Q&A with poet/singer/cornetist Al Basile - build the story of American roots music of the mid-20th century

"Writers try hard to put into words what musicians express through their voices and instruments – a lot of them wish they could play, and since they can't they try to get close to the power of music with their words."

Al Basile: Words, Music & Rhy(th)ms

Al Basile grew up in a park in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He graduated from Phillips Academy in 1966, and in 1970 he was the first to receive a Master’s Degree from the Brown University Writing Program. He began his musical career as a cornet player with Roomful of Blues in 1973, and has worked with the Duke Robillard Band as a songwriter and recording member since 1990, appearing on twelve CDs and a DVD; his songs have been used in films and television and covered by such artists as Ruth Brown. He has nine solo blues and roots CDs out under his own name. They have all been produced by Robillard and feature his guitar playing and many former Roomful members: guest artists have included the Blind Boys of Alabama, jazz great Scott Hamilton, and the late Sista Monica Parker. He has been nominated four times, for a Blues Music Award as best horn player. While hundreds of his songs have been published since the Sixties, his poetry and fiction has begun to be published in recent years. He taught full time at the Providence Country Day School in East Providence, RI from 1980-2005 and since then has concentrated on his writing, performing, and recording.                       Al Basile - Photo by Meghan Sepe

Sweetspot Records announces a September 15 release date for Quiet Money, the new CD from multiple Blues Music Award nominee Al Basile. Quiet Money was produced by Duke Robillard, recorded by Jack Gauthier at Lakewest Recording Studio in West Greenwich, Rhode Island, and features a baker’s-dozen 13 songs, all penned by Al Basile. It’s been 44 years since Al Basile joined Rhode Island’s legendary jump blues band Roomful of Blues as its first trumpet player, and while his last few solo releases have moved closer musically to the styles Roomful played in: jump blues, urban and Texas blues, swing, and classic R&B, Quiet Money draws directly from that template. Its songs were inspired musically by Buddy Johnson, Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, Saunders King, Charlie Rich, and even the Coasters and the Pilgrim Travelers, but as always Al marries the music to his own personal storytelling lyrics, creating songs that are musically familiar to original Roomful fans, but range in theme from the current state of blues in the music business (“Blues Got Blues”) to classic double-entendre blues (“Put Some Salt on It”) to several songs on taking stock near the end of life (“Not Today,” “Who’s Gonna Close My Eyes?”), and in the title song, wondering why money seems to leave the many and hang out with the few (a song influenced by the hipster ‘50s vibe of the Coasters’ classic, “Shopping for Clothes”). Al’s unusual combination of singer/songwriter/cornetist continues to come to the fore. In 2016, he was nominated for the 6th time as best horn player by the Blues Foundation, and his 2016 album, Mid-Century Modern, was nominated as best contemporary blues album. His even-more-rare combination of musician and prize-winning poet was underscored by the recent publication of his second poetry book, Tonesmith, by Antrim House.

Interview by Michael Limnios

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

Blues and Jazz give the individual a bigger chance to make a statement about her or his personal feelings and experience of life, because you’re free to improvise music and even words on the spot according to how you feel that moment. They happen in the moment, in the performance – that’s where they draw their power. Other works that I write, like my poems, are often experienced by reading them off a page – I’m not literally there in the room. With blues and jazz, the immediacy is there in many ways.

What were the reasons that you started cornet/horns researches and experiments?

I started out playing the trumpet at the age of 8. My trumpet teacher was a jazz player, and he encouraged me to play melodies in my own way. He also introduced me to all the mutes, and specifically plunger styles. When I joined Roomful, I switched to cornet, partly to have a mellower sound to blend with the saxes, and partly to give me room to manipulate the plunger better, because the bell of the cornet was closer to me and my arm reached better.

"Blues and Jazz give the individual a bigger chance to make a statement about her or his personal feelings and experience of life, because you’re free to improvise music and even words on the spot according to how you feel that moment. They happen in the moment, in the performance – that’s where they draw their power." (Photo by Meghan Sepe, 2017)

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

Blues is the shortest distance from one person's soul to another person's ear. Deep feelings are expressed in an economical, direct, sincere, accessible way. Blues is the human condition in words and music – loneliness, fear, frustration, joy, humor, bragging, betrayal – all the points of the compass are in there.

How do you describe Al Basile sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I love the best human achievements in many musical genres and I write and perform in a number of them, using the language of musical tradition to tell stories in my own voice. They often have a teaching component that reflects my personal values, and I try to affect close listeners with that; for more casual listeners I try to always have a catchy, accessible sound in familiar styles. And I try to have good grooves for the dancers!

