Smitty: I finally have with me, one of my most favorite keyboard players in the business. He’s got a great new record out called Looking Up. Here to talk about this great new record, the one and only, Trippin’ N’ Rhythm recording artist, Gregg Karukas. How are you?
Gregg Karukas (GK): Thank you, Smitty. How are you?
Smitty: Great! So you’ve had a nice summer and fall with this new record release, and your first single. It’s got to be nice to enjoy some fruits of the hard work.
GK: It’s nice to be back in the mix, so to speak. It’s ironic that it’s averaging two and a half years between CDs, but there are no guarantees in life. I just keep making the music and hope that it gets out in a reasonable amount of time.
Smitty: Well sometimes when you take your time and do it right, and really take the time to express how you feel in your music, it comes over a lot better.
GK: Yes, and I’ve never been in a position where I had a label saying that I must have a record out within 12 months or anything like that. It’s worked out where I’ve been with labels that have gone under, so there was a period of “lag” time, so I never tried to rush things and let the songs flow. When I get enough songs, then I get motivated to put them together into a project. Then it really starts coming together. I pick the best ones and then really finish it all up. I write songs and demo them to a point and don’t worry so much about the fine details until I’m sure it’s going on the record. Then I really get into the refinement of the process.
Smitty: This CD has some nice songs.
GK: Thanks. There’s definitely much more piano and it’s something that I’ve subconsciously been working toward. In writing melodies for my other CDs, I heard another voice complimenting the piano or taking this section or that section, and I’ve had a lot of saxophone on those CDs and now, I’m almost laughing about it, but there’s almost no saxophone on this record. There’s one song and it’s just a background section on one part. Andy Suzuki stacked three or four saxophones, so on this one song we kind of made up for a couple of songs worth.
Smitty: Well you were brilliant on the Fender Rhodes. It’s one of my favorite instruments and I love the way you blended it into this CD.
GK: Thanks. There are a couple of songs that have electric piano on them and those are usually the ones that tend to be more spontaneous. I tend to leave the first track and I also stretch out a little more…more extended solos on the Rhodes…and when it happens it’s just great, so I just let it go and leave it there.
Smitty: Let’s talk about one of the songs that I think is really cool…London Underground. I know there’s a story attached to this one.
GK: It’s pretty ironic. The title line was mostly just sort of a tribute to my label because they’re based in London. We actually released it as a single in July around the same time as the London bombings. So you have terrorist bombings in London, in the underground. It was pretty strange to have that happen, but everybody dug it for the vibe and up-tempo that it has.
Smitty: So this is the first single?
GK: Well it was released as the first single, but it didn’t catch on in the few big stations where they wanted it to catch on. It’s sort of tough these days with the play lists being so small…well this is what they tell me, and I try to keep myself a little separate from the whole promotion business and radio situation because it seems to change so quickly and people say they love one thing and the bottom line is that there are a lot of stations that are just playing a 10 or 12 song rotation of radio songs and then the rest of the play list is 20-30 year old classic R&B pop vocals or older classics. It’s just what radio has become and it’s not necessarily boring because new music is being added every week, but you just sort of have to wait in line and see how long it takes for a particular track to be added once you release it. Evidently it didn’t get added quickly enough after several weeks and the promotions folks at the label felt that it wasn’t getting the response they wanted, so they switched gears and put another track. We had about four or five good “radio” songs and it was “Show Me the Way.” It’s been out for a couple of weeks and I haven’t really heard what’s going on with it, but I think it’s doing ok.
Smitty: Well that’s a good selection. So let’s go back to some of the players. I was excited to see Thom Rotella on this project. He’s been one of my favorites for many years…just a great player. Tell me how you two hooked up for this record.
GK: We’ve had a mutual admiration going on for a couple of years, but never worked together. He had some gigs out of town and asked if I was interested, so I did some and we did some of his stuff and some of my songs. It was a blast and we ended up doing a tour in Japan together. He was always on my mind to use on a song or two for the great Jazz, Wes Montgomery kind of sound, so the title cut Looking Up features Thom all over it on guitar. And we always have a blast playing live together. He’s a really fantastic jazz player and completely versatile. Chuck Loeb and Thom Rotella are a couple of my favorite guitar players…I haven’t worked with Chuck, so hopefully that’ll be down the line.
