August 15, 2014

Jae’s Last Jazz Record

by Jim Newsom

“I think I put out a pretty good record.”

Jae Sinnett was talking about his new CD, Subject to Change. It’s a finely crafted, consummately produced, appealingly paced, deliciously diverse collection that spotlights his prowess as a composer and arranger. It is his most enjoyable outing yet. After one listen, I was already humming a couple of the melodies.

“That’s what this record was about,” he said, “writing better melodies. And three-part arranging.

“This is the record that I’ve always wanted to make from a melodic and harmonic perspective. It wasn’t about zeroing in on drumming. The focus was on writing better melodies.

“Being a drummer, we don’t deal with harmony and melody every day. We’re rhythm specialists; that’s what we do. So there’s always been a bit of insecurity with a lot of drummers, me included, in how we write melodies. It’s different from writing chord progressions. I remember talking with [pianist] Justin [Kauflin] when he was first starting to write, and he asked how you know when you have something. I said, if you write something like a motif, and two weeks later it’s still in your head, then you know you should focus on it, take the time and develop it!”

Twenty eight years into an impressive recording career, Sinnett knows whereof he speaks. For those of us who have followed his work, his artistic growth has been fascinating to watch and listen to. The multi-horn approach on Subject to Change provides his most exciting and invigorating setting yet:

“The great thing about this record is that I didn’t have to work to come up with ideas. I had all of these ideas in my head. For example, if you listen to ‘Sunny,’ the melody is played twice. The first time [trumpeter] Rob DeDominick plays it without the horns; the second time he plays the melody, the horns come in. On all of the songs, I wanted to create this constant forward moving quality in the arrangements. You keep hearing something different.

“But it wasn’t easy. It was my most difficult record to do on many fronts—the time it took to put it all together. When you listen to it, it all seems to flow and sounds so easy. But it’s not easy. For example, ‘Flea Flicker’ terrorized the horn players!”

Seven of the eight tunes on the recording are originals. The lone non-original is that cool and slinky reworking of Bobby Hebb’s 1966 hit, “Sunny.”

“I’ve always liked the tune,” Jae explained. “It’s a catchy melody. And I had this idea to play it with a 6/8 Afro-Cuban feel and then write some three-part harmony lines to completely reharmonize the song. But the melody stays the same. From a harmonic perspective, it’s a very difficult arrangement.”

Jae’s twenty four years as public radio jazz host on WHRV-FM have made him a master at sequencing a set, and this is one CD that flows perfectly when listened to from beginning to end. The rich rhythmic variety, tonal assortment and sheer musicality of the players holds your interest all the way through. But “Subject to Change” apparently carries an implication beyond simply being the title track of this particular disc.

“This is my last all-jazz record,” he said. “My objective from day one in recording, almost thirty years ago, was to create a body of work that’s mine. I am artistically fulfilled, I am spiritually fulfilled with my music. The other part of this is that there is basically no return. I told one of my students who wanted to do a jazz record with his band, ‘Record at your own risk.’ It’s a very different landscape now for how people listen and buy music. The generation that’s listening to jazz, which is older, will listen to it but they won’t buy it. The generation that’s buying, between 18 and 45, they don’t listen to jazz. So there are many things against you when you do a jazz recording.”

So what does that mean for Hampton Roads’ best known jazzman?

“I’m doing some orchestral things,” he replied, “and we’re starting to get some traction with that. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to get this Virginia Symphony date under my belt [on October 10th at the Ferguson Center] because that’s a major orchestra. I think this is something we can probably grow. It’s a unique thing to do.

“I hear musicians saying they’ve got to make a record to get an audience. I think that’s putting the cart before the horse. You’ve got to figure out how to get people to actually sit down and listen to your music for them to make a determination that they want to buy. I am grateful to all of the people who do support it, who do listen.”

If not another jazz record, what does the future hold for Jae Sinnett?

“Right now I feel so buried after working on this record and working with Allen Farnham on the orchestrations for the last three years, I feel like there’s a film on my body and I can’t get it off of me. It’s like a shower where you feel like you can’t get the soap off of you. Now that the record’s finished, now that the orchestrations are finished, where I found comfort was just coming back to the drums. If I record again down the road, it’s going to be something that’s really about drumming.”

Subject to Change is available locally at Birdland, online at CD Baby and iTunes, and directly from Jae himself.

copyright © 2014 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.