fixture on the studio and touring scenes. His saxophone and electric bass work have graced hundreds of recordings by legends such as Barry White, Phil Collins, Nancy Wilson, The Temptations, Stanley Clarke, Randy Newman and Teena Marie...to name only a few. Among his personal bests was playing seductive alto sax on Quincy Jones' "Septembro" (from Q's 12-weeks-at-#1 classic, Back on the Block). Spotted backing Anita Baker, Gerald was personally signed by Sylvia Rhone to Atlantic Records in 1987 where he recorded seven albums that cemented his reputation as a chart-topper with critically acclaimed chops. He moved to the Verve family in 1998 for Pleasures of the Night with Will Downing then released two more solo CDs Groovology (2002) and Kickin' it Up (2004).
Gerald signed with Peak Records the following year and released his first album for the company in 2006 with New Beginnings, which topped Billboard's Contemporary Jazz Chart - his first to do so since Dream Come True in 1990. However, his new Sax for Stax set is perhaps the most fun one he has made in his career to date. "Rex and I and my manager all felt the same," Gerald beams. "We cut all of the rhythm tracks live in California and I did most of the horns in my home studio in Colorado. I loved using the baritone sax to hold down the bottom of the horns. It's a real specialty instrument. You don't just jump on ‘bari' after playing tenor or alto!"
Gerald's already been performing "Cheaper to Keep Her" and "Never Can Say Goodbye" with Guitars & Saxes. Now he's taking his own 7-piece band on the road. "Memphis is a great city from which many great musicians have made tremendous contributions to the music," Gerald concludes. "I have several friends there who are just real down home people! I love hanging out on Beale Street and playing in places like the New Daisy Theatre. And I'll tie all of the rich history of Stax by promoting this album in conjunction with The Stax Museum" (which resides at the very East McLemore Avenue address where the original Memphis Soul Stews were made...authentic...just like Albright likes it)!