Jazz Monthly.com feature interview with Jimmy Sommers
Interview by Joe Caroselli
Jazz Monthly: We here at Jazzmonthly.com are delighted to be chatting with a favorite of ours and we know a favorite of yours for many years – one of the hippest and freshest saxophonists on the Smooth Jazz circuit, Jimmy Sommers. This Chicago native, over the passed decade or so has garnered so many fans – and not just Jazz fans, but fans of great music all over the world. Jimmy has a wonderful facility to create a fabulous music happening, be it live or on record. His latest CD, Time Stands Still, is a delicious reflection of 14 melodies that we’ve known and loved over the years. Jimmy succeeded in being true to these familiar melodies, and yet at the same time totally making them very much his own in the Jimmy Sommers style; it’s a wonderful CD. Welcome to Jazzmonthly.com Jimmy.
Jimmy Sommers (JS): Hey man, thanks for having me, pleasure to be hear talking with you .
Jazz Monthly: We’re going to talk, of course, about your fabulous new CD that we here at JazzMonthly.com really love, Time Stands Still. Before we do that, I mentioned in my introduction that you’re a Chicago native. Now it all started there; how old were you man when you basically started with the sax?
JS: I started playing the horn in third grade when I was ten years old, so I’ve been doing it for a long time. You know, when I picked up that horn it just felt natural. It was a little rough in the marching band going through the years, but I weathered the storm and it’s paid off for me.
Jazz Monthly: Now Jimmy, I’m assuming it was an alto sax if you were a little kid right?
JS: Exactly, and I feel bad for the people that get pushed to the clarinet because when you’re a kid you don’t really realize that their trying to put together a whole orchestra, so luckily no one pushed me into something else.
Jazz Monthly: You mean like the tuba. (Both laughing) Now you received a musical scholarship right and you ventured out to LA. How old were you then?
JS: Well, I was twenty-one, I went to college at Southern Illinois University. I tried out for a scholarship and I got it, but I was an engineering major and music minor. I was trying to have a backup plan you know.
Jazz Monthly: Jimmy, when you say engineering you don’t mean like a musical recording engineer, you mean like mathematics right?
JS: Mathematics, exactly, but I guess… you know, most musicians are mathematical. I was always good with numbers; I did that but, thank God I didn’t have to use it because I forgot everything I learned in college. (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: Well you sure didn’t forget your great music. I know that you performed on: the Today Show, on Smooth Jazz TV, Access Hollywood, and even on Live with Regis and Kelly. That must have been a trip.
JS: Yeah, Regis and Kelly was a lot of fun. Its funny, Regis… he doesn’t age; he still looks the same. What’s funny is if you ever go on my website, jimmysommers.com, I shouldn’t tell anybody about this but I was wearing leather pants when I was playing with them, what was I thinking.
Jazz Monthly: Did he bust your chops a little bit?
JS: He didn’t (laughing). I was with Ginuwine on that show and we had a good time playing. It’s a little early to play in the morning because it is live you know. Eight in the morning you’re there so that was a little rough. But, besides that it was a lot of fun.
Jazz Monthly: See that’s the thing that people forget. See people who are not musicians Jim, and I know you go through this… I know I do as a musician, “Hey Jim do you want to meet me for breakfast at say 6:30 in the morning, or 7 o’clock?” They don’t know that we’re not even…
JS: We’re getting in then. (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: We’re not even in; right. (Laugh) So that must have been a fun experience and a real trip with Regis and Kelly.
JS: Yeah, that was, that was some fun. Those TV shows are fun to do but there’s nothing better than playing to a live audience and getting everyone up dancing and having fun and going around. You know one of the things I like to do is go into the crowd to play and have fun.
Jazz Monthly: I know that you’re a really good showman, but also a fine musician too. You know, I remember checking you out at, I think you were playing happy-hour-live at the Blue Note; it was a great groove, and as I said you’re having fun with the audience. You really are a very fine showman, but the thing that makes it really cool, for me, a fellow musician watching you – is that you can also back it up with talent and fine musicianship. In other words, you’re having fun and clowning around with the people; that’s all part of the performance, but you’re also a musician first right?
JS: Yeah, you know it. I’ve been playing for so long that its something that you don’t forget. It’s like riding a bike. That’s why, After playing for so many years, I wanted to do this new record: Time Stands Still, which is all of the classic songs. All of these songs have been around forever, but you know I wanted to put my own twist on it. Bill Cunliffe who is an incredible keyboard player, did such a great job arranging this CD. I wanted to get the best sound quality with the full orchestra in a studio and make sure that just the “right everything” was put on the record. I took care of everything including: the mix, and mastering; I really wanted to capture that great sound.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely. Jimmy is this your sixth CD?
