Q&A with musician and poet Al Basile - falling comfortably between blues, jazz and the story of American roots music

"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, Sugar Ray Norcia, Jerry Portnoy, and the late Sista Monica Parker. He has been nominated many 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. His songs have been covered by Ruth Brown, Johnny Rawls, and the Knickerbocker All Stars. 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

In 1998, he released his first solo CD on his own Sweetspot label. He also taught English, music, and physics in a private Rhode Island high school for 25 years before devoting himself to music and poetry full time in 2005. Celebrated for his mastery of lyric writing as well as music, Al's skill with words extends to his other career as a poet: he is published regularly in leading journals, has won prizes, and has two books in print collecting his work from the Seventies until the present day. For the last three years he has taught lyric writing, led panels, and performed at poetry conferences. Eight-time Blues Music Award-nominated singer/songwriter/cornetist Al Basile's new album, Last Hand, will be released on August 21 by Sweetspot Records. Basile (vocals and cornet) is joined on the new disc by a sparse trio of Bruce Bears on keyboards, Brad Hallen on bass and Mark Teixeira on drums, that give the album a late-night, after-hours groove falling comfortably between blues and jazz. Last Hand was produced by Al Basile and recorded by Jack Gauthier at Lakewest Studios in West Greenwich, RI. Al Basile describes the even-dozen tracks on Last Hand as telling the story of a May/December romance - which ends too soon - from the man's point of view. It’s also his initial stab at producing himself.  All of his previous albums had been produced by his long-time friend and fellow Roomful of Blues alumnus Duke Robillard.

Interview by Michael Limnios    Special Thanks: Mark Pucci & Al Basile

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)

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!

Where does your creative drive come from? How do you want your music, songs and poetry to affect people?

When I was little, I thought I was going to grow up to be a theoretical physicist, but I started being creative around ten, making up poems and melodies. As I grew it was the core part of me – I had to be creative the way an apple tree grows apples. But over time I learned that ideas would come to me that wanted to take different shapes – some were poems, some stories, some plays, some songs. And another part of me wanted to perform – to sing, to play my horn, and later to improvise with it, to act – I've worked in many forms, but it's always the same impulse that starts things. I immerse myself in the world or in art and music and writing, and I get a push from within to bring something ordered out of the dark. The dark is just what you can't see yet – it's not empty, it's full with potential, and I felt an urge to pull something out of there and bring in into the light and order it, form it so it made a structure with a statement. Sometimes the statement is a clear one about the world – part of me has always continued to be a teacher, so I try to teach things about how to live, to sneak some wisdom or common sense into the songs or poems to make people think. But most of the time I write about states of awareness – something that happens that brings me to a different kind of awareness of the world. Most of my poems are doing that. The hope is that by following the moments I experienced that took me to a deeper state, the work will let the reader or listener follow to a similar change within herself or himself. If you experience wonderful kinds of awareness within yourself, you want to share that with every one you can.

Another way of answering your question is that I was blessed with parents who thought I could do anything and always made me feel that way. So I never put any limitations on myself – or if I did, it didn't last (for a while I thought I couldn't sing because someone I loved said to me once from the next room, “Is that you singing? Please stop.” I think she was getting a headache, but I took it to mean that I sounded terrible. It took me about five years to give myself permission to sing because of that. When I finally I did I liked it too much to stop no matter what anybody said).

"Blues is a feeling and the music we call blues is a direct way of expressing that feeling. But it's not the only way to express that feeling, even musically – for at least the first fifty years of what got called jazz, the blues feeling was an important part of the music, and jazz players played on blues changes and structures – look at Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, or Charlie Mingus – they wrote more complex versions of the blues, but kept the feeling." (Al Basile / Photo by Meghan Sepe)

What has made you laugh and what touched (emotionally) you from your previous "Last Hand" album's studio sessions?

This project started in a different way from my usual pattern. Usually I write the sings for next year right after I finish this year's CD. So year round I'm in one phase or another – writing the songs, making demos, doing arrangements, going in to the studio and running the session, tracking, doing vocals and solos, working on mixing and production, then doing the necessary business work to release an album. And start again.

In this case, last year I was working on B's Hot House when events conspired to hold up production for a pretty long stretch, about a month, when I couldn't work in the studio. So I got frustrated and got the idea to write a song cycle, which told a story in twelve songs, and since I write alone I could do that while I waited to finish B's Hot House. I wrote the twelve songs in four days, in a kind of blur – I know I kept eating and sleeping but I didn't notice it. It was a really deep dive into the darkness, and an artist really lives for those moments. It was very satisfying. So that's not a laugh but it was emotionally rewarding.