How do you describe “Quiet Money” sound? What touched (emotionally) you from Lowell Fulson, Jimmy McCracklin, and Saunders King’s songs?

Musically “Quiet Money” takes rhythm grooves, harmony, and melody from classic R&B, blues, and swing – the kinds of music that I first played in Roomful of Blues almost fifty years ago. That music was 20-30 years old even then, but we felt that it spoke to us directly – we were throwbacks. We loved that musical language, not because it was old, but because we felt the spirit of the music more than we did the rock music that was popular with most other people then. We also loved the lyrics from that era, which were down to earth and spoke to us directly about life in a conversational way. It wasn’t our era, but it was personal. I try to take a cue from that when I write my lyrics today, keeping them conversational but talking truthfully about real life situations. Blues has alwaystalked about things as they are, not sugar-coating them; I try to do the same.

"Even though there has been a strong presence of blue and jazz in Rhode Island for a very ling time (there are many great swing era jazz players fro RI, for example), I’d still claim that our youth in the late sixties and seventies was the richest period." (Photo by Meghan Sepe, 2017)

Are there any memories from Duke Robillard and Jack Gauthier at Lakewest Studio which you’d like to share?

After the tracking has been done, most of the rest of the studio work is done with just Duke, Jack, and me – picking the best versions of solos and vocals, editing, and mixing. When we schedule a day to work, I always bring three treats from a local bakery – usually scones – one for each of us. A mid-day surprise is always nice.

Why do you think that the Roomful of Blues music continues to generate such a devoted following?

This goes back to what I was saying about blues and classic R&B. The kinds that we play always have a kinship with jazz through the improvised solos, and they’re all based on dance music, so they have a strong rhythm that gets you moving. In my days with Roomful we played mostly for dancers, not so often in concert to people who were sitting down. I think people still respond to the feel of dance music, even if they don’t go out and actually dance themselves that much (and of course some still do!)

Make an account of the case of the blues in Rhode Island. Which is the most interesting period in local scene?

Even though there has been a strong presence of blue and jazz in Rhode Island for a very ling time (there are many great swing era jazz players fro RI, for example), I’d still claim that our youth in the late sixties and seventies was the richest period. Duke played with so many talented people, and Roomful inspired other bands that worked the same clubs Roomful did. People came from other states to be in the scene here.  Scott Hamilton was also a great influence (he started out playing harp in a Providence blues band before switching to tenor sax; he played 40s/50s R&B instrumentals before becoming a great mainstream jazz soloist. My first times playing in public were with Scott’s band and Roomful).

            It was during the seventies that Roomful first began working with older artists like Cleanhead Vinson, Red Prysock, Sil Austin, Johnnie Shines, and Helen Humes, and first shared the stage with B.B. King and Count Basie.  Later Roomful versions worked and recorded with Doc Pomus, Earl King, Big Joe Turner, etc. and Duke has worked with everyone from Bob Dylan to Tom Waits to Jimmy Witherspoon to Herb Ellis. I work with many original Roomful bandmates on my own records...players who are so versatile they could blend perfectly with these artists, because we came up studying all those related blues and jazz styles.

Why did you think that the US roots music of the mid-20th century continues to generate such a devoted following?

That period was the last time that popular music was still grounded in folk and dance forms instead of the product of a giant machine that churns out music to be sold to as many people as possible. It was still made by people who played instruments instead of programming computers, and the lyric was still an important part of each song. The rhythms were still organic ones so you felt the song with your mind, body, and spirit. And the music was still close to the various roots forms so it still had their power.

Are there any memories from Mid-Century Modern sessions which you’d like to share with us?

First, I wrote the songs and the basic arrangements, including the horn arrangements, before we got into the studio, and I had everyone there at once. In the past we've often recorded with the rhythm section and I've written the horn parts after I heard what we got, and brought the horns in to record later. That meant the rhythm players had to leave room for a part they weren't hearing, which affects the way they play. Doing it this way with everyone there allowed the rhythm section to react to the horns and the voice live – so it was more like a conversation among all the players. That's what I feel music is supposed to be.