Smitty: All right, Chuck…if you see this…
GK: And I can’t forget to mention all the other guitar players. Ricardo Silveira and Michael O’Neill are at the top of the list, too.
Smitty: Yes, I noticed right away that you’ve got some great guitar players here.
GK: Yes, and I was really lucky to grab Ricardo because he only comes up from Brazil once or twice a year. I always hope I’ve got a song or two for him to play on, and it worked out that he played on three or so. He’s usually on a few songs on every record.
Smitty: Yes, he’s a mainstay with you…that’s for sure. So talk to me about one track that I found interesting…Corner Club, speaking of Ricardo.
GK: Yes, that’s named after a CD called Club de Esquina, which is Milton Nascimento… kind of an all-star project with him and many other great song writer/singers from the 70’s in the whole emergence of the Brazilian Opera music, it’s called MPV style. They were all influenced by the Beatles, a little bit of jazz…the traditional that came out of the 60’s, but with more of a song writer rock element through it as well. All of those Milton Nascimento records are really some of my favorite music of all times. So I had this nice little samba that I decided to call Corner Club dedicated to Milton, and it’s a song that just wrote itself quickly. The piano part is exactly as I played it on the first or second take, and Ricardo did a fantastic solo on there. It just came together quickly.
Smitty: I’m looking at the CD liner…great design and layout.
GK: Thanks…I worked pretty hard on that…collaboration with a graphic artist and a couple of photographers and myself.
Smitty: Very nice. So talk a little about your playing the electric piano, the Fender, the B3. What’s your favorite of those?
GK: It’s a toss up between the acoustic piano and the Rhodes. I love the organ and mostly as a color instrument. I wouldn’t consider myself a B3 player, but I just love the instrument. But when I sit down at the piano, that’s when I write 80% of my songs. I might have a little groove going and just work it out like that. The songs that are more Latin and up-tempo, I usually work on those on the electric piano. It just sort of works out that way. It’s fantastic to have such a great pallet of sounds and get to decide for each song what the best instrument to use. This CD is a lot of piano and I hope it comes out. I tried really hard to keep it warm and phat sounding.
Smitty: Well you accomplished that! Definitely. So this is your tenth album?
GK: Yes, my tenth solo record.
Smitty: Wow…ten is the charm! But you’ve recorded with a lot of great players and traveled and collaborated in so many different ways. What are some of your favorite collaborations?
GK: It’s hard to single something out.
Smitty: Yes, I know.
GK: I can think of so many great recording sessions where there was really some magic there. It’s usually a kind of session where there might be guys I worked with only a couple of times, but when you get in the studio, you say “man that was so cool, I’d like to work with you again.” Like I’m thinking of sessions we did with Kirk Whalum when we worked on his record “For You”. That was a cool thing. Ricky Peterson and I were playing keyboards and everybody playing live with Alex Al on bass and Little John Roberts.
Smitty: Oh Little John…is he a great player or what?
Yes, so fluid. And Paul Jackson.
Smitty: Yes, he’s a bad boy.
GK: As far as really spending time together, I would have to say playing with Eric Marienthal and Boney (james) …I played with them for like five years. When you do such a long period, it evolves over time. But we started from the beginning. In fact Boney played in my band for a few gigs before he got his Warner Brothers deal. He was doing shows with me, and then he started exploding with his first Warner Brothers record, and then just seeing the whole progression of that and the magic that happened…his sound and his vibe. With that particular band, he was mostly with the same band for a number of years. A big group of really nice guys. I was happy to be there playing music.
Smitty: You could feel that groove, no doubt.
GK: And I’ve certainly played in some situations where it was mostly just guys getting together to do a gig and go onto the next gig, and that’s not really where I’m at so much, because when I’m playing with someone else, I really make it a point to be supportive to them. When I’m working on my solo projects, I still really love playing with other people. I don’t think I’ll ever be at a point where I say, “No I don’t want to do anybody else’s gigs.” I’ll always be into doing it. I just did a couple of gigs with Rick Braun and some more with him coming up. And working with Larry Carlton back in 2000 was really cool. He’s always been one of my heroes musically and to get the call was really cool.
Smitty: I asked you that question because I wonder, and hopefully everyone does know, that you have quite a career. You have mixed it up with the best and you continue to handle your own solo career. Ten albums. I know you mentioned a gap in between, but these have been quality records with some great hits and I anticipate a lot of great hits with this record as well. Some very nice tunes.
