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Freddy Vigdor - In Conversation

 Saxophonist and horn arranger Freddy Vigdor has been a member of the Average White Band for the last decade.  He has performed with the band around the globe at festivals, clubs, on television and radio programs while, as a prolific composer, his work has been recorded by the likes of Grover Washington, Jr., Bob Baldwin, Marion Meadows, and of course AWB.

In 2005 Vigdor began working on his debut solo album 'Easier Than It Looks'.  As he describes it, "The project was a response to all the fans that I've met while touring with Average White Band.  Almost every night, people would ask, 'When are you coming out with a CD of your own?'  It took about ten years of fans requesting a solo CD, before I actually started to take them seriously.  I didn't make the CD with the intention of launching a solo career; it was simply supposed to be a representation of my influences, a snapshot of where I came from musically."

The solo project took three years to complete.  "One of the reasons why this CD took so long to get made" he explains "was because I had no tunes on the back burner or locked away in some file cabinet.  I'm not one of those guys who can sit down at the piano and just write a song on my own.  I've discovered that I'm much better when I have someone to bounce stuff off of.  I had several false starts with various other pairings, but nothing productive came out of any of them.  Things were kind of in limbo until Mo (Morris Pleasure) and I started writing together."

His long-time friend and multi-instrumentalist Mo Pleasure co-produced the recording and performed on it lending his multiple talents to the offering.  Vigdor recollects, "I've known Mo since the mid 80's.  We're both from Connecticut originally.  It was kind of funny because a year or two prior to meeting him, I had gone to a Ray Charles concert in New Haven and I noticed that Ray was giving a particularly hard time to the guitar player.  All night, Ray was turning around and giving instructions to this cat, 'play this', 'don't play here', 'turn down,' the sort of thing Ray had a rep for doing.  I remember saying something about it to the person I was with.  How I felt sorry for that guy."

He continues, "Smash cut ahead a few years.  I was called to play a gig in Manhattan that was put together by a friend of mine, a great guitarist named Jeff Pevar.  Jeff couldn't make the gig and he sent a keyboard player in his place.  That was Mo Pleasure.  We had never met and we played this little throw-together gig.  I was just blown away by him, so after the gig, we're packing up our stuff and talking about musicians we had in common and who we'd played with in the past and Mo mentioned that he'd played with Ray Charles.  I told him my story about going to see Ray inNew Haven and the guitar player that Ray was chastising all night, and Mo says, Oh yeah, that was me."

"Mo started with Ray Charles on guitar" Freddy explains, "then played bass with Ray for years and now here was this guy killing it on keyboards!  Mo is a rare breed.  We did a lot of playing around New York and Connecticut together and then Mo got the gig with Earth, Wind & Fire, then Janet Jackson, and a little while after that I started playing with the Average White Band.  We would cross paths on the road once in a while but didn't play together again for years, then eventually we both ended up living in Atlanta, Georgia.  Mo had a recording studio at his place and he would call me to play on his projects.  Then we started talking about maybe trying to write together for my CD.  I had a bunch of germs of ideas, sections of songs, little demos that I'd recorded in  I brought them up to Mo's place and he would take my melody and replace my very rudimentary piano part with this incredibly tasty, soulful keyboard part and then pick up his bass and overdub a great, funky bass part.  Mo turned my little half-formed ideas into songs.  Hearing how good the stuff sounded just inspired me to come up with more little germs.  I'd bring up a verse or a hook and Mo and I would work on the bridge together.  Then he'd play keys and bass on it, and pretty soon we had a bunch of tunes that we really dug."

Working with Mo, and touring with the Average White Band, exposed Vigdor to a myriad of musicians, many of whom he kept in touch with over the years.  So when the time came to make his solo album, he chose the musicians he wanted with each one coming from a different geographical region.  Surprisingly, they came together by means of modern technology.

"I didn't set out to intentionally recruit musicians from all over" Freddy says, "It just happened organically.  In my travels, I've become good friends with some amazing players and I wanted them to be a part of this project.  They just happened to live all over the planet.  The technology has gotten to the point where practically every musician has a professional grade recording setup in their house so we took advantage of that technology.  Terry Lewis played guitar on the tracks from his studio in Brighton, England.  Roger Smith on organ played his stuff in Sacramento, California.  Ricky Peterson on organ was in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  Jeff Pevar on guitar was in Oregon and Brian Dunne on drums was in Long Island.  They'd play the parts and send them to us over the Internet.  We'd listen and give them notes and they'd make subtle corrections, just like we were in the studio together.  Technology is a wonderful thing.  It gave us the opportunity to have essentially anyone we wanted and not be bound by geography."