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

Aside from my trumpet teacher Edolo Lupi, who taught me how to play the horn and read music starting when I was a child of 8 in Massachusetts, I owe my musical career to two great Rhode Island musicians and lifelong friends, Scott Hamilton and Duke Robillard. Scott was playing tenor sax and having jam sessions in his house, and he invited me to play at them if I wanted to pick up the trumpet again (I hadn't touched it for five years during and after college). He gave me a place to be a beginner that was welcoming and accepting of my early struggles. He also invited me to sit in with his band a year later, the first time I improvised in public. Duke hired me for my first professional job a year after that, in 1973, with Roomful of Blues, used me on a recording session for the first time, and since 1997 has produced all 14 of my solo CDs and played on all but one of them.

The best advice I ever got was from former Count Basie vocalist Helen Humes (whom we worked with in Roomful of Blues in the seventies), who said, “Just listen and then play.”

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

The audience! Especially the dancers, who give you energy when they dance to your music. The audience for blues and jazz has gotten older and they don't go out as much any more, and they haven't been replaced by a younger audience. There are great young musicians, but I'm still waiting for the great young audience – without them the players will just be playing for each other.

"Blues is the shortest distance from one person's soul to another person's ear. Deep feelings are expressed in an economical, direct, sincere, accessible way. Blues is the human condition in words and music – loneliness, fear, frustration, joy, humor, bragging, betrayal – all the points of the compass are in there."

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jazz, and continue to soul and Gospel music?

They come out of rhythms that are related to the body – for dancing, working, etc. at tempos where you can breath to sing and move; then they all use the freedom to improvise what you're expressing, not just by repeating melodies that have already been written before, but also by making new melodies, harmonies, and rhythmic variations. So for me it's rhythm and freedom of expression using improvisation that connects them all. Also, the lyrics are honest and express truth about human experience. Whether sincerely or ironically, all these genres express truth about feelings and faith.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better musician?

The hardest thing for me to do when I first tried to improvise was to get out of the habit of expecting to be given directions by a sheet of music with notes on a staff. I'd been reading for ten years, which is years of taking orders from somebody else. I had to learn how to give myself orders. Also at first I actually imagined a staff with the notes I played lighting up as I played them – that really slowed me down! I had to get that out of my head fast.

The hardest thing as an artist at first was learning how to trust my instincts when I was around other people who were much more experienced than I was – knowing what to take from them and what to leave, and how to be humble around people who were better players and still find a way to believe in myself when we disagreed.

Which is the moment that you change your life most? What´s been the highlights in your career so far?

The first time I took a solo in public, I didn't know right before I played what would come out. Then the time came to start playing, and after a few notes I thought to myself, “I can do this, it's OK.” Next was the first time I sang through an amplifier – I was in a band that needed someone to sing, and I said I'd try, but I didn't really know if I'd sound all right. I'd had a girlfriend who heard me singing around the house and asked me to stop, so I thought maybe I sounded bad. We had a band rehearsal, and I sang though a microphone into an amplifier across the room, and when I heard my voice through that I knew how other people would hear it, and again I thought “Oh, that's OK, I can do this.”

I've had a lot of highlights, but I especially enjoyed recording a song of mine with the Blind Boys of Alabama, and sitting in back in the Seventies with Harry “Sweets Edison” and his rhythm section of Jimmy Rowles, Alan Dawson, and Major Holley. That's a lot of jazz history right there!

Which meetings have been the most important experiences and what are the best jam and gigs you've saw in Knickerbocker Café?           Photo by Meghan Sepe

My first gig with Roomful was as an add-on for the show with Red Prysock, one of our sax heroes; his hits used a trumpet in the arrangement so I was brought on to play a half dozen of his songs. He was a huge success, and at the end of the night he complimented the band and was told that I was only in the band for that night. “You have to hire this man,” he said. “The trumpet puts fire in the arrangement.” Right after that Duke hired me. The Red gig and the one with Sil Austin not long after stand out in my mind, but I was onstage for those. As an audience member I enjoyed the Scott Hamilton - Fred Bates Reunion gig a year or two back – I've been in bands with Fred on and off for decades now and Scott got me started playing again after college, so that was a kick.

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from the Knickerbocker Café? What do you miss most from the ‘70s/ '80s and what characterized the atmosphere of?

I was always touched that people were genuinely enthusiastic and really liked what we played at the Knick, even though it wasn't in step with the musical tastes of the Seventies. People make me laugh; in this case mostly musicians, but I'm not naming any names! First, the dance floor packed with young dancers who could really jitterbug even though they were a whole different generation from the originals! Good dancers give energy back to the band, and you don't get that in a concert setting. Second, the spicy sausage sandwiches from the front!

