"What I miss about music of the past is the musicianship, style and character of the musicians. Music relied less on engineers, over dubbing and electronic wizardry."
Gus Spenos: Let The Fun Times Roll!!
Gus Spenos is a killer sax player who fronts a monster big band outta the Indianapolis area. He’s one of those guys that has a velvety-smooth vocal delivery reminiscent of Louis Jordan and Louis Prima. His outfit plays a mean potion of jump-blues and boogie woogie, and he’s rarin’ to go with his debut, "If You Were Gold, Baby" (2016). Greek origin Gus Spenos - his parents emigrated in 1936 from a village near Tripolis (Silimna) - is a bluesman with the shouting style of some of the all-time greats who also has serious sax chops (and the day job of being a top neurologist in Indianapolis). On If You Were Gold Baby, Spenos and his big band prove they know how to lay down tracks that make listeners want to move and groove.
On a set that mixes classic-sounding originals such as the title track with a varied selection of carefully chosen standards, Spenos teams with eight-time trombonist of the year Wycliffe Gordon and legendary drummer Cecil Brooks III. Thelonious Monk vocal finalist Charanee Wade even joins Spenos in a duet as they unearth the old Jimmy Preston song “Rock With It, Baby.” A swinging, energetic combination of vocal tunes and instrumentals, If You Were Gold Baby is not strictly blues, though it's heavily influenced by the genre. Spenos plays finger-snapping, horn-heavy R&B with a touch of jazz on the album's 13 tracks, accompanied by an all-star lineup of performers. Filled with tight arrangements and cool-blowing sax, If You Were Gold Baby is sure to set listeners free and give their auditory cortexes a thrill.
Interview by Michael Limnios Photos by Billy Rood
What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz/Blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?
I’ve never analyzed my connection to the blues in any formal way. You don’t set out to fall in love with the person you ultimately do fall in love with but rather chance events lead you to them. The blues was no different. When I listen to it, it sounds right and when I’m playing it, it feels right-that’s as far as the analysis goes. Sometimes you’ll meet someone and they are so easy to talk to that it seems as if you’ve known them for a lifetime. I felt the same way when I first listened to the blues as a teenager. I have studied the styles and technical skills of many blues musicians for long periods of time, not with the intent of sounding like them, because I can never be THEM, but with the aim that something I hear will trigger something better in me. It’s an odd thing that listening to others brings more of the ME out. Many times I’ll learn more from listening to other instruments than the saxophone. I’ve learned more from listening to B.B. King, both vocally and studying his guitar solos than many saxophonists. I never pressure myself to develop a certain skill but rather let that skill develop on its own.
The blues, although its form is simple, is in my opinion the most challenging of genre’s to perfect. Your solos must be lyrical, simple, “juicy” and sometimes “dirty” (intensely bluesy). The best blues solos are played with the fewest notes, the right notes at precisely the right time. This can be very intimidating! The blues can be happy, sad, fast or slow. Interestingly I’m happy even when singing sad stories of the blues, I think because when singing you always have a “cool” vibe and feel for it all.
How do you describe Gus Spenos sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?
My musical philosophy has always been and will always be-HAVE FUN-fun for me, the musicians and the audience. I don’t much care if I sacrifice commercial success for the fun of playing and making the listeners feel good.
What were the reasons that you started the Jazz/Swing researches and saxophone experiments?
My first link to music was listening to my father play his clarinet and sing Greek folk songs in our living room with other “amateur” musicians on just about every Saturday evening. My mother would sometimes sing with him too, which was real special. When I turned nine years old I asked my father if I could start playing his clarinet. He said yes. I practiced so much that I limited my dad’s playing time. He bought me my own clarinet eventually. I played clarinet in primary and secondary schools. I began taking piano and music theory lessons at age 14. I started singing in Rock and Roll bands, playing keyboard as well. When I started medical school I basically dropped out of society for ten years. I kept listening to blues however knowing that one day I would devote more time to it. After completing my training as a neurologist I settled into a clinical practice and one afternoon when I was driving I slipped a Red Prysock CD into the car stereo-“Hand Clappin’” came on and I must have listened to it twenty times in a row. That was it for me!! On the at a musical instrument shop on the way home and bought me a tenor sax, some reeds and a mouthpiece. I got home and started transcribing that tune. It’s been a love fest ever since that day.
Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?
The best advice that I’ve received I got from Wycliffe Gordon that you can still practice when you don’t have your instrument in your hands by singing solos to tunes that you are listening to when you are away from your horn. Eventually you don’t have to be listening to a recording to solo, the band is playing in your head.
Are there any memories from gigs, jams, and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?
Something unexpected will ALWAYS happen at a live show. Most recently the conga player was taking a solo and he was playing so hard that the congas fell off their stands-I picked up one, the trumpet and trombone player picked up the other two and all three of us held them up in front of him and he continued playing-the crowd went wild. I told him after the gig that maybe he should do that on every gig! Interestingly, some of the best times musically have been the fellowship that you establish with the musicians, talking and joking after the gig. Music has no social, economic, racial or religious barriers.
What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?
What I miss about music of the past is the musicianship, style and character of the musicians. Music relied less on engineers, over dubbing and electronic wizardry. I do no more than one or two takes after we rehearse a tune only once. This approach preserves the “live” feel of the music. A few errors along the way adds to the character of the blues.
What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz with Blues and continue to Jump, Swing, and Jive?
Styles of music are best understood when representative examples are listened to, it’s difficult to find words sufficiently descriptive in my opinion. This brings to mind the time when a U.S. judge was unable to write his opinion on whether a film was indecent and he was quoted as saying “I can’t tell you what pornography is but I sure know it when I see it”. Well, here are some representative musicians of the styles in question: Jive-Louis Jordan, Cab Calloway. Jazz-Count Basie Swing-Chick Webb, Benny Goodman. All incorporate the blues in their playing. I listen to vocalists: Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Boyd, Jimmy Witherspoon, Duke Henderson to name only very few. Sax players: Jesse Powell, Lee Allen, Sam “the Man” Taylor, Red Prysock, Sil Austin to name just a very, very few.
What is the impact of Blues and Jazz to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?
I never discuss political, social or economic issues in the same context as music. Be it said that I believe that right and wrong are written in the heart of every human being. I don’t believe in moral relativism.
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