Known as a forward-thinking musician with a passion for the jazz tradition, guitarist Randy Napoleon is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University. He is currently touring as a leader after twenty years of road apprenticeship with some of the most celebrated musicians and groups of our time.
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For Randy Napoleon, known as jazz guitar’s forward-thinking, tradition-loving performer, composer, and professor, study and creation go hand in hand. His philosophy, whether performing or writing, is to immerse himself in the techniques of the masters, then trust his mind, heart, and fingers to respond in the moment. “When you are playing jazz, it is a conversation that moves at lightning speed. There is no time to think. It has to be reflexive, an ingrained response.”
After twenty years of road apprenticeship with some of the most celebrated jazz musicians and groups of our time, Randy Napoleon has, in recent years, shifted his focus to honing his leadership skills at the head of the ensemble. This Fall he is back on tour and will release his fifth record as a bandleader with Common Tones (out Oct 4, 2019, on Detroit Music Factory), a collaborative record featuring four generations of musicians from Michigan’s continuing jazz legacy. Comprised in nearly equal parts of both rearrangements of the great classics that have inspired him and several of his own originals, teetering at the cutting edge of jazz composition, Common Tones is a summary of Napoleon’s current goals, influences and musical philosophies, and as well as a celebration of his evolving musical lineage.
From a young age, Napoleon enthusiastically immersed himself in what is often considered the golden age of jazz: the early 40’s through the mid 60’s. While he could be considered a classicist by nature of his musical preferences, he emphasizes that he’s never had an interest in recreating the music that influenced him the most. Yet, this music remains Napoleon’s template for both instrumental and compositional excellence. This is where he finds his tool kit for self-expression and creation with a goal to retain the good feeling of the era while continuing to personalize the language and explore new modes of expression.
Having, come up playing in Ann Arbor and Detroit where the Motown sound easily seeps into local jazz culture,“You’ve Got To Hang On,” featuring Drew Kilpela’s soulful Trombone, is Napoleon’s tip of the hat to that motor city aesthetic. With “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Napoleon shows that a good melody transcends genre by adapting this poignant Beach Boys ode to a vehicle into swing. Napoleon shows he is a true devotee of the Great American Songbook with a beautiful rendition of “I Married An Angel,” a Rogers and Hart song that he’s been performing in trio format. Bassist Louie Leager and drummer Nick Bracewel play memorable solos on this one.
For Napoleon, names such as Wes Montgomery, Grant Green, Joe Pass, and Kenny Burrell, still represent the gold standard. He continues to study these masters and more daily, knowing there is always a higher level of detail and nuance possible.
“I think of my time with their records as a very personalized lesson,” says Napoleon. “I’m studying technique, sound, language, structure, everything. I emulate horn players and piano players also because it forces you to come up with solutions to play things that don’t lay naturally on the guitar. Joe Henderson or John Coltrane can lead you into unexplored sounds on the guitar. As Charlie Parker said ‘You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail’. ”
Napoleon holds a lifetime dedication to processing the lessons of his teachers. Having cut his teeth touring and playing over the last twenty years with respected artists across the jazz spectrum such as Bill Charlap, Natalie Cole, Monty Alexander, Rodney Whitaker, and John Pizzarelli. He has performed or arranged on over seventy records, contributing in both capacities on Freddy Cole’s seven most recent records over a thirteen-year tenure, including the Grammy-nominated releases, Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B and My Mood Is You. He performed on The Clayton Hamilton Orchestra: Live at MCG, and his guitar chops are featured on Michael Buble’s Grammy-nominated CD/DVD Caught in the Act. Similarly, Napoleon is a seasoned veteran of the late-night television circuit, having played on The Tonight Show, Late Night With David Letterman, The View, The Today Show, and The Ellen DeGeneres show.
These masters demonstrated to Napoleon what it means to be a jazz musician and a true professional. Before he went on the road with them, he was lucky to grow up in Michigan. The greater Detroit area scene has always been an amazing musical incubator where he was exposed to the transience of touring musicians and the steadfast instruction of local teachers. During this recording, Napoleon was thinking a lot about two of his teachers who have since passed away, the trailblazing tenor saxophonist Donald Walden and legendary bebop trumpet player, Louis Smith. both exposed a young Napoleon to a level of musical depth that he will pursue for his entire life.
Napoleon pays homage to both of these teachers on Common Tones in both arrangement and composition. “If DW Were Here,” an original composition presented as a duo with pianist Xavier Davis is dedicated to Walden’s challenge to Napoleon as a student to avoid clichés and always reach forward in music, and “Mr. Smith” is a cheerful Bebop line featuring bassist Rodney Whitaker and trumpet player Etienne Charles. The track is played in the style of Louis Smith and dedicated to the dignity and professionalism this teacher instilled in a young Napoleon.
At the same time, Napoleon also includes arrangements of compositions by these two teachers. “Signed Dizzy, With Love” is a Donald Walden composition, which in this is memorable and hip arrangement, features modern giant of the tenor, Diego Rivera, and “Bakin” featuring saxophonist Diego Rivera, trumpet player Etienne Charles, trombonist Michael Dease and Randy “Uncle G” Gilespie was penned by Louis Smith.
For Napoleon, jazz is and always has been about collaboration. As he’s grown and evolved, both as a musician and a teacher, he’s come to realize that musical exchange is never a one-way street. Attentive to a long-held tradition in jazz of young musicians disrupting, inspiring, and evolving the scene, Napoleon now finds himself in a stage where he collaborates with and is in run influenced by musicians who are much younger than himself. He has met many new voices through his role as an educator and he considers it an incredible experience to witness his students’ transformation into artists. Many of the featured musicians on the album are, in fact, Napoleon’s former students.
“The best young musicians play with reckless abandon. Sometimes they play things that are out of the idiom, and that can be exciting and inspiring to play with. They take me out of my comfort zone and force me to stretch. I like being around musicians who have unbroken musical idealism. They haven’t had their tastes compromised by the commercial industry. They know what they like, and that is where they take their direction. I try to share my experiences with them and expose them to the history. I let their new spirits take me to the future.”