Daily Press Review – The Americana Groove Project

Jazz Man Jae Sinnett sings, and ‘grooves,’ on new CD

By Mike Holtzclaw, Daily Press

September 8, 2018, 4:00 PM

On his new CD, Jae Sinnett sings.  He exhorts and whoops.  He even raps.

This is new territory for Sinnett, who over 14 previous albums has made a name for himself as a jazz composer, bandleader and drummer.  On The Americana Groove Project, he finds himself a singer at age 62.

So how does he feel when he hears himself on those new tracks?  He lets out a nervous chuckle.

“It’s like I’m in a parallel universe, man,” he said.  “I can’t believe it’s me singing.  I haven’t sung in any serious capacity in 35 years.  I never sang lead in any capacity.  I was in the church choir growing up.  I sang background harmonies in disco bands in the 70’s.  But honestly, I don’t sing at all outside of my shower.”

He wasn’t planning to sing on Americana Groove either.  This collection of songs was already going to be a departure, especially after his 2016 release Zero to 60, which took him back to the pure sounds of a traditional jazz quartet with drums, bass, keyboard and sax.  His inspiration for The Americana Groove Project was the emotional highs he drew from listening to soulful vocalists such as Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin.

He knew he wanted to experiment with catchy funk grooves played over unexpected tempos.  He wanted lyrics and vocals, but the local singers he lined up kept backing out.

“I’m singing by default,” he said.  “It came down to me getting tired of asking people to do it.  In a pensive mood one night, I looked in the mirror and said, ‘OK, I’ll try it.'”

His first call was to Sondra Gelb, whom he has known for decades since they were both instructors at the Governor’s School for the Arts.  Gelb, who lives in Virginia Beach, is a contralto who sang for several years with the New York Opera.

She quickly determined that his voice had a nice, warm pitch and that his years of drumming and composing had provided him with an innate sense of how to approach a song.  Other than helping him with some vocal warm-up techniques, Gelb said her biggest role was building up his confidence to deliver the vocals he already had in him.

“I told him, ‘You don’t need to hire somebody to sing this,'” Gelb said.  “Thank goodness three singers bailed on him, because I’m blown away by what he did.  I knew he could do it, but I didn’t know how calm he was going to be.  Jae’s kind of chill about everything, but it just looked like he’d been doing it his whole life.

“He has a natural sound.  You can’t teach somebody instincts.  All you can do is help them with what they’ve got.  He took it and flew.”

Indeed, the first instrument heard on the opening track, Bump in the Road, is Sinnett’s voice, intoning to his band: “Yo, let’s play this joint.”  What follows is a funk groove played over a 9/8 drum tempo, and Sinnett rapping about facing up to life’s challenges.  It may be the most unexpected track of his 24-year recording career.

The other eight tracks on the CD are equally eclectic.  Diddley Strut is a Bo Diddley lick played hard by Jay Rakes, a Kecoughtan High School graduate whose guitar work takes center stage on many of the songs.

The album ends as improbably as it began – with Sinnett channeling Al Green and the Rev. James Cleveland on Higher Calling, a sweet gospel song tapping into Sinnett’s spiritual desire to become a better person than he was the day before.

“That song, Higher Calling, was a true vocalist’s song, in my opinion,” Sinnett said.  “That really, really requires singing – just getting down to the essence of the true song.  That presented the biggest fear to me.”

The songs from The Americana Groove Project already are being played on WHRV-FM 89.5, and the disc will be released nationally this week.

Sinnett understands that people will be surprised to hear him singing, but he hopes that does not take the focus away from the music he composed and the band that played it.  In addition to Rakes on guitar, Sinnett is playing here with longtime bassist Terry Burrell and with Weldon Hill on the Hammond organ.  Pianist Justin Kauflin, a former Sinnett protege who just released his second album with legendary producer Quincy Jones, sits in on a couple of tracks.

His goal in assembling this band, very different from the Zero to 60 quartet, was less about technical virtuosity and more about emotional intensity.  Less about how the music sounds and more about how it feels.  That goes for his own playing as well – behind the drum kit, Sinnett found himself tapping into Clyde Stubblefield’s work with James Brown, and Mitch Mitchell’s jazz-inspired rhythms on Jimi Hendrix’s Are You Experienced?, Ginger Baker with Cream, and Al Jackson on the great Stax records.  Funky blues out of New Orleans.

“That’s the foundation of when I learned to listen to music – how to listen,” Sinnett said.  “Rhythms that get in your head and don’t leave.  What I decided to do was use some of those ideas as the rhythmic foundation, but restructure them to my thinking.  I wanted to build songs on top of those rhythms, and put a modern touch on some of them, like with the rap, for example.

“None of that was played in 9/8 time, but the grooves all have some historical connection to what I experienced as a child.”

Two years ago, Zero to 60 hit No. 1 on Jazzweek’s national airplay charts.  Sinnett is not sure what to expect of The Americana Groove Project, but he is satisfied that he and the band brought his vision to life.

Now, he faces another quandary: When it comes time to play these songs live, will Sinnett sing or play the drums?  Whichever role he chooses, he will have to hire someone for the other.

“Let’s see what people react to, the vocals or the instruments,” he said.  “So far, 99 percent of the people listening reacted to the vocals.  That’s terrifying to me, but also a good thing.  It puts me in a position of seriously having to come out front and sing.”

It’s something he never could have imagined a year ago.

He couldn’t imagine it now if he didn’t believe in the songs.

“A lot of what I’m missing in music today is what I’m talking about here,” he said.  “The soul is gone in a lot of music that’s coming out these days.  There’s a reason the boomers keep coming back to that music.  There was so much humanness in the music back then.  It was about the interactiveness of the musician.

“That’s another part of what I wanted to revisit – that group concept.  And this goes back to that first question: I hadn’t even thought about singing when I was composing these songs.  It’s all about the drums with me, man.  I knew I wanted vocals, but I wanted vocals integrated into the band.  I’m in a weird position now.  It’s out of the box.  Now what are you going to do?”

Play Cover Track Title
Track Authors