L.A. based keyboardist Ed Roth talks about the spirit of Blues, freedom of Jazz and his lifetime journey in music

"I think music is often a reflection of the time it was written, and what was going on then politically and socially. Jazz and R&B are both American forms of music, that managed to cross racial lines at a time when these lines were rarely crossed."

Ed Roth: Journey To The Jazzland

Keyboardist Ed Roth’s feel, spirit, and touch have made him a top choice of renowned artists, producers, and musicians worldwide. Utilizing acoustic and vintage keyboard instruments, Roth creates memorable, soulful, melodies that sing, as well as adding deep, organic grooves with his playing. The L.A. based arranger, keyboardist, musical director, and producer has played and/or recorded with a very diverse range of artists, including Grammy winners: Annie Lennox, the Brothers Johnson, Mya, Rob Halford, the Avett Brothers, Coolio, and Tom Morello. Other artists Roth has played and/or recorded with include Shuggie Oits, Angus and Julia Stone, Suor Cristina, Ronnie Montrose, Glenn Hughes, Jimmy Barnes, Flogging Molly, Maia Sharp, and the Divas of Disco featuring Thelma Houston, Cece Penniston and a taste of Honey. Even with his mastery behind the scenes, Roth shines the most as a solo artist. His single romp, "Mad Beatnik," features Grammy winning saxophonist Tom Scott, as well as Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee and Grammy winning drummer, Chad Smith. Roth’s  album of the same name “Mad Beatnik” released in 2016.                    (Ed Roth / Photo by Neal Zlowzower)

Prior to “Mad Beatnik,” Ed’s debut album, a self-titled funky instrumental collection, spent 8 weeks on the Billboard Top 40 Smooth Jazz charts. Ed Roth is also a featured member of the Bombastic Meatbats, led by Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, and CTA with Chicago founder/drummer Danny Seraphine and 2-time Grammy winner Bill Champlin. Roth co-wrote and recorded with Arun Shenoy on his 2013 album, which was nominated for a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album, and co-produced Kristine W’s #1 iTunes jazz single, “What I like About You.” Another career highlight for Roth has been his tenure as the longest running member of the house band for L.A. top rock station, KLOS. In that band, Roth has played with such rock legends as Paul Rodgers, Peter Frampton, Edgar Winter, John Waite, Joe Perry, Keith Emerson, and Eddie Money. As a longtime session player, Ed Roth has numerous soundtrack, video game, and commercial credits. East Coast raised and of Brazilian heritage, Roth grew up in a home where only Brazilian and classical music were allowed. He built his love for R&B staying up late listening to Howard University's radio station WHUR on headphones, after his parents went to sleep. This exposure set up his lifelong commitment to ‘the groove’. Roth regularly contributes as music director for the Southern California based charity, Safety Harbor Kids, which works to enrich the lives of orphans, foster and homeless children through education in the areas of College, Career, and the Arts. His playing cuts across styles and genres as he masterfully executes jazz, rock, and pop sensibilities with a contemporary flavor. Ed Roth is truly a monster player and his talent shines bright on Jazzland, by Funzalo Records out on February 22.

Interview by Michael Limnios    Photos by Ed Roth's archive/All rights reserved

How has the Jazz & Blues influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

Honestly, a lot of my views of the world have come largely from traveling, which I am able to do from touring and playing music. Jazz tends to attract musicians that want to keep growing, and these cats tend to be colorblind, and open minded. I have made some great friends over the years with other musicians playing jazz and blues as well as reggae that might come from totally different backgrounds or ethnicity, but for the real players it's about the music. Sometimes, in other genres, there can be a tendency to hear with the eyes as opposed to just listening. I think great musicians hear with their ears, while some players and audiences can hear with their ears and eyes.

One of the smarter musical journeys I took was taking a summer tour playing a jazz/rock fusion with Ronnie Montrose (guitarist who played with Tony Williams and Herbie Hancock, as well as having a successful career as a rock guitarist). Although I made way less $$, I gained so much more musically. From that point on, I stopped chasing gigs solely based on the popularity of the artist and the $$. I started really only trying to do gigs that I truly enjoyed.

How do you describe your new album "Jazzland" songbook and sound? Where does your creative drive come from?

My new album is my take on some jazz standards, some well-known, some less so. I'm playing as the sumo wrestlers say-"my brand of jazz". I added some vamps and solo sections that aren't in the original versions of these songs, and just stretched out and improvised. I did my best to play melodies and make the piano sing. No vocalist, so something better be singing the melodies. I am basically self-taught so I just sound like me. Playing freely and improvising is true joy for me. It's what I enjoy the most in playing music. When I'm improvising, it doesn't matter if I am playing for a big crowd, or an intimate room, it's all about the music.

What was the hardest part of recording a solo piano jazz album? How do you want it to affect people?                                  (Ed Roth / Photo by Neal Zlowzower)

Solo piano means you are everything, most importantly, the melody, but also the groove, and then the supporting chord structure. Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum, as well as some others can sound like 2 guys, but I don't have chops quite like that.

