A little bit of R&B and funk is good for the soul, but when it's peppered with smooth jazz textures, then you've got some of the best feel-good sounds around.
The seven member group of the Urban Jazz Coalition (UJC) is a group that displays the musical hybrid and they are really "bringing it" on with their latest CD Down to Get Up.
On this 12 track CD, I can basically handpick a few tracks that are indeed chart-topping candidates. Now that's what I'm talking about! Tracks like "Accelerate," "The Wizard," the seductive "En Mis Suenos" and "Intimate Journey" are prime cuts with "Groove 4U" and "On the Radio" following closely behind. Every track, whether fast or slow, has an ounce of therapeutic element in it. No wonder their music was featured on NBC's hit show "Starting Over," which featured motivational speaker Iyanla Vanzant.
Urban Jazz Coalition is drummer Jim Bridges, bassist Phil Raney, guitarist Joe Gothard, keyboardist Brandon Howard, percussionist Hector Maldonado, saxophonist Keith Newton and trumpeter Lee Savory. They have all worked alongside and share the stage with some of jazz's most notable, including Al Jarreau, Spyro Gyra and Rick Braun to name a few.
UJC is well-known on the jazz festival circuit and at the time of this interview, the group was getting ready for an extensive three days in Ohio at a jazz festival there. Bassist and band leader Phil Raney made himself available for this interview.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me before touring. I see that you guys have a hectic play schedule coming up. How do you prepare for an intense tour such as this?
UJC: Our tour preparation is really an ongoing process of what we always do. We like to test new and rearranged material on our local audience to see what folks will respond to the best. We try to pack our 3-4 hour club performances with music that has been road tested. . .we know that every song is going to have a certain impact on the audience. The real task is breaking down all of the music that we’ve worked so hard to perfect into a 60-75 minute concert set. We have to leave so much good material out of those shows. It’s kind of like going on vacation and having to leave some of your kids at home--you want the whole family to go!
JAZZREVIEW.COM: I get that! (laugh). That can be a difficult task. What type of feedback do you get from the audience after each performance?
UJC: On stage, we pour our souls into what we do. I think the fans appreciate hard working musicians and respect the fact that you’re passionate about the music that you’re sharing with them. The applause from the crowd and just watching everyone grooving to the music, the smiles and the hugs after the show that means the world to us.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: What can be expected from the group at your upcoming performance? Any surprise guest musicians scheduled?
UJC: There will be a couple of surprises this summer, but if I told you who they were, then they wouldn’t be surprises, would they?
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Top secret stuff huh? (laugh). Well I'll stay peeled to find out. How do you go about selecting the song list for your performances? Are they set for every city or altered a little. If so, what is the deciding factor?
UJC: Over a number of shows, you learn what songs flow well from one to another. It’s based on a variety of factors, including song keys, tempos, styles and mostly the pacing of the show. In a 60-75 minute set, you really can’t slow down too many times or you can lose an audience so you try to keep it hot and place the slower to mid-tempo songs at strategic points in the show. It’s sort of what a music director does when he’s programming a radio station, except a live show has to be at a much higher energy level. The fans aren’t doing something else with the radio playing in the background they've paid their hard earned money to come and see you so you’ve got to make it "all the way live" on that stage. Our goal is to always bring 60 minutes of heat and leave the stage smoking!
JAZZREVIEW.COM: I love the new CD. It's very contemporary, fresh and catchy. What was the inspiration behind it?
UJC: Well to stay alive in this business, you have to pay attention to what radio is doing to a certain extent. We’ve had some success at radio, although we don’t totally fit the mold of what smooth jazz radio is about today. We’re probably a lot more like some of the old-school groups from the 70’s era, back when jazz, R&B, and fusion was all coming together. That goes back to a time before there really was a smooth jazz format a time when you could hear a variety of sounds on a jazz radio station and there was really no formula that you had to fit into. You could hear Grover, Wes Montgomery, Miles, George Duke, Return To Forever, Dave Brubeck, The Brecker Brothers, Al Jarreau, Weather Report, Horace Silver, The Jazz Crusaders, Donald Byrd and so many tremendous artists from that period and never even change the channel. And then you had some of the truly legendary R&B groups in music history that were breaking out at the same time. That period is where we come from. Those times molded us into who we are and what we do today. We are blessed that there are still people out there that remember that vibe and appreciate the music that we’re doing.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: How does this CD differ from your last?
UJC: I really think it’s a continuum of the path that we’ve been on as a band over the past 12 years.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: How did you guys come together?
UJC: I had been doing some work in Los Angeles in the late 80’s and early 90’s as a songwriter and producer just the regular old west coast music hustle. I had compiled a lot of material and some friends convinced me to do a solo project that ended up being a CD titled Reflections. I wanted to promote the CD and had moved back to Ohio to put a band together with some old friends that I had worked with before moving to LA. Those old friends were Jim Bridges, Hector Maldonado and Joe Gothard--the drummer, percussionist and guitarist that have been with UJC since the very first day. We added some great players to the mix in Brandon Howard (keyboards) and Keith Newton (saxophones), and just about three years ago, Lee Savory (trumpet & flugelhorn) joined the band. As we got things together, the vibe of the group was just too good to try to chain down to one project. Everyone brought something powerful to the table and I wanted to see the band go where it was naturally going to go. We just sort of organically grew into what we’ve become. Twelve years, 5 CDs and some 800 odd shows later, here we still are! To me it’s just one of God’s many blessings.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Now that's what I'm talking about. They say "longevity is the name of the game in any business." You guys are living proof of the axiom. What's next for the band? Any other CDs in the works?
UJC: We just keep rolling. We have a great team of people putting opportunities together for us. Steve Butler of Mighty Music, Inc. is one of the top booking agents in the contemporary jazz genre’ and we are so blessed to have him in our corner. Adam Leibovitz at ASL Music Media & Promotions has really opened a lot of doors for us at radio, and Cheryl Hughey of Cheryl Hughey Promotions is doing a tremendous job of handling media relations for us. It’s just a talented, hard-working group of people that we trust and appreciate. They make it easier for us to do what we do.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: A support system always works. When you guys aren't touring or at a gig, what are you up to?
UJC: We’re family guys with parents, wives and kids that mean the world to us. It’s nice to just have some quiet time to chill with your people and do all the things that regular folks do--laugh together, go to ballgames, catch a movie, celebrate birthdays. That’s what life is all about, spending time with your loved ones. We love music, but you can’t get so caught up in the hype of the music business that you forget about what’s most important in this life, and that’s the people that God puts in your life. To love and to be loved there’s nothing better than that.
JAZZREVIEW.COM: Very profound indeed. And with that we end this interview. Thanks for making time for us and much success to you and your group.
UJC: Thank you.