Since the release of ‘Love Season’ in 1989 composer, producer and keyboard player Alex Bugnon has been a sophisticated and high quality constant on the contemporary jazz scene. His latest album is titled ‘Harlem’ and those remembering Bugnon’s 1995 track ‘Harlem On My Mind’ might be forgiven for expecting something that is smoothly moody throughout. Yet, with the exception of a couple of songs, it’s no criticism to say that this is very different music and when recently I got the chance to talk to Alex from his home in New York I started out by asking him what his motivation for the new CD was.
“I wanted people to see the complete Alex Bugnon” he told me, “And to experience the entire range of styles that I love to play whether that be gospel, straight ahead, funk, soul or contemporary jazz. Although people know me for a certain brand of jazz I have never been satisfied in making music according to a formula. In fact I have never done that.”
Formulaic is something that ‘Harlem’ is definitely not and I was interested to learn just how the tracks were selected.
“You know”, he confided, “the process was relatively random. I’m equally comfortable with jazz classics such as ‘A Night In Tunisia’ or ‘Lush Life’ as I am with Stevie Wonder hit ‘Summer Soft’ and Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Pusherman’. Each in their own way represents extensions of my musical personality.”
A personal favorite from ‘Harlem’ is ‘River Seine’ that includes vocals from the recently Grammy nominated Maysa Leak. I asked Alex how the collaboration had come about.
“That’s a good question,” Alex replied. “I had the melody for ‘River Seine’ in my head for quite a time and knew I needed lyrics for it. I hooked up with my good friend Martha Redbone who provided the words to go with the music and together we came to the realization that the song would be perfect for Maysa. I called her up and she immediately agreed to do it.”
“Pulling it altogether was also interesting” Alex continued. “I went down to Maysa’a studio in Baltimore where we recorded it then, back in New York, at the studio of Martha’s husband Aaron Whitby, we added vocal backing by Martha, Lisa Fischer and Keith Anthony Fluitt. I like how it turned out.”
In lots of ways ‘Harlem’, from its title to the sophisticated jazz it encapsulates, is very much about New York. Consequently it seems appropriate that Alex uses ‘Stompin’ At Mikell’s’ as his own tribute to the jazz club that for many years stood at the corner of 97th Street and Columbus Avenue. It made me curious as to his attraction to the ‘big apple’.
“When I first came to the USA from Switzerland I lived in Boston” Alex responded, “but after six years I moved to New York City and have lived there ever since. The music scene has always been vibrant and, as I see it, although on the west coast it’s often about the image, here it’s more about the music.”
Indeed, the image of contemporary jazz is something that in recent years has attracted some criticism and I wondered what views Alex had on the state of jazz circa 2013.
“Right now jazz seems polarized into two camps,” he said. “On one side there is a derivation of smooth jazz that has become watered down beyond recognition. On the other there is a resurgent straight ahead movement yet between these to extremes is an abundance of great music, full of light and shade and very much what I play when on the road. People love it and the only question is getting the word out.”
So, I asked, given that smooth jazz radio, as we knew it, is now a thing of the past, how does an artist such as Alex Bugnon get the word out?
“I tour extensively “Alex explained. “It’s about taking the music to the grass roots, to the people who want to hear it. Then of course there is social media; Facebook, Twitter and all the places people now go to get their musical knowledge. Smooth jazz radio simply got ran into the ground by sticking too closely to a format it believed would work for ever and by lacking innovation. Now innovation is found elsewhere, it’s found via the internet and on the live music scene.”
On the subject of touring, Alex has recently been sharing the stage with Najee. One need only reference the debut albums from these two fine performers (‘Najee’s Theme’ in 1986 and Bugnons’s 1989 project ‘Love Season’) to understand the part each of them played in shaping the formative years contemporary jazz. I was curious to know what the vibe was when they played together now.
“We are like brothers,” he told me. “Yes we both do contemporary jazz, yes we both do funk and yes we can do pop as well but underpinning all of that is a deep understanding of where the music came from. We have both been highly trained from an early age about both the theory and the history of jazz. We can trace it back to the Scott Joplin era. So, when we play what you might call smooth jazz we do so based on its roots and its heritage.
“So you guys know each other pretty well?” I queried. “You could say that” Alex said with a smile. “Back in 1987 I was playing in Najee’s band when people from his label, (Orpheus Records distributed by Capitol) approached me. They had enjoyed the success that Najee had brought them and thought I could do the same. The result was ‘Love Season’ and twenty six years later here we are.”
Here we are indeed and whether it’s dipping into a discography that has delivered hit records and Soul Train Award nominations, or reveling in the eclectic magic of ‘Harlem’, Alex Bugnon stands out as an artist who never fails to deliver.