And it's got to swing, but something has to be straight for it to swing against... I had to learn to embrace the space, play big when needed, keep the dynamics happening and let things build naturally. Everything you play is out there, where you step outside, and from subtle chord voicings to grace notes to walking bass note choices. That said, as soon as I stopped thinking too much, it all fell into place. I hope people see some different sides to these songs through these versions. I hope they feel the emotion that I put in the performances.

What touched (emotionally) you from the music of Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Charles Mingus, and A.C. Jobim?

Miles music is always musical, sounds pretty obvious, but his music is about melodies, space, and cats listening to and really playing with each other. When someone plays outside, it makes sense, it's musical, and flows, it's from the heart, not the brain. Horace Silver has some melodies and harmony that flow through different key centers beautifully, the melodies and movements reach you. Mingus music often has a bounce, and joyful spirit that touches you. Jobim has some songs with sweet melodies over moody moving chords that are just simply emotional. Zingaro is definitely one of those songs.

Do you consider the Jazz a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

I have never been a fan of putting music into boxes, but it's part of the drill with trying to market things. I can only say what it means to me- the freedom to improvise, experiment, not be locked into tight arrangements, the key word here is freedom.

What do you learn about yourself from the Jazz music and culture and what does the blues mean to you?

Jazz to me, is about having the freedom to express who you are in the music. Soling is about telling a story, laying yourself out, exploring, embellishing melodies, making left turns, following your mistakes, playing in that moment. Jazz puts very few boundaries on what you can play- mainly what you play has to speak. It’s your interpretation of a song in that moment, whether you are playing the melody, or comping, or soloing. With the great players, you often see their true personality come out in their playing.

The blues to me is about spirit. It’s pure feel. When it’s time to solo, if the changes allow it, you can almost never go wrong by playing the blues. So much music came from the blues-early jazz to rock to soul- Pop/rock/soul music has benefitted so much from the influence of the blues- from John Lee Hooker featured with St Germain to Led Zeppelin, to Bobby Womack, to Amy Winehouse, to Carlos Santana playing blues licks over latin rock grooves, the blues is everywhere.

What were the reasons that you started the Jazz researches? What characterize your music philosophy and sound?

When I was a kid, I could only listen to Brazilian music or classical music at home (except when my parents were asleep). Then I would put on headphones and listen to the radio. The local station I loved was Howard University, which played jazz, blues and R&B- I didn’t know what I was listening to, I just knew I loved it. As I got to high school, I played a bit with the local community college jazz band, probably not that well as I couldn’t really read music then, but I did my best. Basically, I am one of those self taught guys. I started playing the clubs when I was 15, playing fusion and all other kinds of music. First gig was at a strip club by day, rock club by night. Being a bit naive, I didn’t realize what the name Branding House of Beef meant, since they didn’t serve food. For better or for worse, I always try to play like it’s the last time I am going to play, whatever the gig, small or large. Our time here is short and precious, so I try to go for it as much as I can, play musically, listen, and stretch out. I try to not fall back on the usual stuff I play, we all do it, but I push myself to try different things to keep me growing. I often write in keys that aren’t as common, to force myself into uncharted territory.

I was very fortunate to have a nice run playing with R&B, rock and pop acts and doing sessions in LA, but when groups started playing with pre-recorded tracks, playing live lost a lot of appeal for me. I had done some gigs with Sheena Easton, (long-time pop star, who actually could sing the blues) when I did a great instrumental run with guitarist Ronnie Montrose- more famous as a rock player, but a wonderful fusion player and writer as well. Along with some great instrumental records, he also played with Tony Williams, and I found myself back where I started in music. Since then, I try to play music that I love, and have a freedom in what I play, rather than playing pre-written parts. Playing jazz is a lifetime journey of learning. If you want to say something interesting and really want to express yourself, you need a big vocabulary, and facility on your instrument. The more you learn, the less you realize that you know. I love being able to play songs a different way each time.

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

I have been lucky to work with so many real deal artists- and the ones that really moved me the most were always in the moment, trying new things, doing things different ways- open to trying crazy things-Louis and George Johnson, Ronnie Montrose, Annie Lennox, Chad Smith, Glenn Hughes, Jimmy Barnes, Robbie Krieger, Danny Seraphine, Bill Champlin, Shuggie Otis, Thelma Houston- they all have their own identity and sound, play and sing with conviction, and always be themselves. “Be yourself”- “I want Ed”- is what I have heard from so many producers/players and singers.

Other important advice I got was “always listen- sounds simple, but so many players don’t.” Music is a team sport, you are playing with those other players, trying to make them sound better. Always try to come up with signature parts in the studio- the best producers realize this- the parts can be crazy, quirky, or simple, but if they stick they stick. “Play for the song”, another one I learned along the way. I have always played instinctually, so being me is what I do best. Plus I am a terrible imitator anyway, I always sound like me no matter how hard I try.

"Playing jazz is a lifetime journey of learning. If you want to say something interesting and really want to express yourself, you need a big vocabulary, and facility on your instrument. The more you learn, the less you realize that you know. I love being able to play songs a different way each time."