His engineer Phil Magnotti who mixed and mastered the recording was in another location entirely.  As Vigdor describes it, "When it came time to mix the record, I called Andy Snitzer.  Andy's one of my favorite saxophonists and composers and I love the way his records sound.  I asked him to recommend an engineer who could take all of these disparate tracks that had been recorded at a dozen different studios by a dozen different engineers' and make them sound like one cohesive project.  He said Phil was the guy.  I had worked with Phil back when I lived in Connecticut and he had also mixed a couple of things for AWB, so he was already on my radar.  Having Andy recommend him made it a no-brainer.  As it turns out, Phil had moved to my hometown in Connecticut, so I just came up there and stayed at my dad's place and drove the ten minutes to his studio every morning.  Phil did an amazing job and he works incredibly fast.  I asked my AWB band-mate, Klyde Jones to come down and act as a third set of ears.  Klyde had co-written a couple of tunes on the CD and he has this innate sense of what musically does and doesn't work.  He's right at home in the studio, so the three of us made a pretty good team."

The track 'Sandbag' is a special number on the album which Vidgor dedicates to David Sanborn's long-time guitarist, Hiram Bullock.  Vigdor has admired him for many years and he reveals, "One of my favorite CD's of all time is Dave Sanborn's 'Upfront'.  The sound and feel of that record, the combination of those musicians with Marcus Miller's compositions and production just blew me away the first time I heard it.  I wanted to have a track on the CD which captured that same vibe.  The title 'Sandbag' is one of Sanborn's many nicknames.  I came up with the bass groove and the melody and I brought it over to my friend, Ike Stubblefield, who is an organ player in Atlanta.  He came up with the quirky middle section.  I had programmed some ridiculous drum part and when I played it for Melvin Baldwin, who plays drums on half the tracks on the CD, he said there was stuff going on that no drummer could or would ever play.  Melly said to give him about half an hour with it.  He went into the drum booth and played the track over and over and worked out a part that captured exactly what I had clumsily attempted to program."

He recounts about the track, "Sean Michael Ray played essentially the same bass part I had written, while adding some splashes of humanity to it.  I asked Onnie McIntyre, from AWB to lay down a rhythm guitar part, because it's the kind of groove that he can play in his sleep.  On top of Onnie's part, I had another of my Atlanta friends, Derek Scott, play the kind of quirky stuff that Sanborn's guitarist, Hiram Bullock would play.  While we were in the studio recording those parts, we got the news that Hiram had passed away, which is why the tune is dedicated to him."

Another significant musical influence on Freddy Vigdor has been singer-songwriter Michael McDonald with whom he has had the good fortune to play on a number of occasions.  "First of all, playing with Michael was literally a dream come true" he says.  "If you had asked me to name the top five artists I'd want to work with Michael would be right up there.  I loved his stuff with the Doobie Brothers and I wore out his first solo album 'Whatever It Takes'.  In 2004, AWB was asked to join the Rock 'n Soul Revue tour with Hall & Oates and Michael McDonald.  Being a fan, I was excited at the prospect of being on the same tour and getting to hear Michael from the side of the stage every night.  Then several weeks before the tour started I got a call from our tour manager that Michael's sax player, Vince Denham, had to have emergency surgery and wasn't going to be able to do the first half of the tour, and would I like to come out and play a couple tunes in Michael's set?  I'm glad it was our tour manager on the phone and not Mike's because I must have sounded like a blithering idiot, but eventually I managed to mutter something in the affirmative."

He remembers, "Mike was just a joy to work with, incredibly gracious and humble, exceeding all my expectations; musically, personally and professionally.  Getting to hear that voice through my in-ear monitors every night was just a gas.  On top of doing the Rock 'n Soul tour, Mike asked me to play on his 'Motown 2' CD, so I got to work in the studio with him as well.  Overall it was just an incredible experience for me."

"Having said all that," he points out, "there's a different dynamic working as a hired gun with an artist like Mike or Chaka Khan than there is working with AWB.  As much as I loved playing with Mike, there's a certain anonymity.  People are not there to hear you, they're there for Mike or Chaka or whomever, and your job is to make them sound good.  Gigs like that are all about getting the best players available to support the artist, and you have to be able to subvert your ego.  Fortunately, I have no problem with doing that, as a matter of fact, I'm not entirely comfortable being the focus of attention anyway.  With a band like AWB, it's a different dynamic.  It's a collective effort and the end product is about the band as a whole and its impact on the audience.  Everyone gets their chance to shine throughout the evening, but really it's that old axiom about the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.  That's the band mentality.  When I joined AWB I was more comfortable in the sideman situation than the band situation.  Now, after 16 years with AWB, I'm starting to come around to the band mentality.  I have to come to terms with being out front, doing my own thing.  I'm getting there."

Like the group of musicians on his solo recording, Vigdor's live band varies as well.  "My live band has a couple of incarnations" he notes, "depending on where I am geographically.  At this stage, I'm pretty comfortable playing my material, especially with the caliber of musicians I get to play with, and the more we perform it, the more comfortable I get.  It's great when you can just relax and play and not worry about 'is everyone going to make this transition or this ending correctly?  In September, I did a little mini-tour in England with some great players over there.  We threw in a cover tune or two, but the goal was to play as much material from the CD as we could, and we ended up playing almost every song on the CD.  We had one short rehearsal, but everyone had done their homework and the first gig went very well, but by the third night it was just amazing.  I hope to go over there again next summer and do some more dates with those guys."

