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ToT Interview: Jazz Great Warren Hill

Jazz saxophonist Warren Hill. (courtesy photo)

Internationally-loved Contemporary Jazz saxophonist Warren Hill, who has sold over 1 million albums in his 20 year career and has performed with the likes of Chaka Khan, Faith Hill, Clint Black, Brian Culbertson, and John Tesh (among others), is known for his musically-diverse & energetic live shows. In fact, he has two concerts scheduled this summer in our very own Temecula Wine Country – June 5th at Thornton Winery (as part of the “super sax” group Gentlemen Of The Night, which inclues Marion Meadows and Paul Taylor), and with his own incredible band at Wilson Creek Winery on July 23rd. Fresh from performing at the New Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards (the “Canadian Smoothies”) in Toronto, Warren was kind enough sit down with Taste of Temecula and discuss his musical influences, his love for Rock music, whom he respects in the Jazz World, and why he loves performing at wineries.

Your primary Jazz influences are greats such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Charlie “Bird” Parker. What did you find in the music of Jazz giants that steered you away from your earlier musical passion – playing guitar in a rock band – and lead you to choosing the saxophone as your primary “axe” and exploring Jazz as your primary musical expression?

When I was 17 a friend gave me a cassette tape with David Sanborn, Grover Washington, Michael Brecker. I was completely blown away by this form of contemporary jazz. I had never heard the saxophone played that way before. I was already playing sax in the high school concert band, but wasn’t really paying it much attention, as my focus was on playing guitar and singing in my rock band. But this tape really piqued my interest and it was Sanborn in particular that made me want to pay more attention to the sax. To me he sounded like a fusion of Stevie Wonder, Jeff Beck, and Clapton all on one instrument. The more that I started to explore these players, I started to get introduced to their influences as well, which led me to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bird, and my all time favorite: Cannonball Adderly.

Warren's "other" group - Gentlemen Of The Night. (courtesy photo)

Was becoming a “Smooth Jazz” artist a conscious decision – to gain a larger audience – or is it a style that simply came naturally to you? Or did you start out with the intentions of following your influences’ styles (Bop, Modal, Fusion, etc.) but eventually found your “voice” in the Jazz-Pop world?

When I started out in 1991, the label we had was Contemporary Jazz. Smooth became the industry label around 1995. I wasn’t ever a fan of the title, especially for my music, which has a lot of dynamics. Of course I always have a laugh about the “larger audience” references, since if that was my end game, I would have stayed in Rock music 🙂 I was really fortunate as far as my recording career in that the record executive that signed me to my first contract allowed me complete freedom to make whatever musical choices I wanted to. So my first couple of CD’s were very eclectic, including jazz, pop, r&b, new age, rock, rap and vocals. I was actually criticized for that, but it was who I was as a musician, so I stayed with that approach throughout my entire career. I think it’s a reason people enjoy my live shows so much – since it’s multi-dimensional.

So many artists these days – Jazz or otherwise – are hitting casinos and wineries more and more as important dates on their respective tours. In fact, you’re scheduled to hit Temecula this summer as part of your current tour (6/5 @ Thornton Winery & 7/23 @ Wilson Creek Winery). Have you found that wine and casino audiences are different from those you play for at “normal” venues such as theaters and outdoor festivals? If so, in what way(s)?

GOTN perform at Thornton Winery June 5th. (Photo by Loren Scott)

I think wineries are more similar to Jazz Festivals than casinos are. Wineries always exist in the most beautiful locations, so it’s natural to want to have jazz shows there. It’s such a perfect match of music, wine and ambiance. Casinos aren’t always in the best locations. And some are nicer on the inside than others. Mohegan Sun in CT is a fabulous place to play. One thing you always get at casinos is really top notch sound and lighting systems, since the stages are designed for big pop/rock acts. The audiences can be hit or miss though. Usually they aren’t your true fans, but a mixture of the local casino patrons as well, who aren’t necessarily the atypical jazz festival patron. One of the great things about this style of music is that we can win over even the harshest critics in a live show. So if the casino patrons can get a way from the slot machines long enough to check out the show, we can actually convert them into new fans!

Jimi Hendrix once mentioned in an interview that when he played his Strat and closed his eyes, he’d see a collage of colors – that each note, each sound he produced out of his 6-string had a distinct color. Of course, it could have been the drugs, but do you have similar experiences when you’re playing, especially when soloing? What happens when you’re onstage, getting “lost” in performing?

Wilson Creek hosts Warren & his band July 23rd. (courtesy photo)

That is the “zen moment,” when you can utterly close your eyes and go to another place when you are playing. For me it usually happens once or twice during a show. As the front man and band leader, I have a lot on my mind unfortunately, so it doesn’t last too long. Sometimes I have totally random thoughts like “did I pay that parking ticket before I left town” or “did I remember to zip up my fly before I went on stage??”

What other Contemporary Jazz artists do you listen to these days? Anyone else you respect and/or influences what you’re doing now?

I am a huge Pat Metheny fan. Always have been. He is actually in a category all by himself. To be honest, I try not to listen to too much of the music that my counterparts are doing, as I don’t want to be influenced with my own music. Of course I always enjoy jazz festivals, as that is where I get to hear everyone live from the backstage. I am more interested in the live experience anyway. I think there are certain Artists in the format that always deliver the goods live, such as Jeff Golub, Rick Braun, Jonathan Butler, Richard Elliot, Peter White, Norman Brown, Dave Koz, Brian Culbertson, just to name a few. Obviously I missed a bunch, so I hope I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings. Not enough time to type them all out!

(courtesy photo)

Catch Warren Hill perform at these upcoming Southern California shows:

05/26/11 @ Morongo Casino (Cabazon, CA) w/ Ray Parker Jr.
06/05/11 @ Thornton Winery (Temecula, CA) w/ Gentlemen Of The Night
06/25/11 @ Jazz Trax Summer Fest (Big Bear, CA)
07/23/11 @ Wilson Creek Winery (Temecula, CA) w/ Warren Hill Group
09/10/11 @ BB Jazz Festival (Huntington Beach, CA) w/ Gentlemen Of The Night
09/17/11 @ Jazz At The Beach at Ocean Pier Amphitheater (San Diego, CA)
10/09/11 @ Catalina Jazz Trax Festival on Catalina Island (Avalon, CA) w/ Warren Hill Group

For info and tickets to each of the above Warren Hill concerts, please visit warrenhill.com

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