"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview"
Tony Saunders’ life story could be the script to a hit movie. Son of legendary keyboardist and composer Merl Saunders, Tony’s life has been a musical adventure. As a child he was taught piano by Herbie Hancock, and for his tenth birthday he was given an electric organ from Sly Stone. After the recent success of "Uptown Jazz," which received enthusiastic praise, Tony has announced the soon-to-be release of his new musical project “Sexy Somethin.” We would like to welcome Tony Saunders to JazzMonthly.com
Jazz Monthly: Your Dad-- Merl Saunders, the renowned keyboardist and composer, was such a tremendous force in your life. Can you tell us some of the important lessons that you learned from him?
Tony Saunders At the young age of 8 playing piano my Dad knew I had a gift. I would play my piano lesson and then I would start playing songs I liked or something I made up. The most important thing I learned from him was to follow your heart. When I was 10 years old I had a radio show on KSOL in San Francisco. Sly Stone was a friend of my Dads and always came to the house. He gave me an organ so I could start playing it. It was a miniature B3 by Hammond. This let me know that if you practice people will notice and bless you with good things. I learned everything I do now from being around my Dad in the studios from a young age. Everything I do, Producing, Writing music for TV and Film, band leading and being a sideman I learned from my Dad. I was in the studio Fantasy records from the early 60’s. I owe my career to my Dad because he kept me by his side. I learned to be a producer and a musician, which was probably my biggest growth under his wing.
JM: You graduated from the prominent Conservatory of Music in San Francisco. We think of you as a superb bass virtuoso and composer, but you did not graduate as a bassist. Can you reveal to everybody which instrument you did major in and acquaint us with more about that time of your life?
TS: I was a Piano player all through High school and Graduated playing Piano and arranging. In fact my first group I played Organ not Bass. I did start playing the bass at age 14 but in groups growing up I was known as a keyboard guy. Some of my high school friends who come to my shows have asked me when did I switch to Bass!!
JM: Your CD "Uptown Jazz" has received such enthusiastic praise! The opening bright and uplifting track is "Shaniya"! That specific composition was named after someone very special in your life, who even helped you to record it, right?
TS: Shaniya is my 12-year-old granddaughter. I am grandpa Tony to her and she likes hanging with me. I love it that she shows interest in what I do. What more can a grandpa ask for? She really helped me record the bass track by running Logic for me.
JM: Listening to the title track from your album "Uptown Jazz" somehow brings a sense of sophistication and ease into our busy "uptown" lifestyles. There is something very "cosmopolitan" about this fine tune. Is this what you were aiming to achieve when you wrote it?
TS: Yes I wanted the listener to know that going Uptown was important. Time to put on your fancy clothes and make a statement. I think of it as a New Yorker going up to Harlem back in the day and you had to bring it because there were so many great musicians in Harlem. Big Club, Big Band, bright lights and the Big City was what I wanted to project on this song.
JM: The introductions to your compositions seem to really "set up" your melody entrances so well. Is this an ability that you just "feel" when you are composing, or are you thinking in terms of the number of measures, song format? What is your process?
TS: I come from a classical background and a jazz background. Sometimes my entrances set up the melody and yes it is very planned. I love themes and sometimes the intro sets up the whole song. They are very planned and I try to not make them very long. I want the listener to know this is the intro and when the melody starts I want it to be easily identifiable.
JM: Your saying "I romance the bass, as I romance life" truly expresses who you are. It is almost like your own personal proverb. Is this a feeling that you've had since you first started playing the bass?
TS:The saying comes from the last 6 years when I figured out who I was in the large scheme of things as a solo artist. I am more like the BB King of the bass. I play things that are simple and that you will hum often. I am a simple man and live pretty simple. I take care of my wife and family and play the bass. I am a very romantic person and I bring that romance to the stage. I have a passion for Romance.
JM: You also own a recording and production studio and have produced Radio/TV jingles, commercials and film production. Tell us about your studio? Can an aspiring artist come to your facilities too or are your projects focused on major clients?
TS: My studio logo is “Taking You to the edge of Greatness” All are welcome at my studio, as I love helping new artist as well as established clients. No Job to big or small. I have major clients as well as singer songwriters. I love them all. I especially love helping someone new at the business get directed and focused. Seeing them smile at the end of the day is the best part.
JM: How has the speed of technology in music changed the way you arrange and produce music? Or, do you follow a similar formula?
TS: Technology has to be kept up with and it has changed the playing surface a lot over the years. I can now do things from home that end up as finals. I have as many options at home as I do in big studios. I use Logic X and the options are endless. I can lock to picture for Movies, which was unheard of back in the day. You have virtual instruments!!! I love today’s technology as it has made the home studio important. You still need a good song. I am not a fan of the singer who has to do it line by line. I want a performance I can feel.
JM: In this transformation of Smooth Jazz and Adult Contemporary, where do you see yourself?
TS: I hope I see me self as someone who can contribute to the evolution of the music. I hope my brand is strong enough to continue to be heard by a wider audience. I don’t hear the music I love a lot on the radio and I wonder why it is hidden. The new funk/jazz R&B smooth world is ever changing to fit the bigger stars of the day. But to me it’s the same old music being heard over and over again. Like James Brown use to say “Its Got To Be Funky."
JM: With extensive experience as a performer, studio musician, and producer, you have recorded and produced three solo releases. What is on the horizon as far as future projects for Tony Saunders?
TS: I am excited to be working with the great Keyboardist Gail Jhonson on my new CD “Sexy Somethin” This is the first time I am working with a great person of smooth Jazz. As MD for Norman Brown and others she is the first person who brings out the best in me in this genre. We will co-produce this project together. There will be 12 songs and 2 of them will also be coproduced by the great guitarist Nils and I. I am also doing this CD in LA with LA musicians. Lots of special guest so stay tuned for the next batch of songs from Tony Saunders.