Interview by Bridgid Brousseau
Laguna Beach, California has a stylish elegance that is unmatched. The city has an undeniable vibe that is as pleasing to the eye as it is welcoming to the soul.The 2013 Festival of Arts returned for its 81st season including the “Jazz on the Green” series returning with the musical explosion that has erupted annually for the past five years.
The Festival of Arts has hosted some of the most legendary jazz musicians. I sat down with two of today’s most dynamic, versatile and world renowned artists in contemporary jazz, Saxophonist and composer/pianist Gregg Karukas and Michael Paulo.
Gregg Karukas has remained one of the most versatile and legendary jazz artists over the past 25 years. He is a composer, pianist, producer, engineer, writer and arranger.
Gregg was an original member of the Rippingtons and has toured and worked with musical greats Boney James, Sergio Mendes, Larry Carlton, Peter White and Rick Braun and many more. Gregg also serves as Musical Director for the Dave Koz and Friends Cruise to Europe, featuring Michael Bolton, Shelia E, Michael McDonald and Jeffrey Osborne.
Gregg Karukas can now add Grammy winner to his long list of accomplishments. He was the recipient of the Grammy Award for Best New Age Album at the 55th Grammy Awards in February 2013 for producing, engineering, co-writing and arranging “Echoes of Love,” for Omar Akram.
Bridgid: Congratulations on your Grammy for “Echoes of Love,” with Omar Akram, which won Best New Age Album at the 55th Grammy Awards in February of 2013.
Bridgid: Did you have any idea when you and Mr. Akram were working together that a Grammy was awaiting?
Gregg: No, I don’t tend to think about Grammy’s when making music. It can just be too distracting. That’s a job for managers, PR people and record labels. We have enough to worry about just making good music that we feel good about. In that project we wrote a lot of songs and picked only the best songs. That’s the best that you can do at that point. You put your best songs on a CD and see what ever happens from there. The press reviews it and the label promotes it.
Bridgid: What was that (winning) feeling like?
Gregg: Incredible! First, it’s incredible to know that you have won a Grammy. Then months later the Grammy comes in the mail. That’s yet another cool thing! It takes while for them to engrave it. It came in this very large box. The foam that it comes in is form fitted so if you take out half of the foam it’s the relief sculpture of a Grammy exactly. It’s almost like they melted the Grammy inside of the foam. So I’m saving the foam and the box too.
Bridgid: You were asking the crowd to help name the title of one of the songs coming out on your next CD. What comes first, the music or the title?
Gregg: The music usually comes first. There have been a few occasions when I’ve had a thought in my head of a vibe and a title that matches and then I’ll be working on the song about the same time. I’m kind of notorious for not having titles for a long time. I’ll have code titles. It might just be the date that I wrote it or it’ll just be the chord progression. I love asking the audience because the audience really seems to get into that too. I mention it before we play the song. Everybody wants to come up with the title and win. It’s a great way to share the music with people and share another part of it.
Bridgid: You have worked with pretty much every major jazz artist. I could name them and the list would go on and on. How do you determine which artists that you’re going to work with? You have your choice.
Gregg: I’m lucky in that a lot of us are very old friends. Even the people that I’m not personal friends with but we’ve seen each other on the way up over the years. There are artists that I have thoughts of playing with some day and sure enough I’ll get a call. I love that situation where you’re asked to fill in or do a small tour, run or all-star gig. It’s also word of mouth, based on friends recommending and that sort of thing. And that’s the best way to do that.
Bridgid: You have two sons who are also musicians.
Gregg: Yes. My oldest is eighteen and a half. He’s about to start college in the fall. My other son is in high school, he’s almost sixteen and he’s a percussionist and drummer.
Bridgid: Do you play together?
Gregg: We do. It’s interesting. I give them their space. They work on their own time. I try not to get into their thing to much. We jam occasionally. We have our holiday party every December where we have musicians and singers come. So everybody gets to play. The high school kids get together and play their songs, the adults will do their songs and then we’ll mix and match where everyone plays together.
Bridgid: Did your sons naturally gravitate toward music?
Gregg: It’s interesting because we knew my oldest son was going to be a performer as soon as he got on stage in elementary school. Actually even before that he gravitated toward anything that was a raised platform. That was his stage.
