JazzMonthly.com interview with Paula Atherton
Interview by Joe Caroselli
Jazz Monthly: We here at JazzMonthly.com are truly honored to be chatting with a multi – talented lady who is taking time out of her very busy schedule to spend some time with us today. Paula Atherton is a great singer, alto and soprano saxophonist, flutist, composer, and bandleader, and it all started for Paula in New York City.
She was born and raised in New York and Ms. Atherton began singing and studying the flute at the tender age of nine. Just a few years later, she began playing the alto sax… and so began her musical journey. Paula has performed in Monte Carlo, Portugal, throughout Japan and of course all over the United States. In 2004, Paula played the Blue Note in New York City with jazz pianist Hank Jones, a wonderful jazz pianist who played with Charlie Parker. In 2004 her first CD “Let Me Inside Your Love" debuted on the National Contemporary Jazz Charts. And in 2006, a cut from that CD “I Long For Your Love” was released on Warner Europe on a CD called “Ladies Of Jazz.” She was joined on that CD by Natalie Cole, Candy Dulfer, Eliana Elias and other female jazz artists. Paula has performed with Michael Bolton on The Today Show, Rachael Ray, and Good Morning America. We have long waited for her new CD “Groove With Me” to be released, and we are very excited to say that it is out and ready for everyone to enjoy. Welcome Paula!
Paula Atherton (PA): Thank you for having me!
Jazz Monthly It’s our delight! Now I said that it all started for you in New York at the tender age of nine. Now you were a mere child at that age. Was it just the matter of a natural talent, you know, singing around the house… that kind of thing, Paula?
PA: I always loved music. I wanted to have a piano. I think I asked for a piano when I was five. My family didn’t have a lot of money, so we didn’t wind up buying one and there were no musicians in the family; so they just thought I was crazy! (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly I’m laughing because most young kids at that age are asking for a pony or a bicycle, and here’s Paula Atherton, and she wants a piano!
PA: Yeah, I always loved music. My mother used to play a lot of music in the house. She liked Nat King Cole. There was always something about music that attracted me. I wanted the piano and that didn’t happen, so when I started school I sang in the chorus. When they started band, I had the opportunity to get an instrument… I ended up with the flute. Being in the same family as the saxophone, I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the logical place to go.
Jazz Monthly Absolutely. I see that you are very well influenced by many artists… everyone from “Bird” (Charlie Parker), to “Prez” (Lester Young) to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. Did it all come out of your mom’s love Nat King Cole and playing a lot of music at home? Was it just a natural extension of that?
PA: I can’t really tell you. It’s just when I started to hear Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and I heard Charlie Parker and Bill Evans playing the piano, it just struck something in me… it just really spoke to me!
Jazz Monthly Well, the thing that I find in your music, and I absolutely love… love your new CD, but it’s hard to put a label on Paula Atherton. I know that you’re, of course, in the Smooth Jazz or Groove Jazz category. But really, you’re music is Groove, Funk and Urban, Fusion and even some Latin in there. If you had to categorize your own music, Paula, what would you say? Or is it difficult to do that?
PA: I try to just write things that I feel, and not so much to try to fit in a category. I feel that the music on “Groove With Me” is somewhat eclectic. I feel that it kind of all fits together. I don’t feel that it’s disjointed, and I hope people feel the same way when they hear it. And I hope the fact that “eclectic” makes it interesting and not boring for the listener.
Jazz Monthly That’s a very good point! The other thing that I find about your CD is that it pops out on just how generous you are on this production. It’s really more of a “musical team”, a “musical family,” with your fellow musicians who are surrounding you here. I mean you let a lot of them “shine” as far as soloing. It’s real playing… it’s not homogenized in any way. So even the most diehard “jazz purist” in the traditional sense will enjoy it, and yet people from all genres of jazz I think will absolutely love this CD!
Tell us about your “supporting cast.” I guess that’s the best way to describe them.
PA: Well there are quite a few people on this CD, as you know, because you have a copy of it right?