JS: Sixth or seventh maybe. I did my Christmas album like this too, you know the orchestra and the stand up bass… that classic sound. But, mainly I’m known for my R&B production. Sometimes, you want to change things up and try different things.
Jazz Monthly: You know, you mentioned your Christmas CD that came out about five years ago, it’s called A Holiday Wish and that’s a perfect lead in, thank you, you’re making my job easy!
JS: (Laughing) That’s where I got a taste of that “classic sound.” You know, that old bluesy sound. When you go in and instead of doing R&B – where you program some things… you know, its one instrument at a time. This is going in with rehearsing and playing it in one or two takes.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah man, it’s like a live performance, with the exception of the strings that maybe you wouldn’t use live. But that’s a perfect lead in with your CD, A Holiday Wish, because I’ve had that CD for five years, you know I guess since it came out. I know it really well… you’ve got like Santa Baby on it.
JS: And Chris Botti played Have a Merry Christmas. Chris played on that for me; he did a great job.
Jazz Monthly: You’ve got Greensleeves, a very poignant version of Greensleeves and Silent Night, but that’s a perfect lead into your latest CD now, Time Stands Still, because when you recorded A Holiday Wish five years ago…
JS: Yes, the response I got from that Christmas CD, was I could tell people liked that kind of production. That’s why for Time Stands Still, I picked some of the best tunes. I work with a guy, Richard Perry, who produced all of Rod Stewarts classic songs, when he first came out, and I heard that… and that’s what kind of got me hip onto that type of production.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, and you know when I said you did A Holiday Wish, you were saying, “It’s tunes that people already know and love.” So, it’s the same thing with this latest CD, Time Stands Still, people know these great standards, but that’s also a challenge for Jimmy Sommers because look – how do you put your own unique slant or twist on these songs and still be, true to these songs. In other words, not take them way out or over produce them… and you succeeded!
JS: Yeah, that’s true. You want to stick to the melody but you’ve got to add something to it so… it’s different. It’s got to be your own style to it.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and we’re going to talk about some of these cuts on here too, but you know when I first heard about the CD, of course I already knew your work, you know we here at JazzMonthly.com know your background and we respected you Jim, but I’ve got to tell you, even I, and I can say this kind of to make you chuckle, I said “Well lets see… Jimmy Sommers is playing some of these romantic songs, well, what kind of an approach is he going to take?” I was almost ready to kind of “skim” through it when I got the CD, but not at all man because its just so refreshingly honest… there’s such a hipness!
JS: Well I really worked on those orchestral intros. By not playing the melody yet, you really didn’t know what tune was coming – but I kind of hint to it, you know.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, that’s well said Jimmy. There’s such hipness to it too, and that’s what really did it for me. By the way man, what a stellar supporting cast on the CD. Why don’t you tell us about some of your fellow musicians and singers on Time Stands Still?
JS: Well you know, who got me into this business… the first CD I ever did was with Eric Benet.
Jazz Monthly: that was Jame’s Café right?
JS: Yeah, exactly.
Jazz Monthly: That was ten years ago.
JS: Yeah, ten years ago, you know he got me into this; I met him in Chicago. It seems to me like I put Eric in every one of my albums, he’s right by me too. He was singing Over the Rainbow, which he comes in and just nails it; he’s such a talent. Then there’s Gloria Loring – who I met through a friend. She sings Fever, and what’s funny is… she’s an incredible Jazz singer and her son is Robin Thicke, do you know Robin Thicke? He just hit the scene and he’s done really well. A great R&B singer.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah you know, and you have one of my favorites, as a fellow drummer, Joe LaBarbara – who worked with Bill Evans and everybody. In fact, Joe LaBarbara was in, I think in the last Bill Evans trio with Mark Johnson and Joe LaBarbara.
JS: Yeah, he’s something else.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, and of course you have your pal Chris Botti who you mentioned earlier.
JS: Yeah, Chris Botti and Rick Braun playing on a tune. He’s playing on Fly Me To The Moon. Then I have a great new singer who I met on Myspace called Dina Deadly. She did a great job on At Last.
Jazz Monthly: I want to talk about some of these cuts. We’ll see if we can get to most of them because it’s just such an appealing CD! Again, I really invite everybody and encourage everybody to get this CD because you will not be disappointed, you will not be hitting “next.”
