Like most jazz artists, keyboardist Mark Adams is a creature of the night – an artist who hits his creative stride in the late hours, when other soulful cats just like him emerge from the shadows and fill the night air with a groove that is sometimes lyrical, sometimes edgy and always compelling.
This summer, Adams and veteran keyboardists Brian Jackson and Lonnie Liston Smith continue their sweep of the jazz landscape on the “Soulful Night of Keys” tour – a trip that started in the U.S. in the fall of 2011 and heads for Europe in July 2012. The tour showcases a combined legacy of ten decades of talent from three of the most enduring names in contemporary jazz. A live CD and DVD, both recorded in New York City, are scheduled for release in June in conjunction with the tour.
“There’s a camaraderie about this tour that’s reminiscent of the heyday of jazz – back when it was commonplace for guys like Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt to play together, and Bud Powell was best friends with Thelonius Monk,” says Adams. “They were never in competition with each other. That cooperative, creative spirit of jazz is what we’ve recaptured on this tour. We just get up there and play together, without trying to see which of us can be faster or slicker than the other. We just play what we feel and we do our best to be true to the music.”
Adams, the youngest representative on a tour that spans three generations of piano jazz, has been playing it like he feels it for more than a decade. Since the 1990s, the Baltimore native has established a career as not only a composer and performer, but also a music professor at City University of New York (CUNY) and the author of numerous books on music theory. He made his recording debut with the 2001 release of Asceticism, and followed up with Feel the Groove (2007) and Something’s Going On (2009). Embellishments (The Q&A Project) was a collaborative effort with fellow pianist and CUNY professor Jonathan Quash released in April 2011. Along the way, Adams has performed with a diverse roster of high-profile artists: Roy Ayers, Ron Carter, Ronnie Laws, Hugh Masekela, Erika Badu and Wayne Henderson.
The idea for the “Soulful Night of Keys” tour originally took shape in the spring of 2011, when Adams and Jackson – both on the Roberts Music Group label – played together at a party for label executive Barry Roberts, says Adams. Backed by Adams’ band, the collaborative performance featuring the two keyboardists was a huge hit, and he the idea of taking the show on the road was the next logical step.
Adams picked a well-seasoned partner for the venture, as Jackson’s reputation as a jazz innovator spans more than four decades. Widely regarded as one of the primary architects of new-soul movement, he produced nearly 100 tracks with partner and co-writer Gil Scott Heron throughout the 1970s that are some of the most sampled works in hip-hop history. The fact that artists like Kanye West, Common and Pete Rock have frequently sampled Jackson’s sound as a basis for their own speaks volumes about how far ahead of its time Jackson’s musical vision has been and continues to be. Aside from the ten top-selling albums in his own discography, Jackson has also collaborated on stage and in studio with Kool and the Gang, Phyllis Hyman, George Benson and Roy Ayers. His producer credits include work with Gwen Guthrie and Will Downing.
Together, Adams and Jackson enlisted the services of a versatile and enduring jazz innovator to round out the trio. Lonnie Liston Smith’s pedigree dates back to the early 1960s, when he launched his career by backing such luminary vocalists as Betty Carter and Joe Williams, and quickly segued to gigs with Art Blakey, Max Roach and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. His later collaborations included work with Pharaoh Sanders – with whom he began to experiment with electric keyboards and the vast palette of cosmic sounds they could create – and Argentinean saxophonist Gato Barbieri. Smith joined Miles Davis’ ensemble in 1972, and recorded two albums with the group – On the Corner and Big Fun – before launching a solo recording career in the mid-1970s as leader of a band dubbed The Cosmic Echoes. One of his earliest solo outings, Expansions (1975), helped fuel the jazz fusion movement by combining solid jazz playing with elements from other genres. An ambitious combination of recording and touring over the next two decades – as well as collaborative work with Mary J. Blige, J-Zee and other emerging rap and pop artists in the ‘90s – have established him as a continuing force to be reckoned with well into the 21st century.
“Lonnie came to mind for this tour, and Brian agreed that he’d be a great addition to the team,” says Adams. “I admit that I was hesitant to ask him, because I didn’t think he’d be interested. But I just gathered up the courage and called him anyway. At first he said, ‘Three keyboards? How is that going to work?’ But eventually he said, ‘Okay, let’s give it a try.’ Our first show sold out, and from that point on, both Lonnie and Brian were sold. Since then, this thing has taken on a life of its own. It has snowballed into something that has taken us across the country and will take us to England, France, Italy, Germany and Holland this summer.”
The three keyboard players are joined on the tour by a solid and versatile backup crew: guitarist/vocalist/musical director Bill White (Chaka Khan, Taylor Dane); bassist Trevor Allen (Freddie Jackson); and drummer Lee Pierson (Spyro Gyra). Saxophonist Carl Bartlett Jr. has also made intermittent appearances on the tour as well.
The “Soulful Night of Keys” tour distills some of the best piano jazz of the past half century, crafted by three generations of top-shelf artists. Adams would like the shows to take audiences to a place that’s devoid of the challenges and stresses of the world we all know too well. “I want people to leave these shows having experienced a total release,” he says. “I want them to just let their minds go and not worry about whatever problems they may be facing, not worry about what they have to do tomorrow or the next day. I want them to just be in the moment and be entertained.”
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