Jazz Monthly Yes, and I absolutely love it!
PA: And you’ve seen all the pictures (laughing) on the back cover there and everybody’s name on it. Wow… it was really wonderful recording the CD. It was such a great experience. It took over four years, and I got quite a wonderful group of people in here. I’ve got: Greg Adams playing on two of the cuts…
Jazz Monthly Yeah, from Tower Of Power.
PA: Yeah… founding member and lead trumpet player from Tower Of Power. So he’s on “JB” and “You’re All I Need To Get By.” Chris Anderson’s also playing trumpet on there. He’s another wonderful trumpet player. He plays with “Southside Johnny.”
The great Stanley Banks, who has been playing with George Benson since the “Breezin” recording. I mean I don’t know if you have time for me to go through everybody. (both laughing) that’s on the CD! I don’t want to leave anybody out! (laughing) There are quite a few players on here.
Jazz Monthly How about Chieli?
Jazz Monthly: Chieli Minucci on guitar from “Special EFX.” He’s a special guest on “Block Party” where he takes a real nice solo! We have Bill Heller who’s the keyboard player from The Rippingtons on “Light As Air” – which he co-produced. We worked on that at his studio for a bit and finished it up here. Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano. He’s on “Send Down An Angel” and “Funk It Up.” He’s got quite a few releases of his own out. A very well known and wonderful jazz pianist. Schuyler Deale co-produced a bunch of the tracks. He’s also on bass. Lionel Cordew on drums. He’s on a lot of the tracks. He also plays drums for “Special EFX,” Jeff Lorber and Mike Stern. Vinny Conigliaro’s also playing drums. Vinny is a regular member of my band. Lionel also does some gigs with me, but Vinny’s been in the band for years…
Jazz Monthly: Your band is “Interplay”, right Paula?
PA: Yes. Darin Brown also on keyboards, is one of the regular members of my band as is Steve Briody on guitar who also has a few of his own releases out, and Roy DeJesus on bass. Also Lou Gimenez, who produced most of the record and also played guitar on the recording.
There are a few percussionists… Emedin Rivera, who also plays with “Special EFX,” Fred Walcott, you’ve got Dave Delhomme on keyboards – who also plays with Eric Clapton and Marcus Miller. John Deley on keyboards, who had been playing with Dido. He’s doing some Broadway now. Wonderful backup singers: Deanna Carroll and LaRita Gaskins. Baron Raymonde playing on “JB” with Greg Adams and me. Baron played Tenor and Bari on that cut… I think… that might be it. (Laughing) Naomion also sang backup with me on “Say It Baby.” She was the only person I was not able to get a picture of. It wasn’t very easy to get everybody’s picture for the CD cover. (Laughing).
Jazz Monthly: Yes, yes… our readers have to check out the back of it, because Paula’s surrounded by these virtuosos.
You know it’s funny, Paula, because in a fun way… we are having a good time here chatting and I’m almost putting you on the spot here. Doesn’t your heart always go out to the person winning the Grammy Award or the Academy Award? He or she is up there and they have to thank everybody, and you don’t want to leave anybody out! Right?
PA: All I can say about that is, you better have it written out on a piece of paper because I’m so sure that it is so shocking that everything goes out of your mind. (both laughing)
I don’t know how they can remember anything. I wouldn’t be lucid… I would just be speechless.
Jazz Monthly: Well, (to our readers) if Paula and I left anybody out, just go out and buy the CD and read it off the credits.
PA: It was wonderful to have all these people. It was just absolutely amazing. I love to have the pictures to look at and remember all the experiences of having these people guest on the record, and of course having my regular members play on it too. This really was a lot of fun!
Jazz Monthly: Now you said it took about four years in the making, and your fans… and I know there are many Paula Atherton fans that were waiting for this CD… but it’s well worth the wait. You know Paula, It takes so much thought… and I could image you tweaking it and deciding: “should we leave this in, should we leave that in.” Every little subtle nuance to the CD takes a lot of thought – and we’re not even talking about the actual performances themselves.
