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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Tom Wopat
interview by Jonathan Widran

Tom Wopat28 years after parking The General Lee – the customized Dodge Charger his character Luke Duke drove in the long running hit CBS TV series “The Dukes of Hazzard” – for the last time, Tom Wopat is still raising a ruckus – just a different kind. The multi-talented performer, a two time Tony Award nominee for his high visibility Broadway roles in “Annie Get Your Gun” (1999) and “A Catered Affair” (2008), had a small role in Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar nominated “Django Unchained” and appears with Jane Seymour in the forthcoming ABC Family Channel film "Elixir" - a musical with a magical twist.
            While he launched his recording career in the 80s with several well received country music albums, Wopat entered an exciting new phase of his recording career in 2000, when Angel Records signed him to record a set of standards, In The Still of the Night. While continuing to work in musical theatre and television and film actor, the Wisconsin native – who first appeared on Broadway, pre Dukes, as a replacement in the 1977 musical “I Love My Wife” – recorded two other albums in this vein: Tom Wopat Sings Harold Arlen: Dissertation on the State of Bliss (2005) and Consider It Swung (2009). Wopat recently released his eighth album I’ve Got Your Number, which finds him swinging into the Mad Men era with an eclectic 14 track set featuring two original pieces, a few Great American Songbook classics and covers of lesser known songs by Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor and Bruce Hornsby. It was produced by renowned jazz bassist David Finck (Al Jarreau, George Michael, Rosemary Clooney, Aretha Franklin, etc.)

JazzMonthly: Let’s start with this wonderful new album. In a digital age where many people have short attention spans, 14 tracks is pretty ambitious. It also has a very eclectic set of material. Was there an overriding concept or a creative roadmap you started with?

Tom Wopat: What happened was, David and I tried a bunch of different ideas and we ended up with something of an homage to the Mad Men era, in the sense that the heart of the album has strings and horns – that kind of big band orchestra hybrid thing they did in the 60s and 70s. Frank Sinatra and Bobby Darin had a lot of success with that style at the same time as The Beach Boys and The Beatles were happening. We touched on that groove for seven or eight tracks and the other songs are slightly outside that box. When you do a CD with 14 songs, there’s a lot of range, but I felt like an hour of music was a nice way to go. Some of the choices were mine and some suggestions were David’s. James Taylor’s “Secret O’Life” is one of my favorite songs and Judy Collins’ “Since You’ve Asked” is one I did 35 years ago with a guitar in clubs. I owe a lot to my arrangers also - Ted Firth, Henry Hey and John Oddo.

JM: Two of your earlier albums, In The Still of the Night and Dissertation on the State of Bliss, were standards oriented. Was it liberating to explore more material from the pop/rock era and by more contemporary legends like Springsteen, Paul Simon and James Taylor?

TW: The liberation happened because I basically paid for last two records via my production company, so I can sing what I want! I started expanding like that on Consider It Swung, recording the Joni Mitchell tune “Two Grey Rooms,” which you don’t ordinarily hear in a jazz context but which sounded nice in a minimalist setting. The set list on the new album is a strong reflection of what I do with my band live. It swings harder and has more ballads from more contemporary artists. I don’t really feel that’s unusual anymore because artists like Diana Krall and Dianne Reeves do it all the time in a strict jazz context. As long as there’s the unifying force of good vocals and strong arrangements, and it’s a decent song, somehow it all works. 

JM: Do you feel fans of this type of album prefer strict themes or are you making a statement that eclectic is cool, so come along on the journey?

TW: People are pretty open-minded, especially in last 20 years with the internet and niche marketing in recording. Anything is fair game, and there’s some pretty wild stuff out there. I like to discover artists myself who really mix it up in fresh ways. One of my favorites now is Cyrille Aimee, who is a favorite in New York and creates a groove with a loop machine and overlaps her background vocals while singing the lead part. Speaking of which, I am excited about doing a complete reading of I’ve Got Your Number at the new club 54 Below on February 25. I think all the songs will flow well together, as they do on the album.  

JM: Your two original songs, “Summer Dress” and “I Still Feel That Way” fit in pretty well. Tell me about those songs.

TW: I think the reggae vibe of “I Still Feel That Way” takes me farther afield than any other track, but I like the song very much and David Finck has been very supportive of my original material. I had an original song on Consider It Swung as well. I don’t write a whole lot but when I do, I try to write with my mind towards a certain point of view. “Summer Dress” is another like that. What’s funny is that my son, who did some of the artwork for the album, was listening to “I Still Feel That Way” and wondered if I was doing a Bob Marley tune! I really appreciate the compliment. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to do more songwriting.

JM: I’m sure people who are unfamiliar with your musical history still associate you with your “Dukes of Hazzard” character and wonder what it’s going to sound like. Is it a constant challenge to prove yourself beyond the role that made you famous?

TW: Most of the time I don’t think about that. That’s a long time ago, but of course just for fun in some of my shows I might make an offhand reference to something connected to that time. If I have a guitar, I might play a few bars from “Good Ol’ Boys.” It’s best to embrace that to a certain extend but not try to exploit it. If my original TV fame gets them in the door, by the end of the night I’m hopeful that it’s the last thing they’re going to be thinking about.

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