From Jimmy Smith to Dr. Lonnie Smith, Larry Young and beyond the Hammond B-3 organ has a long and funky tradition in jazz. Taking this tradition to the next level is NYC-based keyboardist Sam Yahel. From his stellar work with such varied artists as singer-songwriter Norah Jones, trumpeter Ryan Kisor, vocalist Madeleine Peyroux and others Yahel is bringing a fresh sound to organ-based music. Recently, AMG's Matt Collar spoke with Yahel about his unique Hammond-style, touring with '70s rock icon Steely Dan, the release of his most recent solo album Truth and Beauty and what its like to play cerebral, atmospheric jazz for a primarily rock-oriented audience as he will be doing when he performs at the 2007 Bumbershoot Festival in September.
AMG: Why don't you start out with a little bit about your background.
SY: I grew up in Europe. I actually spent most of my formative years in Germany because my parents were moving around due to business stuff. I wasn't really exposed to that much jazz over there. When I came back to the States around seventeen I started to get a little bit of an interest. When I was eighteen I took a year off after high school and I moved to Russia. I wanted to be a professional musician but I wasn't sure that was going to be a realistic thing or if it was just kind of a fantasy. I had this chance to move to Russia and work for the McDonald's there the year they opened and I didn't do any music at all. Then, when I was over there, I kind of realized from not doing any music at all that I missed it. I realized that I should at least give it a shot. So at that point I was nineteen and I came to New York, I applied at the New School as a double degree major, and I started kind of getting really serious about learning how to play music.
AMG: Were there players there that you've played with since then?
SY: Sure, there were all kinds of great players there. Chris Potter was at the school for a second. Brad Mehldau -- I used to play a lot of duo with him and hang out with him. Larry Goldings had just left the school. Peter Bernstein had just left the school and was still coming back. Jessie Davis and a lot of the guys who had just graduated were still hanging around there kind of playing. The list goes on. To me it felt like a really kind of creativity-injected time.
AMG: In that sense, do you feel like you are part of any kind of personal aesthetic movement in jazz?
SY: School was college, and there was definitely a tendency to be in a camp. You had your free [jazz] guys, they'd go in the ensemble rooms, turn off the light, and play. You had your straight-ahead guys, and at that time I was kind of in that clique, trying to be in that scene. And everybody didn't respect the other one, and there was this mutual distrust. But it's all silly stuff and just college-age behavior... Now I would never classify things like that. Now I think there's just great music and great players and whatever style they choose to be in, if any at all. Believe it or not, someone like Brad Mehldau, who's now known for his pushing the boundaries-type trio playing, when we were in school he was a straight-ahead guy. It was all about, "Does this guy swing or not? Can he play the changes or not?" And then there were divisions along the race line too?Now, I don't feel that I'm in a scene anymore as much as I did at the time. In the early '90s I really felt that race was a big issue, how you played was a big issue, whether you knew your [Thelonious] Monk tunes. [Now] I think the parameters have expanded a little bit.
AMG: Along those lines, in some of your playing, I can tell that you've checked out Jimmy Smith, Dr. Lonnie Smith and a lot of the guys that came from kind of a gospel or church tradition on the Hammond. I hear that in a lot of your early albums. In your later stuff I hear more of a softer, textural approach. Is that something you're conscious of about yourself?
SY: When I was in school I was very conscious about observing influences and I definitely went through some phases where I was heavily into Jimmy Smith and heavily into Larry Young and I tried to play a little bit like them or I would be dominantly influenced by them, but recently I don't think along those terms any more. I also feel that my organ playing is probably influenced as much by non-organ music, probably more influenced by non-organ music, than by any specific organ player?It's definitely something that for me, as a defining characteristic of who I am as a musician, is important to keep on developing and to absorb influences from wherever they be. I do think that the organ is an instrument that still has some room to be explored.
AMG: You first came to my attention on the Ryan Kisor album Awakening in 2003 and I felt that was really a unique sound you got on that album, a very different sound for that kind of a group. Was that a conscious effort on your part?
SY: I don't know if that particular album is a representation of any conscious effort, but I think that albums, especially as a sideman, tend to be snapshots of what's going on at the time. Especially the way that Ryan records, he's very much like, "Ok, this is how I play. If you want to record it, great, let's record it." He's not the kind of guy who goes, "Let me think for six months about what I want to say on this record." So when that record comes out, it's really a reflection of where we're all at, at that particular time. I've played with Ryan a lot over the years and?I think the thing that we dug, playing together, was the sense that, even if we were playing something straight-ahead or even if were playing something inside, it should have that open feeling to it. That kind of feeling like it could go anywhere at anytime, even if it doesn't, it could. I hope that was captured a little bit, that kind of feeling.
AMG: Is that the same feeling you went for with Joshua Redman [tenor sax] and Brian Blade [drums] on Truth and Beauty?
SY: Absolutely. When I recorded this last record it was, for me, more the type of thing where it was like ok, what do I want to do on this record? And I kind of used the recording to kind of push myself to the next step of my evolution, which doesn't always work. I'll look at a record date six months out and say ok, I haven't done something like this, maybe I can do something like this. I haven't written a tune that's like this, I haven't played this way, or I haven't recorded this type of playing?There's kind of different things represented on that record. We play this one Ornette Coleman tune, and we blow a little bit into different styles, and I've never done that on recording. Then there was kind of a singer/songwriter tune, that's the last tune, where I play more like a melody with Josh. It's sweet, almost like it has lyrics or something. I've never done something like that...So it was kind of a combination of stuff that we had done already, not necessarily material-wise but vibe-wise, and then trying to say, "Hey, what if we do this? What if we try this?" With those guys, they're such nice musicians that when you're in the studio with them and you go, "Hey listen, I have a tune that goes like this and I was thinking something along these lines." And they just go "Like this?" and they play it perfectly. Playing with guys like that, it's hard to go wrong.