The recording of this project was satisfying in a different way as well. This is the first time I've produced one of my own projects. I've watched Duke produce me for twenty years, and tried to learn everything I could. I felt it was time to take on that overall responsibility, but I decided to pare down the band to just keyboards, bass, and drums along with my singing and just a couple of horn solos for color. I wanted to make the listener focus on the songs and the story. And I think we succeeded in giving it a vibe that brings out the sad story of the older man with the younger woman and what happens to their love.

Now as for what touched me – there's one person who inspired me to tell this story, even though it's an imaginary story and didn't happen as I tell it. Duke Ellington used to dedicate a song during his concerts to “the most beautiful woman in the audience. Of course, it wouldn't do to tell her name, but she knows who she is.” Of course when he did that, every woman thought he was talking about her. Now I'm not as crafty as Duke, but the woman who inspired this record knows who she is (and I ain't saying).

"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." (Al Basile / Photo by Meghan Sepe)

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

Here are just a few, big and small:

Everyone has a tendency to want to get more proficient technically on your instrument, because when you start it's a struggle to play at all. But you also need to remember that some of the most powerful music isn't “sophisticated” and flashy. Every note you play is important, and you have to mean it. You can't lose touch with your feeling and conviction – that's what gives you your power. Faster, higher, and louder doesn't mean better.

Sometimes you have to put up with difficult musicians and their personal shortcomings because they also bring something unique and great to a band. When the music is good you forget how hard the rest of the day is. At least while your playing. You might still want to choke somebody on the drive home (no, don't do it!).

If you're in a club where people can dance and move around, and you play a one note solo (just one note repeated rhythmically) for long enough, they'll go crazy.

Some nights when you're completely exhausted before you even start to play, the whole band hits a groove where you feel like you can't miss a note or make a wrong move. You feel supremely powerful. It only seems to happen when you're too tired to be tense about anything – and even then it doesn't always happen. But when it does, it's unforgettable.

Do the things that you're able to do. It's all right to try to do them better than the next guy, but don't stop there. Eventually you want to get to where you're not only playing what you play best, but what only you can play. Learn your own voice and let it tell you who you are and can be.

Are there any memories from Blind Boys of Alabama, Roomful of Blues, and Scott Hamilton which you’d like to share with us?                  Al Basile / Photo by Meghan Sepe

Well Scott Hamilton and Roomful of Blues are the two biggest influences in my musical career, and I could write a book about either of them. I'll limit myself to one story about each of the three mentioned in the question – just imagine that I could go on and on about Scott and Duke (since Roomful was Duke's vision and his band although we all contributed).

It was a dream of mine to work with the Blind Boys ever since a good friend turned me on to Golden Age Gospel music, especially by the male vocal groups, back in the eighties (I wish my friend could have lived to see it – he would have been thrilled). It's well known that the Blind Boys won't sing just any lyric – they have to approve the message of the lyric or don't bother offering them money. So the first excitement for me came when they listened to the song I sent them and said they were willing to do it with me. I had the recording already finished, with them to be added, so when we worked out a recording studio in Hoboken, NJ close enough to their tour route, I knew that my vocal was already on the track, and didn't expect to actually sing with them. I went down there with my engineer, and when their bus pulled up, they came into the studio already singing lines from my song! Billy Bowers, the young soloist who had replaced Clarence Fountain, sat down on the couch in the board room, and the rest of the guys went into the studio. Joey Williams, the sighted vocal arranger, came over to me and said, “we want to find our parts, so would you mind coming in and singing the lead so we can do that? Just keep singing it over and over till we get it.”  Did I mind? I was so happy to mix my voice with theirs. Once they had their parts I went back out and sat with Billy while we listened to them record the harmony parts. Then Billy was going to go in and trade vocal leads with my recorded voice on the track. I wanted him to feel like he knew me a little, so I talked for a long time with him about his life. He'd gone to the same school for the blind where they started, and in high school he had a group and sang all the Clarence Fountain leads. When Fountain's failing health forced him off the road, Billy was a natural fit to replace him – he knew all the parts.

I asked him if he knew the story of how Archie Brownlee, the lead singer of the Blind Boys of Mississippi, used to climb up into the balcony at theaters they sang in, and jumped off the balcony onto the stage, singing (and blind, of course). That always knocked me out. Billy said, “Say, you know a lot about this music. “ I said, “Well, I love it, and when you love it you learn it.” He liked that and grinned, then he went in and killed the switch leads.

