As the soundtrack to our lives continues revolving, multi-instrumentalist Najee continues to provide a consistent captivating musical journey for us to groove to. Since his debut release Najee’s Theme in 1986, Najee’s style of R&B infused jazz continues pushing musical boundaries. With an expansive discography, Najee’s work boasts a mixture of contemporary jazz sprinkled with a little R&B, soul, and hip hop, which still has a hint of the very artists that inspired him such as John Coltrane, George Duke, Grover Washington, and Charlie Parker.
Najee’s newest project Poetry in Motion (Shanachie Entertainment) will be released on August 25. The renowned saxophonist, flutist, songwriter, and producer’s new album represents Najee’s exploration into the world of sensuality and romance with a helping of spirited silky sounds that will leave you wanting more.
I chatted with the ‘Smooth Jazz Icon’ about his new project and some of his favorite moments in music history.
Shameika: Your new album Poetry in Motion comes out later this month. How did this album come about?
Najee: It started out with me saying to people that I’ve worked with over the years that I’d like to do something with them and they all just showed up on this record (laughs). So it became an interesting project that I absolutely love. My first single is called “Let’s Take it Back” and that features Incognito and is doing great, we’re excited about that! We also have Will Downing, Eric Roberson, Bobby Lyle, and Blake Aaron and Maysa on the album.
Shameika: It sounds like everything just fell in place. I listened to the album and it’s amazing!
Najee: Thank you so much. What’s interesting is I contacted a friend of mine, Barry Eastmond, who did Freddie Jackson’s “You Are My Lady,” and he did some music with Phyllis Hyman, Al Jarreau, and Anita Baker. I hadn’t worked with him in so many years, so I called him and said we need to work on some stuff so this is how this project came to be. His brilliance is just amazing.
Shameika: What is behind the meaning of the title Poetry in Motion?
Najee: It’s actually borrowed from a phrase in one of the songs on the album. There’s a song called “We’ll Be Missing You” which is a dedication to both Al Jarreau and Prince. I worked with both of them in the past. The song was initially for Al Jarreau. The song was initially for me to do with Al. We were both in the U.K. at the time and he agreed to do the song, but then he got sick and the rest is history. Will Downing came in and rewrote the lyrics. There’s a line in the song that says “poetry in motion,” and I called Will and since I loved that line, I asked him if it was okay if I titled the album after his inspiration on this song and he said ‘yeah, I’d be honored.’ So that’s how we came up with it. The way the album flows, to me, it’s the perfect title.
Shameika: How did you work Prince into the tribute song? Why did you decide to include both in one song versus separate songs as tributes?
Najee: Initially I didn’t include Prince in the song. The lyrics actually borrowed phrases from some of Al Jarreau’s music. As time went on I couldn’t just ignore Prince who I had the pleasure of working with. He was great to work with.
Shameika: Talk more about working with Prince. What was he like?
Najee: I saw two sides to Prince. The side that the public sees and the press, but I had the chance to be in his personal company for three years. It was an amazing experience, there was so much I learned from this guy. I got to observe the person he really was. There was the person you saw, but then there was Prince the human being. I have to say he was one of the smartest and one of the most generous people I’ve ever met in the industry. There’s a lot of quiet charity that’s never talked about that I was a witness to personally and how charitable he was to people. It’s certainly another story to be told on him and hopefully of his legacy.
I did a documentary overseas and I told them, if you want bad stories about Prince, I’m not the guy to talk to. I have none. I never saw him high, never saw him drunk, never saw him mess around with a bunch of women; none of that. I remember one time George Clinton came to our show and he said, ‘man you guys are boring, you don’t have no women, no drugs, nothing back here,’ (laughs).
Shameika: (laughs) Well that just speaks to your character!
Najee: (laughs) It’s quite different from what you might imagine.
Shameika: Going back to the album, talk about the single “Is it the Way” featuring Eric Roberson.
