The most obvious job of a drummer is to provide the beat and keep the band swingin’ or bumpin’ in time. Just doing that is harder than it may seem, but the elite and legendary do it so well we might not realize really how much more they’re doing. Often nestled behind the vocalists or instrumentalists, they’re in a continuing cycle of providing a rhythmic canvas and making split second decisions on their instrument as well as for the others in the band that often set the tone for the whole vibe. And of course, when it’s time to in the immortal words of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, “give the drummer some,” they get to assemble a collage of sonic colors of their own that still artfully fits in the grand scheme.
It seems the acumen developed over time for many great drummers doing this night in and night out on the bandstand or inside a recording studio booth fosters a talent for leading a band and composing as well. Who knew? Well, turns out many do including the extremely accomplished drummer, composer and bandleader, E.J. Strickland.
The in demand beatsmith has and continues to work with a list of burgeoning and veteran, acclaimed artists including names like Vincent Herring, Ravi Coltrane, Russell Malone, David Sanchez, Reggie Washington, David Gilmore, Jaleel Shaw, Brandee Younger, Brianna Thomas Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright, Marcus Strickland (his twin brother saxophonist ) and many others. But he has also garnered acclaim with his own excellent projects as a leader such as The E.J. Strickland Quintet,Transient Beings, and very cool concept, Pads N Loops. In midst of doing so, he has successfully revealed that impressive talent for composing releasing three fantastic projects with the most recent being, Warriors Of Peace.
His ability obviously didn’t go unnoticed by the Jazz Coalition who in August awarded him, one of fifty given, a commission grant for the creation of music relevant to the times we now live. As you’ll discover in the video interview Strickland was already at a boiling point of expression whipped up by the uncertainty and adversity we are all facing at this pivotal time in our history when this opportunity arrived. The result is his highly anticipated suite called, A Unified Stance, We Must Take.
Check out the video to hear E.J. Strickland’s passionate reason for the title of this new work and the suite as a whole along with where his love of music and the drums came from; his relationship with his brother, saxophonist Marcus Strickland; a funny story about legendary drummer Roy Haynes and more.
The Soul Seen retrospective revisits the 2003 interview with Soul/R&B artist Kem from the segment WATCH CLOSELY that featured emerging artists to keep an eye on. This catches the popular artist as he moved from successful independent artist to making the decision to sign with legendary major Motown records and offers an insightful look at his reasons and the development of his sound.
KEM Putting the Right Elements Together
It’s a lucky thing that the prevalent mind set of the music industry to foster monotony and artlessness has not kept gifted souls from being heard. The recent rise of artists, “doing it for themselves” has brought forth a crop of talented folks furtively proving that a notable slice of the listening public pie still desires artistry and meaningful messages. Case in point, vocalist, songwriter, and musician, KEM.
A little more than a year ago the “Motor City” resident born Kem Owens in Nashville, Tennessee, released the splendid CD that is KEMISTRY on his own label. The aptly titled concoction of smoothed out hipness, sensual vibes, stirring words, and Kem’s superb vocal prowess that hints to the flavor of legend, Al Jarreau, was ushered to the masses with a seemingly lofty goal – Sell 10,000 copies. Well, not only was the goal met, it was exceeded – while at the same time sparking a watchful eye and eventual offer from Motown Records to promote and distribute not only Kemistry, but 4 other future releases as well. It’s indeed ironic that the legendary label that once set up shop in Detroit would zero in on his project. It’s also fitting when you consider its iconic history of discovering and grooming stars even as recent as that of the talented, young soulstress, India.Arie. But why, you maybe wondering, after confirming his ability to sell records on his own would Kem decide to hook up with Motown? “It’s a win, win situation for me,” says Kem. “Having the machine of a major label behind me would allow me to reach a lot more people and to get the music released on a national level. It also helps me build my fan base, my market base.” He then keenly continues, “If for some reason this should not do as well [as planned], I will have expanded my base and I can always go back to selling records on my own. I think the type of music that I’m doing is such that people will continue to buy the records for as long as I choose to make them. I will have established that kind of base.”