PA: Not everything was written at the same time either. Probably the last few things that were written were “JB” and probably “Funk It Up.” And… how this whole project came together… if I may elaborate on it a little bit…
Jazz Monthly: Sure!
PA: People that had my first CD will notice that this is quite different…
Jazz Monthly: Your first CD was “Let Me Inside Your Love?”
PA: Yes, that’s right. It debuted on the Contemporary Jazz Charts in 04’…
Jazz Monthly: And received great reviews I might add…
PA: The way this particular CD came about… now with the concept in mind that I’m always writing and thinking about things, I had written “Whenever You Come Around” early on. I had an idea about the groove and what I wanted to do with it, and I brought it over to my friend Schuyler’s house – who co-produce a lot of the tracks and plays bass on here… and we were going to do a demo on it. We started to work on the groove and Schuyler said that it reminded him of Sly and the Family Stone. And after we got that track going, it kind of set the stage for the rest of the CD.
Jazz Monthly: Wow! Interesting. So in other words, that kind of laid the foundation and was the “entrée” so to speak to what you were trying to accomplish on this CD “Groove With Me.”
PA: Yeah… until I wrote and recorded “Whenever You Come Around” and listened I didn’t even realize what I was trying to accomplish. I just wrote that and I was like, “Oh… Yeah… this will be kind of cool to go in this Retro, Urban, Old School R&B direction, you know?
Jazz Monthly: Great point. Before we talk about the actual tracks themselves, I can tell that as a young performer, you had a veracious appetite to want to learn. I mean you studied with some incredible people here… your teachers alone! You studied with Bob Mintzer. And I guess our readers will know Bob Mintzer with the legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius and The Yellowjackets. You studied with Alto Saxophonist Lee Konitz, who was a driving force of the “cool jazz” school. He comes out of the Lenny Tristano School. Lee Konitz is still around, right? He’s still playing?
PA: He’s still going! Still amazing!
Jazz Monthly: In his eighties. And you also studied with the great jazz pianist Sal Mosca, who I believe passed away almost two years ago, right?
PA: Yes, I believe you’re correct about that.
Jazz Monthly: I’m noticing here that I mentioned “jazz pianist” here, and I’m saying that here in bold letters, “Jazz Pianist”, Sal Mosca. Now why the heck is a young kid, who plays flute, who sings beautifully and who is playing saxophone… studying with a jazz pianist?
PA: Well what I was studying with these people in general, with Bob Mintzer, it was more to do with the instrument, but even with Lee, it was more about improvising. That’s basically what I was studying. I knew what to do with the instruments as far as technique went… I could play the instrument, I just wanted to get more knowledge about: harmony and improvising, and that’s what I was studying.
Jazz Monthly: Yes. And it shows with your performance, because I noticed when I was listening to you playing a solo on the sax, you could tell that there was a lot of study, hearing, and listening involved.
PA: I try to always learn. I still practice and listen all the time. I really think that life is an opportunity to learn your entire life. You can grow and learn if you stay open to it… I plan on doing that.
Jazz Monthly: On your new CD “ Groove with me” let’s start with the only cover tune that you choose to do. And you pick a great one! Its “You’re All I Need To Get By.” And it was written by that great husband and wife R&B duo Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. There’s really a lot of solid “funk” playing by you and the band here. And that song was recorded by so many people, every one from Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell, to Aretha to even Tony Orlando & Dawn who recorded it. (Paula laughing) But I tell you, the one thing I found in your version of it, is that it’s very hip. You’re true to the tune… and yet you made it your own. That’s hard to do sometimes when you’re doing a cover, isn’t it?
PA: Yeah it really is. This is a particular song that… when I play live, this is one of the tunes that I usually sing. It’s great to do live because the people in the audience, while they might be seeing me for the first time and maybe don’t know some of my originals, if I do a song like that… well it’s something they can relate to and get in to and gives them a good feeling to be part of. So for the recording “Groove With Me,” we wanted to do something that was a little bit different, because the song has been covered so many times, as you mentioned.