JS: (Laughing) You’ve got to hear the intro to every song.
Jazz Monthly: Yes, so let’s talk about… you mentioned Fly Me to the Moon, you now Bart Howard wrote that and it was originally titled In Other Words. That was actually the title, and everyone recorded that from Joe Hornell. Everyone, of course, knows Sinatra’s version… Tony Bennett… I think even Bobby Womack did a version in the late sixties, but I really love your version because it really is true to the Bossa Nova feel.
JS: Yeah exactly, that’s how it turned out which is great you know. We can thank Joe for that on the drums.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, Joe LaBarbara. Just nice blowing on it by you Jimmy… and really… as I mentioned: true to the song, keeping it beautiful. There’s a beautiful string bed, I think you said Bill Cunliffe did it?
JS: Yeah, Bill Cunliffe, incredible piano player but he you know arranged the song and I was so impressed with what he did, he’s one of these musos who’s just genius.
Jazz Monthly: … and there was a trumpet solo on there?
JS: Rick Braun played on that.
Jazz Monthly: Just beautiful. You mentioned Over the Rainbow with the vocal by your long time pal… the guy that got you started… well not got you started, but helped.
JS: In other words the guy that was married to Halle Berry.
Jazz Monthly: (Both laughing) All right, you answered it Jimmy, Eric Benet. You know the thing that I was really impressed with was that you played just a little bit of it. Just little garnishes, you know… understated.
JS: Less is more these days.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, and I have to respect you so much for that Jimmy Sommers, because look man, this is your album and you let Eric shine on it. I think you came in on the tag and just really took it out in the end. As you stated, less is more.
JS: You know that’s what I do with all of my records. I don’t want to just keep blowing the horn; I want other people to shine. The ear wants to hear other things, other instruments, other voices.
Jazz Monthly: You’re absolutely right Jimmy, and listen what I respect about you is that if you wanted to rip this song to smithereens with note after note and all of these sax splashes, you could have… and you could have justified it. But, you didn’t.
Jazz Monthly: Do you remember Jack Benny, the comedian… great comedian? Jack Benny had his own radio show, but he had the greatest supporting cast. You know people like: Dennis Day, Don Wilson, and Rochester his valet, and he let them get all the laughs. But guess what, guess what the name of the show was, The Jack Bennie Show. So guess what, Jimmy Sommers, he’s playing, he’s showing that he can play and then some, but he’s letting all of his supporting cast shine too, and that’s such a great thing by you.
JS: No “I” in team right? (Laughing)
Jazz Monthly: And then of course Bésame Mucho, and you know what I liked about this is that the strings were just done so tastefully man and just very classy.
JS: Yeah, you know there’s nothing like that Bossa Nova sound.
Jazz Monthly: Originally Bésame Mucho was originated by Jimmy Dorsey, the Jimmy Dorsey band with Pretty Kitty Callan and Bob Everly. They sang it as a duet and your version is just very hip man… throughout. There’s also a flute solo.
JS: Doug Webb, he’s playing clarinet and flute on this record. He came and he could play everything this guy.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, great player, and just a beautiful arrangement. Then one of my favorites, and you know Jim, when I saw it on the list of songs I said “Alright lets see how Jimmy Sommers is going to approach this one.”
JS: Yeah, I haven’t heard any sax player do it except Gato, you know… and its like, I’ve got to come up with something, and with the strings it’s definitely a different version.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely, and we’re taking about Europa, we are talking about, cut number five. That’s a good point, you wanted to take a little different approach but still be as I said, “true to the tune, right?”
JS: Exactly, but you know I wanted to change it, kind of hip-up the sound a little bit from Gato’s version, Gato Barbieri… it was very seventies-ish. You know with the Whurlitzer sound and that seventies guitar sound. So I wanted to put it in a true standard form, and I think we came through with it.
Jazz Monthly: You sure did man, and you know what I liked about it, and you’re talking about the great Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri and Carlos Santana, of course, wrote it. But what I liked about it was that the opening was so beautiful and lush, and you know what Jimmy, the first time I heard it there was no doubt that these were not synthesized strings man.
JS: No, exactly, that’s something that I definitely took pride in. I had a section in there and they nailed it.
Jazz Monthly: They sure did. In all fairness, there is nothing wrong with synthesized strings; they have their place, but it was so much more beautiful to hear that this was actually a string section, this was the Peter Kent string section Jim?