If Kem sounds confident, well that’s because he should be. Not only for his astute business acumen, but because he is in possession of the main element which has been key to his success thus far – Genuine, innate talent. In addition to being a completely self-taught musician, his vocal range goes 4 high on the octave scale and his emotive, creative style, which soars, bends, and soothes, employs them all. As to the comparisons made to renowned, multi-award winning vocalist, Al Jarreau, Kem considers himself in great company, but counts Jarreau and vocal wizard, Bobby McFerrin, as more like confirmations than necessarily influences. “I haven’t studied either one of those artists per se, but I am a big fan of Al Jarreau.” He explains, “A lot of things that I’ve been doing or have wanted to pursue musically, I’ve been doing all of my creative life, but those two artists helped validate it. You hear them and it’s like, okay, so that is cool and I’m not crazy for wanting to do this. But they’ve paved the way for it to be done.”
And doing it he most certainly is successfully folding his brand of vocal artistry into a soul-rich collection with love as the dominant theme, boasting gems like, “I’m Missing Your Love” or the first single, “Love Calls.” The lean to love on Kemistry is however, something he admits to happening quite by chance. “I think that somewhat by default, it’s an album that’s centered on love and a lot of people get that the most. I didn’t set out to do that. I really just selected songs that were closest to me, I liked the most and,” adds with a humble chuckle, “were ready to go.” However, he admits, “I’ve been known for writing love songs for the duration of my career and I take pleasure in that. I think that’s something people need, people want, and identify most with.”
But you’ll quickly discover that although the intriguing and inventive voice that serves up the love stories is well suited for the task, there are other topics clearly close to Kem’s heart as well. Topics like spirituality and faith. Cuts like, “Brotha Man” and “Matter of Time” will bring you those with consistent hipness and stunning vocal flow. When asking Kem about his hopes for Kemistry, he goes back to why he got with Motown and what potential it creates. “I don’t want to be limited to or equated with being a “jazz” artist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I want to be able to move into other markets. And the fact that a label like Motown came and made an offer lets me know that it’s a possibility that we can move into other categories. I’m hopeful it can become mainstream.” However, he is quick to add emphatically, “But it ain’t necessary! I’m hopeful. [Basically] I’m not interested in the people who aren’t interested. I’m only interested in the ones who are digging me. Feeling me. Those are the ones I cater to.”
Seems like Kem might very well have the formula for success.
Needless to say, Kem did indeed find the right formula and has been whipping it up on the regular, over the years, for those countless fans that are definitely “feeling” him and his music. He’s had #1 hit singles, Platinum and Gold selling albums (including KEMISTRY), three Grammy nominations, and is a four-time NAACP Image Award winner – not to mention, he keeps a packed out schedule of tours and sold-out shows.
For more about Kem and when you can see him in your town go to musicbykem.com and to hear his latest music including the single “Lie To Me” and album Love Always Wins go to Spotify
When you see or hear the work of amazing artists – those who have garnered acclaim from audiences, their peers and the cognoscenti that herald them – it can be hard to believe there is room or for that matter, desire to grow. Perhaps that is what makes a talented individual great. To harness a passion to pursue and to be humble enough to acknowledge that there is more to learn, more to explore and that there’s no ceiling on getting better seems to be a common characteristic of those who rise to renown and reverence.
It’s clear saxophonist Jaleel Shaw fits that mold. The accomplished musician has been soaking up knowledge from influences and mentors alike since a kid coming up in the talent factory that is Philly, PA. Over the years the formula of passion plus a thirst of knowledge and a desire to truly move people with his gift has hoisted him into the category of great players garnering amongst other distinctions, a Downbeat Magazine Critics Poll Award and being listed in JazzTimes Magazine’s Readers Poll for Alto Saxophonist of the Year.
It’s also made him a sought-after musician prompting work as a long-time member of the Roy Haynes Quartet, and performing with luminaries such as Christian McBride (when they were kids in Philly and older), Nate Smith’s Kinfolk, Jason Moran, the Mingus Big Band, Pat Metheny, Roy Hargrove, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Jimmy Cobb and many, many others. He even earned a nickname from the legendary Jimmy Heath, which is confirmation in and of itself that a musician has arrived. The one fittingly given to Shaw? “For Real.”
When the shutdown and challenges of 2020 came knocking at our doors for Jaleel Shaw, like the rest of us all, even with the accolades, well- earned respect and his tremendous ability, it unearthed an anxiety – Not knowing what the future would hold, how he’d handle it and who is the person he’d be on the side of it. But what kicked in for Shaw was the astute recognition that in this time was opportunity to learn more about himself. Something that would result in him being more. It was the kind of self-assessment that has made him the consummate player he is today. In the video interview done via Zoom, Jaleel Shaw offers great insight and candid observations that will inspire artists and non-artists alike. Check it out below. BC