AMG: Was Truth and Beauty recorded before or after you hooked up with Steely Dan?
SY: This was before I hooked up with Steely Dan.
AMG: Do you know if Steely Dan had heard your playing and that's why you started opening for them?
SY: Walter Becker had heard my playing with Madeleine Peyroux in New York. Walter was down there, and I barely met the guy. I didn't recognize him, because I didn't really know him at that time. Somebody introduced him as Walter, and I was like, "Walter? Huh, that's not Walter Becker is it?"?I didn't think much of it. Later, I got him the record [Truth and Beauty] and he enjoyed it, but I think it was mostly based on that initial meeting.
AMG: Knowing your work in the jazz scene, I found it really surprising that you were opening for such an iconic rock band from the '70s.
SY: ?That makes two of us. I was very surprised too. At first, I didn't know what to do or how to approach it. Initially, I didn't even know how they had heard me...I didn't really know until I had talked to Walter on the phone. Walter's thing on the phone was, "Do your organ thing. Just do your thing." So in the beginning I was like wow, he said do my thing, but he can't possibly mean it?In the beginning I was trying to tailor my set to what I thought the Steely Dan crowd would want to hear, but after a few gigs I realized that the Steely Dan crowd wants to hear Steely Dan?There was a curve at the beginning, in the first six or seven gigs, where I was learning that the best thing I could do was just go out there and present my music in the most honest way I could?I did two different tours -- about 20 gigs in the States, and 10 gigs in Europe. In the States, the crowd reaction really varied from city to city. Generally speaking, in the States, some of the audiences came in with like, "Ok, we'll give you a chance." Or, "We don't assume that you're good, but prove us wrong." It was kind of a process where I would have to win the crowd over, and most of the times that happened, and by the end of the sets people were clapping and going like, "Wow, that was really good." It was a little different in Europe because, in Europe, I generally found the audiences came in expecting for it to be really good. You didn't have that process where you had to win their support. In Europe I would go into a 5,000-seat venue and it would just be really quiet. Some of the venues had a ceiling like you were playing at the [Village] Vanguard or something, and it was really surreal. Whereas, In the States, that wasn't always the case. There were more people standing up, being a little rowdy. It was really interesting. For me the most valuable lesson I think learned in that regards is, the more honest I was with myself, playing music that I felt turned me on, the better the crowd reacted. The more I tried to pander to what I felt they wanted, the less well it usually went. I also quickly learned from Donald Fagen and Walter that the last thing they wanted me to do was pander to the audience. They love jazz. That's why they hired me. The more real kind of jazz scenario it is, the happier they were. They're almost doing it for their own amusement as much as anyone else?They're about to go on and they might be getting dressed?they might come to the side of the stage and check out a few tunes. These guys, they're big jazz fans, I can't emphasize that enough. Donald Fagen and Walter both have a huge knowledge of the jazz literature and history, so they don't care if the crowd likes it. But luckily enough the crowd did like it when it was real honest playing.
AMG: In that sense, do you see this as broadening the types of gigs that you are going to end up playing? Do you see this as any connection to the jam band scene or bands like Medeski, Martin & Wood or the Bad Plus, who have sort of expanded the jazz audience on some level?
SY: That seems to be like a mythical ideal that everyone strives for. I do think it's important to expand jazz beyond its kind of narrowly defined audience. But I do have to say, the flipside of that coin is there is an audience that will enjoy sincerely made, creative music that doesn't have to be, necessarily tailored to the "wider audience." A good example of that is, when you're in Japan, you'll be in a 7-11 and you'll hear a killin' Blue Mitchell record. In the 7-11! Or a hotel lobby, you'll hear a Wynton Kelly record. It's kind of two opposite sides of the same issue. You have somebody like the Bad Plus who are saying, "Ok, I'm gonna put this kind of groove behind this type of tune and merge these worlds and make it accessible while maintaining the integrity of making interesting music." Then you have other audiences who are just ready to take it at its own value?My music is organ music, but not quite as straight-ahead as a piano trio.
AMG: Speaking of Blue Mitchell, I just had a conversation today about his album Graffiti Blues Were you a fan of a lot of '70s funk and jazz funk?
SY: I was, peripherally, a fan of jazz funk, but more coming from being a fan of the same thing those guys were a fan of. In other words, if I want to hear some funk I'll put on a Sly Stone record. Herbie's [Hancock] funk music I think is a little bit of an exception because it stands on it's own as incredibly funky, incredibly creative, and kind of mind-blowingly groovy stuff?As far as the super heavy funk thing, I'd rather dip into the original cast in that scene If I'm gonna listen to that stuff, like James Brown or Sly. I worked with Maceo (Parker) a little bit early in my career. I got a lot of respect for that whole world. There are some great jazz funk crossover records, they just have their own place alongside everything else. I don't see it as some kind of movement.
AMG: As far as the future goes, do you see continuing in a similar approach to what you've done on Truth and Beauty with leaving a lot of space in the music?
SY: The space element has always been a kind of priority in my music making. A lot of that is a Miles [Davis] influence. It's this concept that sometimes if you leave some space, something more magical might happen than if you try to force yourself to fill up everything. If that comes across in a musical way I'm happy, but it's not something that I'm super conscious of at this point. I hope to continue to develop my voice on this instrument. I also have other interests. I'm probably going to make a piano trio record pretty soon?And I'd like to do another organ record. I need to get together some material and think about what the next logical extension of that last record would be. For me, I really like Truth And Beauty. I really like the way it came out. I think it would be fun to explore that further.