Are there any memories from your previou album ‘Go Back Home to the Blues’ sessions which you’d like to share with us?

When some of my songs were accepted for the record I asked that most of them be sung by other singers. I already have my own versions of them out on my own CDs and wanted to show that they would sound good when done by others. Ray and Brian each did a terrific job on my songs – they phrase in personal ways very different from me but made the songs their own while staying true to their essence. I was next to the console when they were tracking so that was exciting for me to hear as it happened.

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

That people would chew their music – appetizer, dinner, dessert, or snack – thoroughly, and really taste it, before swallowing.

"There have been novels, stories, poems, plays – every literary form there is – that use blues, jazz, soul, gospel, country, all the genres as a basis for telling stories about music and musicians."

What were the reasons that you started the poetic researches? What touched (emotionally) you from the poetry?

I had a teacher in the sixth grade, Miss Patsourakos, who was Greek, and I wrote my first poem in her class; it was in anapestic meter, praising the ancient Greeks. I knew she would like it!

What is the biggest revolution which can be realized today? What do you think is key to a life well lived?

The key to a life well lived is the commitment to continued growth throughout one’s life. That means continuing to learn and develop not just skills, but also awareness – of oneself and one’s needs and tendencies, of others and their needs and behavior, and of the world, what it is and what we wish it be become over time and with work. To develop skills and self awareness, we must learn patience, question our beliefs and how we came by them, notice whether we are easily fooled and by what. We must also allow ourselves to concentrate more deeply to promote better understanding of complicated situations, to avoid rash judgments, and to avoid becoming so sure of ourselves that we feel we don’t need to listen to others and truly consider their situation. We also need to learn to forgive ourselves when we have tried and failed, so that we may begin again. So - Listen, Learn, Be Patient, Don’t Judge Too Quickly, Don’t be Discouraged. We all get fooled sometimes; it’s forgiveable.

Do you have a dream project you'd most like to accomplish?

My next year’s project will mark the 20th year of my Sweetspot Record Company, and my turning 70. It’s going to be a 12 song CD accompanied by a 13 poem cycle, which together tell a story about blues, where it’s come from, and where it’s come to. The songs and poems are already written; I can’t wait to get in to the studio in January to make it happen!

What is the impact of American roots music to literature? What is your 'music dream'?

There have been novels, stories, poems, plays – every literary form there is – that use blues, jazz, soul, gospel, country, all the genres as a basis for telling stories about music and musicians. Writers try hard to put into words what musicians express through their voices and instruments – a lot of them wish they could play, and since they can't they try to get close to the power of music with their words. I've been blessed with the ability to write fiction, poetry, and plays as well as play music, sing, and write songs, so I'm actually living my dream because I get to do all of it and I have different audiences for the different forms I use. The poetry fans think I'm one thing, and the music fans another, and they're both right!

My dream is to keep doing what I'm doing, and for more people who like what I do to find me, because I've been at it a long time and have to lot to surprise people with when they first learn about me. Basically, if you like anything I do, there's more where that came from!

What is the impact of Blues and Jazz music in poetry, and to the racial and socio-cultural implications?

Plenty of poets have loved blues and jazz and sought ways to incorporate something of the improvisational style or other elements they loved about the music into their poetry. Some had musicians play behind them while they read their poetry. I've written poems about experiences I've had while playing, because that perspective has been denied other poets who aren't players, and I feel it should be represented even though I make no claims beyond trying to capture a personal reality – I've only been in my own head while on stage! As for the racial and socio-political implications, I'd say first that in my own case it's been enough of a challenge to try to be a good songwriter, singer, player, and poet, so I haven't concerned myself too much with them. More generally, I think that the importance of the individual expression in blues, jazz, and poetry, where we all strive to find a personal voice that's good in its own way, confirms the value of each individual making the effort. What's good or great is for us to shoot for and for others to judge.

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

I'd go to New York around 1940, and see Louis Armstrong with his big band, because he's my most important musical influence and I've heard live radio of him from that era which knocked me out; then I'd try to catch the Duke Ellington band with Jimmy Blanton and Ben Webster in the same night, and go out to an after hours joint for some jamming with Pres and Hawk, Charlie Christian, Art Tatum, or whoever else was in town (maybe Billie would sit in and sing!). Because live music is fresh, inspiring, and nourishing, and that was an era when my favorite giants walked the earth.

Al Basile - Official website

Photo by Meghan Sepe

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