Gregg: My younger son was much more shy and is. He got into drums through experimentation just to see if he liked it. He coincidentally started with rock bands with plastic drum pads. Right away he was nailing it. He started taking lessons and really got into it. He’s in the top jazz band in high school He just finished the summer program at Idyllwild music camp for an intensive two weeks. Just this week he was continuing with the concert band, playing concert percussion, marimbas and timpani and then we had the fires. They evacuated and we had to go pick him. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that they’ll let them go back up in a couple days and play.
Bridgid: Speaking of gravitating towards music at a young age, you owned a minimoog. How did you discover that? Gregg: I went to a summer jazz camp myself when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. I had been playing in the high school jazz band for a couple of years and I had an opportunity to go to a community college music camp for one week. The other keyboard player that was there turned me on to The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John Mclaughln. That was probably the first time I had seen one. Then I became a big fusion fan from then on.
By the time I was sixteen I was able to afford to by a used one minimoog. It was probably the 40th one made. I’m so sorry I sold it for six hundred dollars. It was a vintage one with the clear pitch wheels that you never see. I had it for many years and had it modified. The newer synthesizers came out and I sold it to get a new synthesizer.
Gregg: I was one of the very first guys in Washington DC to have a synthesizer and that led to me getting a lot of studio work. Along with playing piano I would stay and do synthesizing over dubs because I was always sort of on the cutting edge. I would be into the latest synthesizer which was always the most expensive. That was one of those things that I gravitated toward right away.
Bridgid: You have your own record label Night Owl Records.
Gregg: My record label is mostly for me to do my own CD’s. It works out so that I have my label which owns the masters which is the best thing that any young artist can do. I kind of learned the hard way. I had done three records for another label and they owned the masters and I learned that was not the best way to go. They control and say what can happen and if I find an opportunity for some of my music to be used in television for example, they have to negotiate the deal and they killed a couple of deals for me.
Gregg: As soon as I was more successful and could work it out, I purchased the masters back from them. Since then I’ve owned most of my CD’s. I was on PolyGram for a record before they went out of business. They gave me a nice big advance and that was a bigger deal that I couldn’t turn down. I’ve done a couple deals where I’ve been with larger labels and done a few. My last couple have been with my own label. I’ve also done a distribution deal Trippin in Rhythm which worked out very well for both of us. So when my new CD is done then I’ll let other labels hear it and see if someone wants to license it for me.
Bridgid: When can we expect your new CD?
Gregg: I’m hoping in the very early Spring of 2014. SJM: I’m curious about “Girl in the Red Dress.” Is that song about anyone in particular?
Gregg: That’s a title that actually came from the cover of the CD. We put out the word to a few artists that I was looking for a cover and this artist came back with this really cool looking cover that had the “Girl in the Red Dress.” So it just worked out that I had a cool song that was looking for a title. I put them together and it worked out great. It sounds like it and it matches the visual. So there you go!
Bridgid: I was looking at your album covers and I noticed that out of twelve albums that you have done only two have your actual photograph on them. “GK’” and “You’ll Know it’s Me.” The others are extremely artistic and there is a woman on the cover of “Key Witness.” Who is that?
Gregg: That was my second CD and that was one where the label hired an artist to do it. I had nothing to do with that cover. On the next one I went back to the guy who did my first CD, “Night Owl, ,” who is very famous and has one Grammy awards for his covers. He also did album covers for “Weather Report,” “Heavy Weather,” David Sanborn, and he also did a couple of albums covers for the “Yellow Jackets.” I put him together with the label and suggested he do the covers for my next albums. A number of my CD’s are done by the same artist. His name is Lou Beach. He’s very famous and a great guy.
Bridgid: What would you say is on your musical bucket list?
Gregg: It’s a funny thing because I’m play with Peter White all the time We’re doing his new song called “Here We Go,” that he also got David Sanborn to play on. We joke because he said, “I’d love to get David Sanborn to play on this record“. Because I’ve worked with lots of people that have called David asking him to play and it was either an exorbitant amount of money or he just wouldn’t do it I said to Peter, “I don’t think you’re going to get Sanborn on the record!”
