"Give me a steady paycheck and I’ll be the happiest guy in the world." Those words are in the introduction to and the impetus for Chicago keyboardist George McRae’s record label (Affinity Jazz) and website www.affinityjazz.com. "The only way to truly follow my vision was to do it myself."
On his second album "Being Here", McRae utilizes the Fender Rhodes, Clavinet, and Wurlitzer organs to create some funky, tight songs. It’s a surprisingly focused album for a sophomore release, especially for what is basically a vanity label. Until one does his research and discovers that McRae is a jazz composition major at Berklee who’s only recently come back to jazz after playing with pop bands for years.
Over the early holidays I sat down with George between sets at Pete Miller’s Steakhouse in Evanston, Illinois. Regular bassist Alan Berliant was backing McRae, with noted drummer Ted Sirota (Sabertooth, Rebel Souls) sitting in for Larry Beers. McRae came across as an extremely personable man and a musician who knows what he wants to do. JazzReview
: I know it is a cliched question, but who were some of your early influences? George McRae
: I liked Weather Report, the Brecker Brothers, Zawinul. JazzReview
: Was there a gravitation to the Fender Rhodes for "Being Here", or was it a calculated move? George McRae
: Originally, I was doing nothing but piano. But I wrote a few songs for the Rhodes- "Drive", "Running Man", "A Little Taste". They sounded really good. So I decided to pursue it. I was pretty happy with it. JazzReview
: You played with a few pop bands around Chicago. Did you find that you need to work on your skills more because you were playing pop? George McRae
: The big difference between playing pop and jazz is stamina. If I can hear a song, I can play it. But working on your chops is something you can’t do playing pop. I’m just starting to get back into jazz playing after years of playing in pop bands. I was a jazz composition major at Berklee. JazzReview
: Really? George McRae
: Yeah. I studied under Herb Pomeroy. I was writing orchestra pieces for Danilo Perez on piano, Donnie McAllister on sax. JazzReview
: How much emphasis did you put into the songwriting on "Being Here?" George McRae
: Well the writing needs to be great. The trio has really developed since "Being Here" and I think part of that is because of the writing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a movie, a song, whatever. There has to be good writing. Look at Miles, the standards he chose. He knew good writing. JazzReview
: You’re playing the Rhodes almost exclusively on "Being Here." That begs the question: How heavy were you into fusion? George McRae
: I don’t know. What is "fusion", really? I was no big Return to Forever
fan; and I never considered Weather Report to be fusion. Weather Report was a jazz band. They could improvise like there was no tomorrow. JazzReview
: What other pianists inspired you? George McRae
: Herbie, with "Chameleon." Chick Corea. And Keith Jarrett. The other guys could play, but not like Keith Jarrett, getting the nuances out of his playing, playing the space between the notes as well as the notes.
JazzReview.com would like to thank George McRae for this interview and wish him continued success and exposure in 2002.