GK: Well thanks. An interesting thing is to look back and think “Wow I’ve been doing this for a long time.” I started…well I was playing original music in high school, but playing in clubs where I was playing original music…we stared back in 1975 in Washington D.C. That’s 30 years. That’s pretty funky to think about that.
Smitty: Yes, those were great times, too.
GK: Yes, in fact, I still talk to some of the guys who I played with back then. My buddy, Shannon Ford, a drummer I played together with in high school, is coming to my release party tomorrow night. He’s been very successful working with Paul Simon and the Gatlin Brothers, and he worked with Roger Miller and Robert Gordon. So he’ll come by and sit in and it’ll be great to play with him again. He lives in New York City now.
Smitty: Well that’s got to be a cool reunion.
GK: Yes, when I’m on the East Coast I usually call some players I’ve known for years. We either played in a band together long ago or we’re just friends and now they’re the top guys in town and they make it to one of my shows.
Smitty: Well I’m really excited about this record. I think you did a fantastic job with this...the mix is really nice and the tunes are well selected. The title is “Looking Up”. Talk a little about what you were feeling with this title. I know there’s a story there and I’d like you to share it with the fans. Looking Up is quite an interesting title, especially during this day and time.
GK: Well I think at this point, in the last few years, I have been much more aware that we live in a world that is not so pretty a lot of the time. I’ve always been a positive and easy-going person, and try to stay level headed. Now I have a couple of kids, and my boys are growing up, and we try to shield them from what’s going on in the world, but they do learn about it in school…you take what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in your daily life, like you have a problem with your homework, or with other kids in school, or whatever…and the idea of having a positive attitude and being able to get through some tough times, and just looking up and being positive, and keeping yourself strong so that you are able to handle anything that comes your way. That really does seem to couple with what we all have to do in the world today, because there’s some heavy stuff coming down all over the world and at home. So let the music speak in that kind of a tone. People always say my music is happy and uplifting and moving. That’s what lifts and can grab somebody, not only in the ears but also hopefully in the heart. To get to the gut of things. If you’re going to grab somebody, you don’t have to try to impress them as much as you want to give them a good feeling. That’s the kind of goal I have with my music and what I try to do.
Smitty: Yes, and that’s a cool thing. So how strongly do you feel music plays a role in the calming affect of the world’s conditions? I know you just talked about that, but give me an idea of how much you think music plays a role or the potential that music has to play a positive role in calming the effects of the world’s situation.
GK: I think music is very powerful and fans tell me all the time that my music means so much. They say, “I come home from work, I had a terrible day. I get in my car and drive home from work in traffic, I put on your CD and BAM…I’m transported, or I feel better already. That’s the greatest compliment that anybody could have. It could be just a few people who say that, but it’s a great reward for what it is I’m doing. I’ve felt that same way, at times. When we’re growing up, we all go through adolescence where we might get into one type of music and get into the lyrics, and we could have an emotional time with family but we can escape into our own favorite music, whether it’s a song, writer or singer, or instrumental music. It fills a place in the soul that nothing else can do. There’s room for music in everybody’s soul, to have some kind of an effect, and if it’s a calming effect, that’s great! If there are just a few people who respond to it that way, it’s a great reward. Even better when it’s a live concert and I can do a range of material…not all funky but some sophisticated and jazzy…once you open up people’s ears, with their fresh ears, it’s great to give them a taste of a lot of different stuff. Sometimes I’m surprised when people come up to me and say, “Man, that jazzy tune was my favorite.” All the other stuff might be exciting or super funky. We do this really snaky groove with this jazzy thing and people say they like it. It’s hard to tell what kind of song it will be but I hope that they all have some sort of quality that is a little deeper than just the surface of a catchy tune.
Smitty: Yes, and I think people feel it deeper and may not be able to express it in deeper terms, but it reaches the deep parts of the soul.
GK: And we always joke about when people come up to us after a show and they say, “man your stuff sounds great and I don’t like jazz.” I say, “Ok, whatever you say.” But that’s why it becomes sort of a problem when people put labels on things. You’ve already closed the door on certain kinds of things that you might like. You already have a preconceived notion of what you like or don’t like.