Najee: Eric and I began our association on the Capital Jazz Cruise a few years ago. I had been to a couple of his shows prior to getting to know him, and he and I got auctioned to have a dinner with women (laughs). It was a big auction going on during the cruise and a few others guys like Brian McKnight’s brother Claude McKnight from Take 6, so that’s how we became friends. We were all at dinner talking and come to find out he was performing in New York and really that’s how it all started. Last year, Essence Magazine did a feature on me when I performed in New York City and he came and sang with me. He gave me the song and I loved it. Barry Eastmond actually came up with the music and Eric came up with the lyrics and background vocals.
Shameika: How did “Song for the Ladies” come about?
Najee: That was one that Barry and I wrote together. I have to be honest I couldn’t think of a title for the song and Barry said ‘hey man, I feel like this should be a song for the ladies,’ so I said, ‘well you are an award winning Grammy producer, so we’ll go with that.’ So that’s how it became “Song for the Ladies.” It was just as simple as that.
Shameika: Sometimes simple just works! (laughs) How about the song “Duology?” The title is unique and very Prince-like.
Najee: That ended up being the last song we put on the record. I have a young keyboard player, he’s 24 years old and I’ve known him since he was a kid. We happened to be at the end of the record and I realized we needed to have a tenth song and he wrote that for us.
Shameika: What do you hope that folks take away from Poetry in Motion? What makes this album different from your previous records?
Najee: It still has the same formula of me along with collaborators through the years. My albums have traditionally had me featuring someone. In the past it’s been artists like Freddie Jackson, Jeffrey Osbourne, Phil Perry, Vesta, and many others. So the tradition is sort of like that. What makes it different is it was really a simple call of ‘hey let’s do something and here we go,’’ (laughs). I really want fans to walk away with an experience if nothing else. All the audiences I’m able to reach, just reminds me that I’m blessed with what I do.
Shameika: Describe your musical personality.
Najee: Oh wow, well it’s something that developed out of my schizophrenia with music. People think that I’m a smooth jazz fan, but I come as a jazz musician. I’ve studied classical and I’ve studied jazz obviously as a kid. I also have a lot of experience in the R&B world ever since I was a teenager. So putting all those elements together to create one musical personality. It’s just something that just kind of happened as time went on and just my experiences. I could be playing with an orchestra one day and the next playing with Prince or Chaka Khan, that’s just the way it works. So it all becomes a part of you. When I pick up my flute, I still love playing classical music. So, you know it all kind of comes together, so everything becomes an exciting experiment the way that I do it. The key is to really make it make sense. At the end of the day, does it really please the audience you are selling to? Do you maintain your artistic character?
Shameika: What is your favorite moment in musical history?
Najee: I have so many! I guess one of the highlights of my career that I thoroughly enjoyed was when Apartheid was over and Nelson Mandela was president of South Africa. I got to visit his country and be involved as his personal guest, along with Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder. We all went over together and performed as a gift to the nation in Johannesburg. Performing at the White House for former President Bill Clinton was another highlight. Unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to perform for President Obama. I’ve had several big moments.
Shameika: Why do you think it’s important for places like the National Museum of African American Music to preserve and celebrate our music history?
Najee: I think it’s something we have to do. From a perspective of African American history, it’s actually an obligation. There are many contributions to African American history we can claim to the scientific world, the aviation world, chemistry, technology that never get highlighted, but in the area of music, that is an obvious contribution. It changed the culture of music in the world. You hear the stories of in the era of jazz specifically of how they were able to cross racial barriers, and maybe not right away in America, but when they went overseas to European and Asian countries, they were welcomed there; artists like Count Basie, Miles Davis, and countless others. It’s something that if we don’t have these kinds of efforts and support them, then we risk the chance of our stories being altered and told about our experiences. It’s not a bad thing but who can tell the history of you in your own home better than you?
For more information on Najee and his music check out his website.