It was not too long after that that he was in a car accident and broke his neck and never went back with the band. He was only around 40 when he died, which was a real shame and loss.

(Photo: Al Basile, Scott Hamilton, Duke Robillard and the late great Jimmy Witherspoon)

As for Roomful, I'll just tell the story of how I got hired. In the early seventies Roomful had a horn section and played guitar based blues, but also classic Rhythm and Blues featuring sax solos, and tenor sax man Red Prysock was one of our heroes from the classic era – we all loved the instrumental hits he'd had in the fifties like ”Handclappin' “ and “Fruit Boots.” In the seventies Red was playing jazz gigs with his brother Arthur, but the band contacted him and hired him to play a concert of his old hits with Roomful at the Knickerbocker Cafe, their headquarters in Westerly, Rhode Island, where they played every week. The band on Red's Mercury hits had a trumpet in it, and the part was prominent, so Duke Robillard, who knew I'd been playing out with Scott Hamilton a little bit, asked me to learn the trumpet parts to six tunes to play with Red just for that one night. The concert was a great success, and we repeated the six tunes most of the night, playing each a number of times. At the end of the night, Red said to us, “You guys have a great band!” and someone said that I wasn't in the band but was just on for that night. “Oh, you got to hire this man,” Red said. “The trumpet puts fire in the arrangement!” And shortly after that Duke hired me. So thanks, Red.

Finally, Scott Hamilton was a fifteen year old harmonica player with a local blues band in Providence when I met him in 1969. I was a senior at Brown University, and hadn't touched a trumpet for years. I became a fan of Scott's band and developed a big interest in blues. A couple of years later Scott switched to tenor sax and began playing R&B and jazz. By that time I'd been in and out of the army and was living on the other side of town writing a novel. Every day I'd finish writing and drive over to Scott's house to hang out. He used to have jam sessions for his friends at his house, and I'd listen at first. Then he said to me, “Say, you used to play an instrument, didn't you?” “Yes,” I said, “I played the trumpet for ten years, but I stopped when I went to college. And I can only read music, I can't improvise like you're doing.” “Well, if you ever want to pick it up again and learn,” he said, ”you're welcome to play at these get-togethers at the house. Nobody will mind if you're just starting out.” It's invaluable for a beginner to have a safe place to play with others, even if he plays badly. Everybody struggles at first.

I loved the music and I liked the people, so I started up, and before long I wanted to get good enough to play with Scott out at one of his gigs, in front of people. I worked at it for a year or so, and finally he thought I was ready. I took my first improvised solo in public with Scott in a bar on the Brown campus in 1972, and by the next year Duke had hired me to play in Roomful, which was a great education as we played 300 dates a year. I learned the life of a professional musician fast. So together Duke and Scott gave me my chance. I can't thank them enough, as music has become such a big part of my life in the last fifty years. If you want to learn more about those days, I've done an hour long documentary interview with Duke and Scott which i'll be putting up at my channel on YouTube soon. It's called Two for the Road.

"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)

How do you describe “Quiet Money” (2017) 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.

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' (2016) 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?          Al Basile / 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!

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.

Are there any memories from your previous album ‘Go Back Home to the Blues’ (2012) 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 consider the "Blues & Jazz" a specific music genre and artistic movement or do you think it’s a state of mind?

Blues is a feeling and the music we call blues is a direct way of expressing that feeling. But it's not the only way to express that feeling, even musically – for at least the first fifty years of what got called jazz, the blues feeling was an important part of the music, and jazz players played on blues changes and structures – look at Jelly Roll Morton, Ellington, or Charlie Mingus – they wrote more complex versions of the blues, but kept the feeling. Over the last fifty years there have been more and more jazz styles which don't come right out of blues, and in some artists the blues feeling is not a part of their message. You could argue that even in some of what gets called blues today, the feeling is getting farther away from the roots. But blues feeling is forever because humans will always have troubles, and I think there will always be artists who build their music on blues feeling, whatever it gets called or marketed as. I hear what to me is blues feeling in many other forms of music from around the world, too, whether it's rembetika or Cuban son from the twenties, or flamenco, or music from Mali, gypsy music, or Polish music with what they call zal. Not always, but I feel it in there often. The feeling is universal, it's the musical expression that may change. I think that's why there are players from so many countries now with their own versions of the blues feeling playing the blues styles that started in America.

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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