Smitty: Right. So talk about what Gregg Karukas listens to when maybe he’s had a rough day.
GK: It’s either Brazilian music, or nothing that has anything to do with smooth jazz. John Mayer or Sting…
Smitty: Now you’re going to be a part of this 2005 All Star Smooth Jazz Cruise out of Galveston, Texas.
GK: Yes. Rick Braun asked me to be the musical director for the band for the cruise. It’s not only his show, but we’ll be backing up five other artists. That’ll be a nice weeklong rehearsal project. I think it’s Peter White, Mindi, Michael Lington, Rick Braun, and Joyce…they’re my um…
GK: Yes…and whatever else with the jam sessions and everything. It’ll be a lot of fun, but a lot of work. That’s what I love to do. We’ll put it together and it’ll be fresh and new. It’s a challenge that I love to do, to play someone else’s music…you have to live the record, then there’s the live show tape, then there’s the chart, and sometimes the chart is the same chart they used on the record, but they’ve changed the arrangement so much from playing it for a year on stage, so then you’ve got to get your pencil out and really figure out where it’s going. But I think everyone goes into it with the attitude of knowing it’s not their regular band and we just have fun as much as possible. I’m also looking forward to going on the cruise because I’m bringing my family…so they’ll get a nice little vacation out of it while I’m doing sound checks and shows every night.
Smitty: That’ll be nice. So there are some other elements there…this will be sort of a different gig. You’ll have a couple thousand dedicated fans, enthusiastic and passionate fans of this music. You’ll have a captive audience, but so will they, because this isn’t a gig where you play and then go back to the hotel or jump on a plane. You’ll be with these great fans for an entire week. What are your thoughts about that?
GK: I really enjoy it. I’ve been on cruises before, not recently, but I was on a cruise that Boney and I did once with Art Good. We actually made some nice acquaintances on the cruise and we still keep in contact with the people we had dinner with…it was three couples, and I remember because Yvonne was pregnant with our first, so she got a lot of attention because of that. I just saw some people at a show the other night that we were on the cruise with. So it’s a captive audience, but everyone is really respectful, and there’s plenty of space so if you really need to be alone, you can. And I’m certainly not a big enough star that that would really bother me. And I’m sure at a certain point, in other genres of music or entertainment, people have to cope with a lot of attention and it can get rough. But I like reading when someone like Kelsey Grammer says he always makes it a point when meeting people to be as cordial as possible, because people are already your big fans and already telling you that they appreciate what you do, so you have to respond to that.
Smitty: Yes, and the jam sessions, those have to be a lot of fun…
GK: Yes, they’re cool, because not only are these guys great stylists in their own genre and they have their own sound, but they’re all really well rounded players in the jazz scene as well…I think of people like Rick Braun and Eric Marienthal and people who just really have great chops and can play anything. So when you get in a jam situation and you say “Hey let’s do a jazz song” and you hear guys that are burning that you don’t expect to be burning…that is cool.
Smitty: Yes, and the fans really get into that too, because of the whole camaraderie of the jam session and the whole improvisational vibe of it excites everyone.
GK: Yes, and I think it can help, too, because to us, we might be playing something that everyone knows, and it’s been played a thousand times, and to us, it may not be the hippest thing compared to a show, but it might turn on someone who might hear some jazz that they never thought they’d listen to. Someone who listens to smooth jazz and thought they’d never listen to traditional jazz…gives them a little exposure to that!
Smitty: Right. It’ll be quite a trip, that’s for sure.
GK: Yes, and I think it’s going to be the most artists on a cruise trip, yet. I’m not sure how many artists were on the last one, but I think this one will probably top the total number or artists and shows.
Smitty: I know it will exceed the number of headliners. I think Peter White was telling me it’s the best line up ever for a cruise that he’s ever seen.
GK: And the pre-cruise shows…you couldn’t get any better than Boney (James) and Al Jarreau.
Smitty: I think you’re right. It’ll be a blast. Gregg, it’s always cool when you release a new Cd. Thanks for sharing your time and this great new project. We’ve been talking with Trippin’ N’ Rhythm recording artist Gregg Karukas with his fresh new release “Looking Up”. Every CD player should experience this great project. Gregg thanks again and see on the ship!
GK: For sure, thank you Smitty!
Baldwin “Smitty” Smith
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