Gregg: Sure enough a two years later he gets David Sanborn to play on his record and he now jokes because I was the one who said that it couldn’t be done. But certainly David Sanborn is a big influence on all of us guys. That would be very cool! I’ve got Jonathan Butler playing on one of my CD’s. That was a wish. I’ve been friends with Kirk Whalum for a long time and I’ve played on a number of his CD’s. It wasn’t until later that I asked him to do one of my tracks. He did a fantastic job. Other than that it’s hard to say. Every couple of years I think of somebody. But I’ve been very fortunate.
Bridgid: When you perform your eyes are closed and you have a nonstop smile on your face. I also noticed the other gentleman in your band seem to be in the “zone.” I look around and watch how the crowd responds to you. Do you see how the audience is responding?
Gregg: Yes, of course but I was in that zone for many years. I was so into it that I played almost an entire show with my eyes closed. When I was playing in Washington DC many years ago I remember the manager of my band coming up to me and saying, “Greg, open your eyes just once, look at the audience once!” I said “ I’m just so into it! I was so into it! I’m in the zone!”
As things evolve, the music evolves and the presentation evolves. I’m just so thankful I’ve gotten to that point now. The music is different and I’m able to relate to the audience in that way. It’s based on one simple realization that we’re so lucky to do what we do. I do all original music. I don’t do covers. To be able to do my music and have people come buy tickets is the ultimate accomplishment. It’s my dream.
Bridgid: You’re very unique in that most jazz musicians do covers. Is there any particular reason why you don’t?
Gregg: I’ve always put a bit priority on being a composer more than a player. I was always inspired by Herbie Hancock who is an amazing player but Herbie’s compositions are superlative. Guys like Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea and other jazz guys that I came up listening to, David Sanborn and Marcus Miller, those kinds of guys songs will last a lot longer than anybody’s impression of what they sound like as a player. I used to play a lot of fusion. It’s another part of the evolution but all through that it was always about writing a good song. That’s where the connection is made.
Gregg: I think it’s different for keyboard players because sax players can do a cover and people can relate to it right away. It’s a little harder to do a distinctive cover because you’re set on your spot. You’re not out there running around doing the “thing” that adds to the whole vibe. I have sort of a higher bar, I think, to be able to get across the music. I’ve always considered myself a composer first. That was always my goal. Thankfully I’ve got a lot of songs for other people, I’ve played on other people’s records and have some hit songs. I’m very happy with that combined with what I do on my records and the way things are.
Bridgid: Is the hat your signature look?
Gregg: I think so. It’s just one of those things that happened. I spent many years playing with Boney James. He locked into the hat thing midway through the touring career and he’s still got the hat. I think I’m kind of locked into it now too
Bridgid: Any plans to reunite and tour with the Rippingtons again?
Gregg: That’s a very good question! I did some work on a couple of their later arrangements. I did some tracks for Russ Freeman on their 20th anniversary CD. When that came out they asked me if I’d be interested in doing the reunion tour. It just didn’t work out with the scheduling because I was working on other projects. But it would have been nice to do. Maybe on the 30th anniversary. Who knows?
Bridgid: Let’s hope!
Interview by Bridgid Brousseau
Michael Paulo has toured with Al Jarreau and worked with a host of the greatest musical artists including Rick Braun, Peter White, Oleta Adams, Kenny Loggins, Patti Austin, Jeffrey Osborne, Jeff Lorber, David Benoit, Bobby Caldwell, Johnny Mathis and many more. The audience was captivated by Michael’s nonstop, energetic performance.
Bridgid: Your energy level is incredible! How do you keep that energy level goingconsistently for that length of time?
Michael: I enjoy myself! I genuinely have fun. When you’re having fun doing something, it’s easy. That’s what it comes down to. When I see the people dancing and smiling, I feed off of them. Sometimes it’s a little taxing physically running around, playing the sax and blowing the air and everything at the same time but when you do it for awhile you’re conditioned.
Bridgid: You‘ve been performing for years. Do you ever get nervous now before you step onto the stage? Michael: You always have that anxiety getting up on stage and people are waiting. It never goes away
Bridgid: I know you were first spotted by Al Jarreau playing in a club. That was a huge door that opened for you and you toured with him many for years.
Bridgid: Are there any plans to collaborate with Al Jarreau again in the future?
Michael: W ell, I tried. I also produce Jazz Festivals. I’ve been doing the Temecula Jazz Festival for the last nine years and I also started the Pacific Rim Jazz Festival. I tried really hard this year to get Al to come and sing for me. I had a great idea! I was going to do a nostalgia reunion. Unfortunately, his schedule didn’t allow it. But I really want to get that to happen.