So I was talking to Lou about it and we threw around the idea of a saxophone/trumpet duet. So we scored out where it would go… where we would play harmony… and where to put the solo section. I asked Greg if he would guest on this, and he said “yes” – which was wonderful. We got him the track and he played on it… and the rest is history.
Jazz Monthly: And it’s a great great… I don’t even want to use the word “cover”… record. By the way, when you mentioned that you often sing “You’re All I Need To Get By” perhaps to start some of your concerts, your point is well taken in that you want to give the audience something that they can relate to and that they might know… and then once they know the song and they are snapping their fingers or stamping their feet, then some of your originals will be more acceptable and digestible… right?
PA: Well, you’re a musician, you understand what I’m talking about… if you perform something that someone can relate to, and then they are kind of like “with you.”… I hope I’m explaining this right…
Jazz Monthly: You’re doing great. Keep going! Keep going! (Paula Laughing)
PA: It’s easier to go from “there.” It’s like you both speak different languages and you found a few words in common that you can both understand… and that’s what a “cover tune” can accomplish.
Jazz Monthly: Very good, Paula. That’s as about as close you’ll come to an analogy. What you just said. A few words… and now you’re on the same plane – you’re on the same level! You’re right. People are kind of dipping their toes in the ocean water so to speak. If you just dive right in, and the water temperature is 58 degrees, you can have a heart attack! But, if you just kind of ease into it gently, right?
PA: Yes, absolutely. You know we were speaking earlier about the “Groove With Me” being eclectic. Now you know Joe, nobody who is thinking about “You’re All I Need To Get By” is really going to call that a jazz tune, right?
Jazz Monthly: Yes. Good point.
PA: That’s more the genre that I was speaking before: “Old School R&B” and “Funk” which is definitely evident in a bunch of tunes on here. So again, it’s an eclectic recording that definitely has “Contemporary Jazz” elements in it. It seems to me that contemporary jazz has come to encompass things like: Old School R&B, Funk, Latin, etc., all under that umbrella.
Jazz Monthly: Wow! Well said.
Let’s talk about some of the other cuts. Some of the originals. And again my friend, you really aced this project. You really did! I mean it was worth the wait… four years.
The first cut is “Marimba Island.” It has a nice hint of the islands here and it has a real solid groove.
PA: Yes, thank you. Dave Delhomme did some really wonderful keyboard work on this particular cut. We’ve got Schuyler Deale on bass and Lionel Cordew on drums… of course Emedin Rivera on percussion. Emedin is on every cut on the CD… and Lou playing guitar… electric and acoustic guitars actually on this particular cut.
Jazz Monthly: You know when you go into the release of the tune, there’s a deep, deep groove there, and really a lot of fine soloing.
PA: Thank you. This is the only song that has a flute melody or solo on it.
Jazz Monthly: The other thing I noticed, Paula, is that on your flute solo, you weren’t just going 100 miles and hour in “park” so to speak, as some players might do. It was just a great solo and very pleasing.
PA: I’m glad you feel that way. I’m glad you like it. I try to take my time when I’m taking a solo and build something and make it make sense. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Jazz Monthly: I’m saying this jokingly, in listening to “Marimba Islands,” I almost felt like having one of those tropical drinks with the little paper umbrella in it (laugh)…
PA: I always feel like having one of those! (both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: And then of course, the second cut “ There Ain’t Nothin,” again Paula you took another fine solo… also very nice percussion on it to.
PA: Thank you. That song was actually written as a vocal song, and we did include the vocal version on the CD; so you get two versions of that particular song.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right. The final cut you have the vocal version, right?
PA: Yeah, I just wanted to make sure that it received airplay. Some play lists, in general… in this particular genre, play less vocals then instrumentals. A lot of times when I’m doing a vocal tune, I’ll do an instrumental version of it, unless I absolutely don’t want an instrumental version of it. Case in point would be “Send Down An Angel.”
