Alex Bugnon - Going Home
For the last two decades, keyboardist Alex Bugnon has been a romantic yet energetic force on the contemporary jazz scene - an ambassador from the last days of the Quiet Storm in possession of chameleonic skills befitting him as a straight ahead jazz piano leader and soul as a sideman. Born in beautiful Montreux, Switzerland, world famous for a jazz festival that has hosted thousands, Alex was pre-destined to be a jazz man. And on his new album Going Home, he boldly explores that music – his first love – more explicitly than ever before. From songs inspired by Horace Silver and Ahmad Jamal to covers of old favorites from WAR’s “The World is a Ghetto” to Herbie Hancock’s “Oliloqui Valley,” to an adaptation of “Nothra Dona di Maortse” (a song he discovered at his father’s funeral), the 8-song project taps deep roots from multiple plains.
“Going Home represents me returning to what I really love to do…which is to play as hard as I possibly can,” he states. “I came up with the last generation of Quiet Storm artists such as Najee, George Howard, Art Porter, Will Downing and Rachelle Ferrell. When my first album Love Season came out in 1989 (an R&B chart-top contender containing Alex’s hit cover of Brenda Russell’s “Piano in the Dark” and his own transfixing “Love Season”), radio programmers still had the ability to pick the music they played with no outside interference.
After recording his sixth thru ninth albums for the now defunct Narada label (2000’s As Promised, 2001’s Soul Purpose, 2003’s Southern Living and 2005’s Free), Alex knew his next move would not be another album along those lines. In 2007, he lucked out when boutique specialty label Mosaic released the comprehensive Ultimate Alex Bugnon compilation – including something from every one of his albums and even allowing Alex a hand in approving and suggesting selections. This bought him some crucial creative incubation time while also giving him something fresh to sell during his never-ending weekend warrior shows. 2008 brought a year of intense soul searching and led him to consider a suggestion made by an old musical ami, saxophonist Vincent Henry.
“For years, Vince has been telling me to do a ‘60s record – a boogaloo type thing like like Les McCann & Eddie Harris. I figured I would mix some of that with the kind of soul-jazz that Lee Morgan, Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock recorded when they were on Blue Note – that vibe and that sextet instrumentation (trio with horns). The only problem is that initially I wasn’t sure what to write!”
Alex spent the first four months of 2009 listening to his heroes’ classics and “shedding” (practicing) like crazy in his Hudson Valley, New York home. “That’s when it all started to flow,” he continues. “I decided to take my trio into Nine Lives Studio (in Jersey City). We did one rehearsal followed by recording eight tracks in two days, May 5-6, 2009 – boom… done!” To get that done proper, Bugnon called upon two trusted and talented old friends: bassist Victor Bailey and drummer Poogie Bell.
“At first I thought I would record trio-style like Ramsey Lewis,” Alex explains, “but the more I thought about it, I felt this music needed horns. So I went to Washington D.C. to Vincent’s home studio (My Daddy’s Records in Rixeyville, Virginia) and recorded him on sax and Greg Boyer on trombone. Then I came back to New York and added Barry Danielian on trumpet (who also doubled on Flugelhorn). These cats know the full tonal registers and textures of their instruments. I mean they knew exactly how to orchestrate their parts.”
“My model for this album was Kind of Blue,” he continues, citing Miles Davis’ seminal 1959 recording that introduced the liberating concept of improvisation based on modes rather than traditional scales. “I read how it all went down. Miles brought in sketches of things then all the magic was created on the spot with Cannonball, Trane, Paul Chambers, Jimmy Cobb, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans. I felt I could achieve a similar thing in my music with the cats I had.”
Alex elicits mighty results straight from the gate with the CD-opener “Oliloqui Valley” the often imitated number composed and first recorded by Herbie Hancock for his fourth Blue Note album, Empyrean Isles (1964). So hip is this number that the bass line has been sampled often in hip hop, including female rapper Simple’ E’s “Play My Funk.” Bugnon tuned right into the robust nature of a song inspired by a mystical valley within the mythical Isle of Dreams, yielding buoyant lines from Bailey and some especially inspired cymbal play from Bell. “My aunt was in a relationship with Donald Byrd and knew Herbie well. I got into Herbie’s music through them since I was a little boy, with his Fat Albert Rotunda LP . Later, I discovered albums like Maiden Voyage, then really freaked out with Head Hunters and Thrust.”
That driving energy continues forward with “Silver Finger,” a nod to soul-jazz grandfather Horace Silver, the amazing pianist and prolific composer. The piece begins deceptively serene then drops down into a righteously funky Afro-Cuban groove that comes up for air in a swingin’ bridge that is both sexy and tasty. The shades and hues added by the horns are picture portrait perfect as Alex’s fingers rip and roll over the keys in impassioned homage to one of jazz’s last living legends. Trumpeter Danielian also shines here with a fiery muted offering.
A South American air wafts through a powerful take on “The World is a Ghetto,” a song by the peerless 7-piece outfit WAR that was first introduced on the music band’s fifth breakthrough album of the same name (1972). It has been re-imagined in dizzying vocal and instrumental variations, tempos and moods ever since – mostly by jazz artists. Alex brings both Latin-tinged yet reverently gospel feels to it. “I love the totally ‘left’ chord changes,” Alex says, confessing he stole them from Atlanta peer Phil Davis, “only the way he did it was more of a synth fusion trio thing. I do it on acoustic piano, closer to WAR’s original melody and didn’t want to play it too long (WAR’s original was 10-minutes and many past covers follow suit).