"Then there's the Atlanta contingent," he continues, "which is the band that evolved from a steady gig we had with all the local musicians who played on 'Easier Than It Looks', guys such as Mo Pleasure on keys, Sean Michael Ray on bass, Derek Scott on guitar, and Melvin Baldwin on drums.  These are the guys I began playing with when I first started playing the material in public.  We called the band WaterSign, which is the name of Mo Pleasure's production company and his record label, and has become the name for every group that Mo and I put together.  That group has gone through several evolutions.  The latest is one we're both very psyched about.  It consists of Mo and me, along with Rocky Bryant on drums and Klyde Jones, who both play with me in AWB.  Klyde is a great singer - songwriter who has just put out a killer solo CD.  He plays bass, guitar and keys.  Mo plays keys, bass and trumpet, so we've got everyone switching around from tune to tune.  Jeff Pevar is joining us on guitar.  At the beginning of 2012, we're going into the studio to record a CD with each of us contributing material.  I'm looking forward to seeing where we go with this particular unit.  The possibilities are pretty exciting."

He confides, "For me, the journey to become a solo artist is just beginning.  Before I started on this CD I didn't consider myself a solo artist and I'm still coming to terms with the concept of being out front.  I didn't make the CD with the intention of becoming a solo artist, but the response to the CD has been overwhelmingly positive from other musicians as well as fans.  Given that I've got a product that people seem to like, the hardest part lies ahead.  Expanding that audience, connecting with people who might enjoy the music but just don't know it yet."

Possibly Vigdor's greatest influence in motivating him to become a professional musicians has been his own family.  "My dad is a bass player" Freddy tells me.  "He never played full time, he always had a day job, but he still worked almost every weekend so I've been around live music and musicians all my life.  When I was about eight, we were visiting family in Chicago and one of my relatives had a case on his back porch.  I opened the case and there was a saxophone inside.  I had no idea what it was supposed to sound like, I just saw that it was shiny and I wanted to play one.  My dad made me start on clarinet because, I guess, someone told him that's what you do, but eventually I wore him down and he got me an alto sax."

He enthuses, "From the moment I picked up the instrument, my dad has been encouraging and supportive.  I hear stories from other musicians who had a difficult time convincing their parents that they wanted to make music a career.  I have no idea what that's like.  We never had a discussion like that in my house, though we had a lot of arguments about me not wanting to practice."

"The first cat I heard on saxophone that really had an effect on me was Tom Scott" he reminisces.  "For me, he was the guy who took a great saxophone sound, some jazz vocabulary and a sense of pop music and came up with an instantly identifiable style.  I heard those first two LA Express albums when I was in high school and they really blew me away.  After that I went backwards and started getting into Charlie Parker and really into Cannonball Adderley.  A bit later, Dave Sanborn and Mike Brecker were big influences too.  Their approach, their sound, those guys really turned the page on contemporary saxophone played in an R&B - pop setting.  The other guy who continues to inspire me is Kirk Whalum.  His playing is just transcendent and so soulful.  He has literally given me goose bumps by playing just four bars."

"If I was to name the one person who has had the most influence on me, overall as a musician," he proclaims, "I would say Lou Marini, who everyone now knows as Blue Lou from the Blues Brothers.  I was at one of the Stan Kenton summer band clinics when I was in high school and Lou was a clinician there.  My high school band director heard him and got him to come to our school and do a clinic and concert with our jazz ensemble.  My dad heard him and said. 'You need to study with this guy!'  He called him and set it up for me, and I took the train intoManhattan once a month or so to take a lesson."

"Lou is one of the most articulately passionate musicians I've ever met" he explained.  "His dad was a great saxophone teacher as well so Lou really knew how to get his ideas across.  He had a huge impact on my whole approach to playing and listening.  He would play Bartok string quartets and point out bebop lines in them.  He exposed me to Miles, Coltrane and got me listening to and transcribing solos.  Lou also introduced me to the New York studio scene in a big way.  He'd take me along to recording sessions, Saturday Night Live rehearsals, or bring me to live gigs and introduce me to the cream of the New York studio musicians.  It was pretty heady stuff for a geeky high school kid."

He smiles when he thinks about his future and admits he would be content if he could keep up his present balancing act.  "AWB are going into their 40th year and they're showing no signs of giving up in the near future.  I love playing with them and it's an excellent vehicle for me.  On my time off, I'm busy developing some things in the educational realm.  I do some clinics in the public schools, which is extremely rewarding and I've been working on expanding that side of things.  Then I've got my solo career, as well as the WaterSign project.  If all of those things take off and it becomes a juggling act, then that's a great problem to have.  I'd be a very happy guy."

Freddy Vigdor's ambitions all rest in contributing memorable compositions to the adult contemporary canon and, more so than stroking his own ego, moving aspiring musicians into making music.  Not only is 'Easier Than It Looks' Freddy's first attempt at a solo recording but also a way of enabling his progress in uniting jazz and soul with music that appeals to contemporary audiences.

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