JS: Yes, they came down and they knocked it out. They were incredible; that’s what they do; that’s what these strings players do. They come in and put their charts in front of them and boom… they nail it.
Jazz Monthly: They sure did, and you nailed it on the sax because, you know, what I can tell Jim is that again, we love Gato Barbieri’s version back in the seventies, but you were deliberately, not trying to scream on Europa. You know what I mean?
JS: I think that’s important, to get that soft breathy sound. You know that’s what I like on that tenor I’ve got. You get that little bit of… you can hear the reed… you know… the spit in the reed. You really feel like you’re there.
Jazz Monthly: Good point – and breathy is a good word. You know the next cut man, I was wondering, okay what’s Jimmy going to do with this one. It’s probably the most modern, it IS the most modern of all of them, and of course we’re talking about Norah Jones’ Grammy award winning song Don’t know Why. It’s very dreamy; that’s the best way I can describe that.
JS: it’s like: “where did I come up with this one” out of all of the standards. But, if you think about it, with how many records she’s sold and how big that tune was, it almost is a “standard” when you hear it.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, very well said because you’re right, that could have been a song from the forties or fifties you know.
JS: Yeah its just one of those songs that you hear and you just go “oh wow.”
Jazz Monthly: You know when you played it, Jimmy, I closed my eyes and you played it in a way… I almost can’t describe it… like a heavy eye-lidded way. You know very sensually, again true to the song. Not doing too much, but giving the listener really something.
JS: Yeah, you know it’s definitely cool, I tried to be dreamy, kind of like Norah’s voice, you know.
Jazz Monthly: Well you did man, and also we can’t talk about this cut Don’t Know Why without Tommy Morgan on the harmonica – where you went kind of back and forth with him right?
JS: Yeah, you know this guy came in with about sixty harmonicas in a suitcase. Ninety years old you know, he’s played on everyone’s record around the world. It was really a treat. The stories that this guy’s got in his head it’s like “Okay Tommy, funny now enough with the stories, let’s get this done.” (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: Oh man, I wish our readers and I were at the recording sessions. Also, there was very nice percussion on that track by Joe LaBarbara. I don’t know who else was playing on that but it was really laid down, nicely, on Don’t Know Why.
JS: Yeah, it’s all Joe that did that; he definitely laid it down.
Jazz Monthly: You know one of the cuts was Hoagie Carmichael’s Georgia On My Mind, and it really is a hymn to, of course, Ray Charles. But, you know the thing that I was struck by, was that it was the exact same. I’ve got to give you credit and I guess give Bill Cunliffe, the string arranger.
JS: Oh, Bill Cunliffe, he arranged the whole album and what a genius this guy is.
Jazz Monthly: The thing that I was struck by is that he did the exact same string intro as was on Ray Charles’ record decades ago. It just… it totally worked! With you blowing on it, and of course I use the word “honestly,” it really was, Jimmy, an honest salute to Ray Charles.
JS: Yeah, and let me tell you, even Ray Charles’ duets record is unbelievable. What an incredible icon Ray Charles was. Its just incredible; all of those tunes. Jamie Fox did such a good job in that movie and young people have to go and see that movie to know who Ray Charles was because he was something else with what he went through.
Jazz Monthly: Then of course Fever, you mentioned Gloria Loring on vocals there.
JS: That song really took off. We started slow, but it just builds and builds and builds… and then we’re out.
Jazz Monthly: You’re right, and again just a smoking rendition. You said that perfectly, it just keeps building and building and then it’s the end of the tune. Such a cool live sound,
JS: Yeah, it definitely turned out good.
Jazz Monthly: One of the cuts on here, and when our readers go out and buy the CD we want them to enjoy all of them but one of the cuts that I particularly enjoyed was, just for the simplicity of it was The Look of Love, you know Burt Bacharach.
JS: There’s a great guitar solo in there, Paul Jackson Jr., played it. That’s one of the things on this record; I wanted to make sure I produce these solos right. This guitar solo was really amazing. I was going for that breathy wet reed sound again you know where it’s just real lazy but you kind of, you know, close your eyes and sit back… drink some wine… and just lose yourself.
Jazz Monthly: Yeah, I know what you mean, man.
On the track At last, you mentioned that you found Dena Deadly on My Space?
JS: I was just going through Myspace and I was like, “This girl can sing,” cause you can really find some good artists on Myspace that haven’t been out yet. I called her up and she said “Yeah I’d love to do it,” and she came. She really delivered.