Touchstones ripple deeper and biographical on “Nothra Dona di Maortse,” a traditional Swiss classical chorale that Alex discovered at the funeral of his father, Roger Bugnon, the respected guitarist who passed away in 1998. “My father’s cousins all sing just for fun, but sing their a**** off,” Alex explains. “The one cousin of my generation, Yves, is the only one who is professional. For the funeral, he got all 10 of them together, two hours before the service, to rehearse. They sang three songs beautifully. I loved this song so much that I asked him for the lead sheet. I kept it for years knowing one day I would do something with it. It’s a piece for 4-part vocal harmony that I turned into a jazz thing, with the horns making it reminiscent of an Isaac Hayes film score.
Next up is more funk in the form of “Jersey Jump” a bumpin’ lil’ 3-minute contribution from Vincent Henry that sounds like the Peanuts gang just let out of church on Sunday – with Schroeder getting’ down as you’ve never heard him!
That drops down into a fresh look at Alex’s own 1989 hit “Love Season re-titled “Another Love Season.” “The ending turned out great with absolutely no rehearsal,” he shares. “We went a little left – like an Abdullah Ibrahim meets ‘Poinciana’ goes South African vibe! A month later I felt like I should add some acoustic guitar so I put my old friend Keith Robinson on there.” The song also immortalizes a very special musical occasion: Victor Bailey’s recording debut on upright acoustic bass! “He’s been taking lessons from Ron Carter,” Alex’s proudly announces. “This one is strictly trio and totally improvised. I just handed them the chord changes and said, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
That song moves seamlessly into a sweet salute to the wrap-around tranquility of piano great Ahmad Jamal, titled “Ahmad’s Apple.” Bugnon discovered Jamal back home in Montreux as a kid and reflects upon that time and the instantly identifiable vibe that is the Ahmad sound – at points childlike, then most-most-wise.
The CD comes to a slinky silky close with the elegant swing of the title track “Going Home.” It features some truly warm and enveloping work from the horns as a section, and Greg Boyer gently rocks the number to sleep – safe and sound - with some evocative trombone obligatos on the suspended three chords of the outro.
Though Going Home is stylistically miles ahead of his debut Love Season so long ago, it mirrors it in several interesting ways. First is that it’s a lean, mean 8 songs total, as in the days before CDs grew so long they ceased to feel like unified statements. All of the new songs were composed very quickly in the heat of inspiration. And they were all played by musicians who are not only superb at what they do but most are also long time friends of Bugnon, adding a warmth and camaraderie to the mix that is palpable in every bar. “I went to Berklee with Victor and Barry,” Alex says. “Keith was my roommate there. Vincent and Poogie I met when we all got our first gig in 1986 backing up Freddie Jackson (the R&B crooner of “You Are My lady fame). Greg (a veteran of George Clinton’s P-Funk All-Stars but very versed in jazz) is the only one I just met and he was fantastic. The session’s engineer/studio owner Nicola Stemmer and I go all the way back to Montreux. Our parents were friends when we were toddlers. I am grateful to all of them for their brotherhood, loyalty and support.”
Montreux-reared Bugnon studied at a music conservatory in Paris before coming to America to continue at Boston’s famed Berklee School of Music. He spent a lot of time playing not only jazz but gospel, gigging on that time-honored southern circuit. Upon graduation he moved to New York. After spending a year driving taxicabs and teaching French at the Berlitz School, he found initial work backing R&B stars such as Patti Austin & James Ingram and Keith Sweat. It was through backing Freddie Jackson that he made the contact at then-new Orpheus Records where he recorded his first two CDs Love Season (1989) and Head Over Heels (1991), making his deepest first impressions with R&B audiences as a soulful instrumentalist du jour. A switch to Sony’s Epic Records family yielded 107 Degrees in the Shade (1991) and This Time Around (1993), upon which time he jumped to RCA Records for Tales from the Bright Side (1995). From there he segued into the four albums he did for Narada Records, an associated label that specialized in smooth jazz and new age.
Beyond his recordings, Alex has built a loyal fan base through constant touring on the club and jazz festival circuits. Just last year he passed the great Dizzy Gillespie’s record of playing Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley for 12 consecutive Thanksgivings with his own lucky 13th visit. That most recent gig found his new music from Going Home receiving quite the warm welcome. “People in their 40s, 50s and 60s that have all of my CDs were raving about the new songs,” he beams. “At the same time, college students that are more likely to be Radiohead fans were coming up to me saying, ‘I really dug that ‘Silver Finger’ song, man’ - which was really nice to hear!”
“I’m very proud to be heading into this direction,” Alex concludes concerning Going Home, the first release through his own company Xela Productions (“Alex” spelled backwards). “I might not get immediate gratification, but that’s not what this is about. I’m so happy with what I was able to do with the help of my friends. It’s just an unbelievable feeling... The timing of this record could not be more perfect.”