Michael: Those years that I had with Al were probably the highlight of my career because he’s a legend but also because he was at the peak of his career and we traveled all over the world. I got to play with and meet a lot of great musicians, David Sanborn, Joe Sample, all of these other great musicians. So for me that was my coming out. I had moved to LA to make it in the music business and I lucked out and got with AL.
Bridgid: Everyone seems to have someone open a door for them. You too are a philanthropist and humanitarian. You mentioned the Java Music Festival where you open the doors and help introduce upcoming artists. You’ve been applauded by the Mayor of LA and the Governor for your charitable contributions. Many people don’t have that compassion, they don’t integrate it into their lives.
Michael: It was my parents. My mom and dad were always givers. They always helped people. As a result of growing up in that environment and as I got older I tried to do the same. I’m not a rich person and I don’t make a lot of money but I use my talents to raise money and help other people. For me, music is a tool to enrich lives and make people happy. That’s my job but I can use those tools to also make life easier for others and raise money for good causes. That’s what I’m about. I manage to parlay all of my relationships with other great artists and musicians into my events. When I say that I’m trying to help a particular organization or charity they come and perform. That’s a great gift. It’s great to have that reciprocation from people that you have worked with. For the most part I try to involve a charity with everything that I do such as the Boys and Girls Club and The Youth Foundation.
Bridgid: How do you choose the artists that you tour with? You have your choice. How do you select who is going to play at your festivals?
Michael: Number one, after so many years in the business, it’s nice people. When you’re in this business there are a lot of people that are difficult and then there are a lot of great people. So during an event stress is the last thing you want to deal with. As a result you think of all the people that are nice so that they can get on the same page with you. That’s a big factor. I like people who are entertainers. There are a lot of great players out there and I appreciate their music. But can you also engage the audience? That’s important to me too.
Bridgid: You have a record label. Are those the factors you look for in your talent?
Michael: I don’t have the record label anymore. When I had the record label I was more focused on the artistic side. Are they personable? Not only do I look for talent but you have to be able to work well with people. That’s what I look for.
Bridgid: You grew up in a musical family. Did you naturally gravitate to the saxophone? Was it nature or nurture?
Michael: No, it was by accident. My dad’s a musician and my mom a singer. They traveled around together and performed in cabarets. All of my brothers and sisters took piano lessons and got into music and I was the black sheep of the family. I just hung around and didn’t play anything. But when I was fifteen I went to high school and I wanted to get out of gym class. My first semester I had to take physical education. So I was told that I should take band because everybody gets an “A” in band class! And that’s how I started.
Michael: I started with the Oboe which is a really hard instrument and after awhile I told my band teacher that I didn’t want to play the oboe anymore. I wanted to play something else. I went to a Catholic school and they didn’t have a lot of money for instruments so he said if you can borrow an instrument from somebody in your family you can play. So, my uncle had this saxophone. I called him and asked if I could borrow his sax. He said yes. Little did I know that it was a Selmer Mark VI which is a very expensive saxophone. He was gracious enough to lend it to me as a kid. I started playing and I fell in love with it. I ended up practicing every single day.
Bridgid: Were you self taught or did you take lessons?
Michael: I was self taught. I had a great Jazz instructor in school. One of the first things he did to get me into Jazz was playing notes on the piano and he would tell me to play along. I didn’t even know any notes and he said “just play.” I was excited and a figured out which notes sounded good and that’s how I started playing Jazz. Michael: That whole summer that’s all I did. I would lock myself in the bathroom and just play all day. I drove my siblings crazy. And because of that, during my sophomore year in high school when I went to band class I became first chair. So practice does make perfect and it pays off.
Bridgid: Do you play with your siblings?
Michael: We had a show together years ago. My brother plays drums and my other siblings sing and dance. But for the most part I’ve been mostly on my own. I was nineteen when I moved to California and started playing with different bands and traveled around. So I was mostly self taught and from learned from experience.
Bridgid: I read a quote from you that resonated with me. You said “music will always evolve, and it’s up to the artist to respond gracefully to the changes. We don’t know what the music will sound like years from now but no matter what it will be based on what the people in the audience feel.” When you’re on that stage what are you hoping the audience feels to take on to your next recording if you’re using the audience as your basis or gage? Because the audience is responding to you. In a way it’s kind of a “catch 22.”