Jazz Monthly: That’s very encouraging for people who are on Myspace.
JS: Yeah, sure you never know whom you’re going to meet.
Jazz Monthly: You’re right, (Both laughing), and of course You Are So Beautiful, the Joe Cocker tune, very spare background, and you know you didn’t need a lot.
JS: It’s a good way to close the record, it’s such a good tune when Joe Cocker sings it, it’s so meaningful… you just feel it… and that’s something that I just wanted to do. Just have that horn, a bare horn playing that. I want people to be able to feel it and that’s what doing music is about and recording it right, you want people to feel you.
Jazz Monthly: You know the thing I like about it man is: this is a sophisticated CD. Its very hip, and you mentioned wine: it’s like sipping your favorite glass of wine. It’s not just mood music; its great music… with the arrangements, the approaches… it’s real music.
JS: Thank you. It’s something that I wanted to do after all of these R&B records that I’ve done. I wanted to do it with all the songs that everyone knows… it speaks like the album: Time Stands Still, because all these song… they are going to be here forever.
Jazz Monthly: Absolutely.
I was watching some food station and there you came on and I’m saying “What the heck is Jimmy Sommers doing?” (Both laughing) Now let me explain what it was, I guess you’re still one of the owners of that popular sushi fusion type restaurant in Hollywood?
JS: Yeah, Koi, it’s like a celeb spot in LA, we have a lot of celebrities going there. A musician always wants somewhere to go play so I started a restaurant where I was going to play and the only problem is, it did so well that we need all of the tables so there’s no live music now because we need the space to serve.
Jazz Monthly: (Laughing) Hey, that’s a good thing! So it’s Koi in LA. It’s a real hotspot.
You’re also one of the original, I guess from the ground up partners in the company Baby Genius.
JS: That’s something too, as a musician, you know sitting with my friends, we started developing music for kids and it turned into a DVD line and we have toys now in Wal-Mart.
Jazz Monthly: Is that what Baby Genius is Jimmy?
JS: Yeah, it started with Classical music for kids, and then we have child development DVDs with great music. It teaches kids: learning with music.
Jazz Monthly: If that’s not enough you know, Jimmy Sommers has his own clothing line, what is it called Wildfox something?
JS: Yeah, Wildfox Couture, www. wildfoxcouture.com.
Jazz Monthly: What’s that, what kind of clothes?
JS: That was another day, friends sitting around, they put together a business proposal for me, and “We have this idea, we’re going to make you millions.” If I had a dime for every person that came to me with an idea. But I was like “Well I can get some shirts made with instruments on them. So, first thing was I had to meet up with a graphic artist… and it ended up we shipped over 120,000 t-shirts now. But now, it’s mainly girls, you know I realized that guys don’t shop, they get their favorite clothes and then that’s it. But girls always want something new.
Jazz Monthly: Well we know that you have a great female fan base, so its wildfox couture. I know that you’re also a pretty hip dresser because I’ve checked out some of the videos with you, and I’ve known your work.
JS: Except for the leather pants on Regis. (Both laughing)
Jazz Monthly: Hey Jim, what’s on the horizon for you. We were talking, of course, about you’re latest CD that we want everybody to get, Time Stands Still.
JS: I’m going on a little vacation with my parents and then I’m going to do some dates with Chris Botti, and just start playing and promoting the record. I want to take just a little time off to just enjoy the summer and I’m going to Europe with my parents, it’ll be fun to spend more time with them.
Jazz Monthly: That’s right. Enjoy them now while their here right?
Jazz Monthly: Jimmy I love you for that.
That’s a cool thing about CD Time Stands Still. When you do go out to perform, you can put together a band… whether they’re some of the guys that are on this CD and maybe some others, and really recreate the sound because again the feeling of the CD is so live.
JS: Yeah, I agree, it’s definitely going to be fun to play. I took my time finding that “right sound” acoustically, so that’s something that I’m going to have to work on. Any room you play is different with a horn instrument, so I want to definitely play where you know people can feel it… and just like the record. I want to play and find venues where I can recreate the same feeling.
Jazz Monthly: He’s got a stellar cast on here, some great people surrounding him as part of his extended family. Really go check it out; Time Stands Still, Jimmy Sommers’ latest record… playing some of those great standards but putting his own twist on it… his own Jimmy Sommers sound on it… and you nailed it man.
JS: Thanks so much Joe, I appreciate it.
Jazz Monthly: Thank you.
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