The words were too important to me to do an instrumental of it.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, Yes… absolutely. You’re quite accurate. Did you ever write a song that started out as a vocal and you just thought that it would be better received or performed just to keep it instrumental?
PA: Yes, actually “Winds Of Change” is instrumental because the lyrics were just way too personal. I can’t release it like this… (laughing) it has to be an instrumental.
Jazz Monthly: You know on “Block Party” I loved the opening. It kind of reminded me of a cross between Santana and the band “War.” Eric Burton’s War. Remember?
Jazz Monthly: Just a great performance by all of you.
PA: Thank you. That song was a lot of fun. That was one of the tunes that was written right after “Whenever You Come Around.” That was written earlier on.
Jazz Monthly: Speaking of “Whenever You Come Around,” very expressive vocals by you and your background vocalist. In fact, you co-wrote “Whenever You Come Around.”
PA: Yes. Schuyler Deale’s on that song with me as far as songwriting credit goes. I really felt that he had an influence on the way the song came out. He has writer’s credit also on that song.
Jazz Monthly: Let’s talk about “JB.” What a smokin’ groove on that one – right out of the gate! You know, Paula, when I listen to JB, I think of a smoky nightclub where you are just groovin’ with the band… you know what I mean?
PA: I hope you get that! (laughing) I listen to that song and it just makes me laugh because it’s very spirited, and the whole thing with the James Brown voice over is just…
Jazz Monthly: It’s just festive. It reminds me of how jazz clubs used to be. Greg Adams takes a hip muted trumpet solo on that and then you kind of piggyback on Greg’s trumpet solo… and then it really explodes! It’s just a great groove! As I said earlier, even traditional jazz purists will love this whole CD, because there’s just such great playing on it!
PA: I hope so, even though this is not a straight-ahead jazz CD, which I still do a lot of playing and singing in that genre. But, who doesn’t enjoy playing and singing the old standards… the wonderful writing?
Jazz Monthly: That’s how you got started, right?
PA: Absolutely. I still do gigs like that… duo and trio and things like that. “Groove With Me” is obviously not that, I hope that people that are more inclined to listen to that type of music will maybe give us a little listen. I think there might be something in here for them to like.
Jazz Monthly: There’s a lot in there. Don’t be so modest Paula. (both laughing) There’s a lot in this CD. Being surrounded by great musicians and being a great musician yourself Paula, you have to be pleased with this project.
PA: I’m very excited about it! You know, there were times I was thinking that it was never going to get done. (laughing) That it’s never coming out. You know, it’s hard putting something like this together and giving it its wings. We just started radio promotion. This is the third week and it’s going very well. I just started to do some station ID’s. I’m doing one for this station in Houston KPVU later today. I recorded an interview for City Sounds radio in the state of Washington yesterday. It’s a lot of work to get it out there, but, it’s a wonderful kind of work. You certainly don’t mind doing it when it’s for a project that you’re proud of.
Jazz Monthly: What’s on the horizon for Paula Atherton.
PA: We are hoping that this CD does well, that we can break into the radio and record charts and do well. We are hoping to put together some nice performance dates together and get out there and do some playing.
Jazz Monthly: And our readers can visit your web site at?
PA: I actually have two websites. My personal web site is: www.paulaatheron.com. And I have a my space page, which is: www.myspace.com/paulaatherton.
Jazz Monthly: Well it’s been a delight, and I urge our viewers to get this CD: “Groove With Me” by Paula Atherton. I mentioned earlier, she is surrounded by super stars of the business and… in many way I think you are a superstar!
PA: Well, thanks. Thank you very much! It’s really been a great interview! It’s wonderful to have an interviewer like you who’s also a musician and understands the music and can ask such insightful questions.
Jazz Monthly: God bless you. You already have a lot to be proud of. Paula Atherton… you are more than on your way. You are THERE… my friend.
PA: Thank you so much!
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