Michael: I’ve found even from today’s performance that if you can make people dance, they’re having a good time and that’s what you want to accomplish. But I also did a ballad. If you can portray your emotions then that’s how I want them to feel. Music is changing because of technology. It’s evolving like I said. From acoustic jazz to fusion jazz, instruments develop and computers and drums are sampled. It all becomes a part of what we play. But in the end, it’s the songs, the melodies and the rhythms that you portray. The sounds will come from different mediums like drum machines and that sort of stuff. At the end of the day you have to write and play melodies that people respond to. That’s what I focus on.
Bridigd: How do you feel about the future of CD’s? Do you think that digital music will ever completely replace those formats?
Michael: It’s already happening. It’s already been mandated on the business side. This year they’re already going to stop manufacturing CD’s. Now it’s all about digital downloading, transferring etc. As musicians we constantly swap files now. If we want to get music to other musicians we just send it over the internet and we actually do recording sessions over the internet now. People will send me music, I’ll record and send it back. So that delivery system changes how people receive the music. As we went from Vinyl to cassette to CD’s. It’s old technology. So now it’s easy for people to go to Itunes and with the flick of a button it comes right to them. I do it all the time even with people that I know. If I’m trying to learn a song for a show or something it’s easy for them to send it to me but I’ll go on the internet and purchase it. That’s how we support each other.
Bridgid: I want to ask you about your musical process. A lot of Jazz artists to covers. You did a couple of remakes. You did “Feel Like Making Love” and also “That’s the Way of the World”. Actually there is a rap on that one. Where did that rap come from?
Michael: I did two versions of “That’s the Way of the World.” I made that record in 1996 and in the 90’s rap was coming into it’s own. Again music evolved and that’s what people were relating to as far as rap music. I’m not a snob where some people would say that they’re not even going to deal with that kind of music. I worked with a lot of house music and rap guys and that was an effort to meet your artists. For me that’s fun. At one point I was even doing the rap myself.
Bridgid: Is the process for interpreting a non jazz piece into a jazz piece a difficult process? Does it come easy for you? Michael: The main part of Jazz is improvisation. If it’s from rock music, if it’s from folk, R&B or classical, it can all become Jazz. Its how you develop the melodies and how you improvise. I was talking to someone the other day and they said all the pop guys come out and they do concerts. After a while when you go see their show, that’s it. They do the same arrangement. It’s a choreographed if you see it once. If you go again you see the same show.
Michael: With what we do, even though we’re playing the same songs they’re never the same. We start off with a certain groove but when we start improvising and feeding off of each other it becomes different every single time. So that’s what keeps it fresh. And I’ll never play a song the same way ever. The next time I play “Heart and Soul” or something, it’s never going to be the same. I play what comes to me at the moment. That’s what I try to do.
Bridgid: What would be on Michael Paulo’s musical bucket list?
Michael: This may be surprising but I’ve always admired Sting. I’ve admired his music and his songs. So playing with him is something that I would love to do
Bridgid: Any particular song that you would like to do with Sting?
Michael: I just loved all of his music and his style. It seems so free and with the harmonics. It’s kind of where I come from.
Bridgid: There’s one other quote that resonated with me from David Sanborn. He said, “I think the worst mistake a young musician can make is achieving the goal of sounding like their hero.” You must be the hero of so many. What advice would you give to a young player.
Michael: David Sanborn was my hero. When I was a budding sax player I took some lessons from a guy in Hawaii and my first lesson was listening to a record of David Sanborn. He didn’t say anything. He just put it on and said “listen to this guy.” He was always a big influence. And again, many contemporary sax players ran into that problem of trying to sound like David and be as good as he. You want to emulate your idols, you want to learn their style and you want to pick and choose things that they do. But in the end you have to make your own sound. If you fall into the trap of trying to sound like somebody all the time you’ll never grow. That’s one of the great things about the saxophone. It’s such an expressive instrument. Every Sax player has a different sound.
Bridgid: Thank you so much Michael I look forward to speaking with you again.
Michael: Oh, sure! Just like I never play the same song the same way, I never answer the same question the same way.
Bridgid: Well, I looking very forward to asking you the same questions again soon!
Woodshed Jazz Magazine
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