Jazz guitarist Randy Napoleon has plenty to celebrate as he rings in 2011 with Kerrytown shows
Jazz guitarist Randy Napoleon has reason to be happy as 2010 draws to a close. Not only did a CD he had a hand in making receive a Grammy nomination, the Ann Arbor native, who has earned a name for himself on the New York jazz, scene got married last summer.
“My wife, Allison, is from Pleasant Ridge, but we met in New York at a gig. She was a friend of one of my friends — he introduced us. It’s been a great, exciting time for me,” he said.
Napoleon will play two shows Saturday at Kerrytown Concert House. Up-and-coming New York-based trombone player Josh Brown and Ann Arbor bassist Paul Keller round out Napoleon’s trio.
The Grammy-nominated CD, in the category Best Jazz Vocal Album, is “Freddy Cole Sings for Mr. B” (no, not Ann Arbor’s Mr. B — this one pays tribute to swing-era icon Billy Eckstine). Napoleon, who arranged and performed on the disc, is understandably thrilled, but also modest about his involvement in the project.
“I don’t want to take too much credit,” he said. “I think sometimes these kinds of things are cumulative and Freddy has been a mainstay of jazz for 50 years. When the Grammy committee gave him a nod I think it was not only about this record, but about his whole career. I’m just really hoping they give it to him this time — I think he is long overdue and he deserves it. He’s such a treasure of a musician.”
The show Napoleon will debut in Ann Arbor has been in the making for two years, and has an unusual concept, he said.
“I’m not sure if I’ve ever heard a group that had trombone, guitar and bass, but I like it because it really opens up a lot of different colors,” Napoleon explained. “The obvious texture is to have a guitar and bass accompanying a trombone player playing a melody, but you can have the trombone player and the bass player playing harmony and the guitar playing melody on top of that. I think of it like a little tiny big band. We’ve got shout choruses, intros and endings. The possible textures available with these three instruments are amazing to me.”
He said the sound is influenced by other drummerless threesomes such as Oscar Peterson’s Trio or the Nat King Cole Trio, but without a piano. “That was deliberate for me,” Napoleon added, “because I wanted (the guitar) to influence the harmonic direction and the groove. And it’s also a very minimalist sound — there’s no drums, there’s no piano. There’s just a lot of wide-open space, kind of the opposite of my sextet. It’s a very different extreme.”
Besides his work with Freddy Cole, as well as with his own band, Napoleon has also been busy writing and arranging.
“That’s a major new development in my music career and something I’ve been focusing on,” he said. “It’s a new tool in self-expression and something I’ve always dabbled in, but I’ve been trying to dig in deep and learn about orchestrational techniques for larger groups. I’ve been writing a lot for my trio, writing for my sextet, and I’ve arranged a couple of records for other people. Pianist Duncan McMillan has been answering a lot of my questions about orchestration techniques. He is also the B3 Hammond organ player in my sextet.”
He said he’s looking forward to playing for a hometown crowd that will likely include his parents, former teachers (bassist Keller falls into that category) and friends.
Playing at Kerrytown “almost feels like ‘This is Your Life,’ he joked. “It’s my favorite place to play in the world. When I come back there it’s such an amazing feeling. I’ve known (KCH director) Deanna Relyea since I was 18 I played there when I was just a kid (he’s 33 now).
Despite his success in New York City, Napoleon said helping foster a thriving jazz scene in his hometown remains a priority.
“I really want to make an effort to bring back some of my friends from New York who I think are going to be exciting and that’s exactly what’s happening on this trip. (I want to) combine some special guests with some of the master musicians we have in Michigan. I want to keep the scene fertile, and add to it in my own little way.”
Josh Brown is the perfect example, said Napoleon.
“It’s unbelievable he’s a young musician, because nobody plays with the kind of deliberate intent that he has. He really carefully picks his notes and every note he plays — the groove is so centered, has so much bounce and life and beauty. He’s not the kind of trombone player who is going to wow you with pyrotechnics. What he has to offer is perfect, elegant, stylized delivery.”
Napoleon also to admits to a mission that goes beyond performing.
“I feel personally invested in the jazz scene in Michigan and in particular Ann Arbor because it’s my hometown. The structure has changed without a jazz club there. The university will still bring in some major artists for concerts, but some of the emerging artists, the really exciting stuff that’s happening in jazz right now, can disappear from Ann Arbor if we don’t take initiative.
“Josh Brown is one of the finest in that category. He’s not a household name but he’s a super talent and people are going to love him.”
â€¨Roger LeLievre is a freelance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com.