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

Over the years I have survived 3 riots, been in Mexican jail, stalled onstage at a festival while two brothers brawled in the trailer, set a pair of studio monitors on fire, watched a jealous girlfriend drive her car all the way into a hotel room, pushed the imaginary button that does nothing to appease producers, watched the tour bus get repossessed, bum rushed an airplane gate with 12 guys and 10 tickets to make a flight, taken guitars/mics, even a big screen TV as collateral for what I was owed on both sessions and gigs- I have been in the trenches as they say. Stuff usually isn’t funny at the time, but it’s genius later. The truth is always stranger than fiction.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss music. Period. A lot of pop music has just gotten dumber and dumber- watered down to the lowest common denominator. I think there is probably a lot of great music out there, but without any quality control gatekeepers, and the vast universe of the internet and social media, it’s harder to find.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I think it would be several things- first, is that people (and I think this problem is mostly in the US) should pay for music. With people not paying for music, musicians have to spend more and more time on social media and marketing rather than playing music and being creative. It becomes a popularity and marketing thing more than being about writing and playing good music.

The whole business has also put too many labels on different types of music. Today, if you don’t fit into their boxes, you don’t get airplay. I realize music is part business, but it needs to stay part art too. Lastly, would be to put more music back in the schools-music does great things for kids- it needs to be taught in all the schools.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Jazz with Blues, R&B, Funk and continue to Bossa, Samba and Classical?              (Ed Roth / Photo by Barbara Porter)

The different genres tend to influence each other. Jazz has elements of blues, R&B and funk have elements of jazz, blues and rock. Bossa and some Samba has elements of Classical, African grooves and jazz, and rock has blues, country and sometimes classical influence- they all wind up being somehow related.

"Solo piano means you are everything, most importantly, the melody, but also the groove, and then the supporting chord structure."

“Mad Beatnik”: What touched (emotionally) you from the Beat generation and Beatnik bohemian era and music?

That era seemed to me to be a time of freedom of expression, and getting away from the status quo. That said, I have to be honest on this one, and confess that I am not the musicologist/historian I should be. The title of the album and song actually came from me trying to describe the bongo part I wanted Rock Deadrick, the percussionist, to play on the song- I wanted a relentless torrent of bongos. I told him to imagine a mad beatnik playing bongos to a poem. So that’s where the name came from.

Are there any memories from Shuggie Otis, Paul Rodgers, and Edgar Winter, which you’d like to share with us?

There was never a dull moment touring with Shuggie Otis, both onstage and off. When Shuggie was on, he had his own sound that I can only try to describe as a jazzy Hendrix. He could somehow play stinging blues licks, then sweet melodic lines over some jazzy changes, than tear down the roof with a ripping rock solo over a song like Ice Cold Daydream, and yet always sound like Shuggie Otis. When he was on, no one could touch him.

I just did a one-off with Paul Rodgers backing him with a house band, but immediately saw both what a presence he had, and how well he understood musicality and how important a band playing with dynamics was. He controlled and led the band like a cross between a fine conductor and a race car driver. He immediately sassed out the strengths of each player, cats he had never played with before.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music industry?

Going to sound a bit hokey, but here we go. Keep your spirit in your playing, don't lose the excitement and love for the music- those things and your personality show through in your music. Always keep growing, learning and pushing yourself. The best artists keep evolving, not rehashing. You got to keep the lights on, but always try to look down the road a little, and try to choose your gigs more with your heart than your wallet. And speaking of that, in the immortal words of Duke Ellington, "Always take your wallet to the stage".

"I miss music. Period. A lot of pop music has just gotten dumber and dumber- watered down to the lowest common denominator. I think there is probably a lot of great music out there, but without any quality control gatekeepers, and the vast universe of the internet and social media, it’s harder to find."

What is the impact of Jazz and R&B music and culture music to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I think music is often a reflection of the time it was written, and what was going on then politically and socially. Jazz and R&B are both American forms of music, that managed to cross racial lines at a time when these lines were rarely crossed. Like some other nations, the US does have a sad history of racism, but I think music, art and sports have helped. Black culture has brought us a lot of things, Jazz and R&B being just two of them.

I do think musicians tend to be more open-minded than most people, partly from being exposed to all different kinds of people and places, so that part of life is nice for me. I think most people mean well, but some just get led astray by a few idiots. Personally, I look at it as- If there were some superior alien race out there that came to earth, and saw how we have hated, killed, and fought wars because of different religious beliefs or skin color or manner of dress, or other differences, they would be so disgusted that they would either blow us all up, or just leave us to do it ourselves. Aren’t you glad you asked that one?

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

A great trip in the time machine would be to go back and hear some of the jazz greats in their element- back in the clubs jamming- I would want to hear Bill Evans, John Coltraine, Oscar Peterson, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins, among others, too many for one day. I’m trying to get all in one era but… Even though I am not the greatest straight ahead player, I really enjoy that era of music. Very very different styles of playing I just listed, but… A lot of players/bands I would love to see, R&B, Rock, Blues as well, hard one to pick…

Ed Roth - Official website

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