By Monifa Brown
My life has been a series of pivotal events and circumstances that have gotten me to where I am,” reflects the fearless chart-topping Contemporary Jazz pioneer Najee. In a business where trends and artists come and go, the genre-bending saxophonist’s staying power is a rare blessing. The Grammy and NAACP award-winning musician’s genuine love for connecting with people, coupled with his consummate musicianship and sheer passion for music, have made him one of the brightest stars in Contemporary Jazz for close to four decades. “I heard this beautiful saying once,” explains the Zen saxophonist who has collaborated with Prince, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan and Herbie Hancock, among others. “It said that some people meet their destiny while traveling on a road trying to avoid it. I recall as a young man contemplating the idea of changing directions and going into banking. Here I am still doing what I am doing because it’s what I am meant to do! Every day I wake up and I am grateful for my life and career.”
Najee’s gratitude permeates every note on Savoir Faire, his newest recording out on Shanachie Entertainment May 13, 2022. Recorded during the pandemic, Savoir Faire, a Pan American excursion, found Najee enlisting friends from New York, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Connecticut, Florida, Sao Paulo and Rio, to honor a melting pot of influences. “I gave up worrying about disputes between genres a long time ago,” states Najee. “Duke Ellington said there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. So based on that I do not worry. People seem to forget that in the early days of jazz, the music was designed to make people dance. All of your experiences live inside you and they come out in your music. I just want to make good music and make it accessible for people to enjoy.” Fait Accompli on Savoir Faire!
Armed with a surplus of technical agility and firepower, Najee commandeers a magnificent 10-track journey that is a testament to his keen ability to assemble the right musicians in order to orchestrate unforgettable musical moments. Joining Najee on his 19th recording as a leader are Alyson Williams, Frank McComb, Chris “Big Dog” Davis, Barry Eastmond, Adam Hawley and Robert Herbert, among others. Savoir Faire opens with the album’s first single, the funk-drenched and mystical “Dr. Dolittle,” penned by pianist Frank Wilkins. Najee’s spunky soprano juxtaposed with Rohan Reid’s slaphappy bass and guitar and the gritty swinging horn section ceremoniously opens the album. “Luna” is the perfect showcase for Najee’s sublime, flawless and dancing flute. The track’s smooth rock-steady groove makes it hard to sit still. Pianist Mark Harris II wrote “Luna” and appears on the song. A welcome gem on Savoir Faire is Michael Henderson’s timeless R&B hit “Valentine Love,” featuring Alyson Williams and Chris “Big Dog” Davis. “The first time I heard ‘Valentine Love,’ it was covered by Norman Connors and Michael Henderson, who is a great bassist and songwriter. I have always loved the story and the chord changes,” admits Najee who was convinced that Williams and Davis would both put their own stamp on his version. “I knew they could make it special,” states the two-time Platinum-selling and four-time Gold-selling multi-instrumentalist. “Alyson Williams is like a modern day Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. She’s a living legend, she’s brilliant and she is one of the most underutilized vocalists in the industry. I can’t say enough about Chris Davis who has this natural ability to take a song and re-harmonize and take it somewhere completely different.”
A highlight on Savoir Faire is the utterly delightful take on Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Happiness (A Felicidade)” produced by Robert Herbert featuring Bossa Nova Noites and Curtis King Jr. “I am truly a fan Brazilian music,” confides Najee. “I had the pleasure of having Robert Herbert produce and co-arrange this track with Brazilian musicians in Rio and Sao Paulo, who live the music everyday. We also brought in Curtis King who is a great long-time session musician and singer. For me, flute and Brazilian music have a natural organic chemistry that is undeniable.” Herbert also produced “Modern Lovers” (composed by Terri Lyne Carrington and Brenda Russell) featuring Frank McComb.
“My association with Frank began 2002 when we first met in Mexico where he was performing,” reminiscences Najee. “He is a great keyboardist and vocalist. Both Rob and I felt that Frank was the perfect person to merge the cultures of the US and Brazil. He brings a unique talent to any record that he performs on. In this case, Frank was truly brilliant in the way he approached the song.”
Najee’s warm, emotive and burly tenor takes center stage on the scintillating ballad “Isla Hermosa,” co-written with Barry Eastmond who also plays percussion on the track. “Barry’s a great Grammy-award winning producer who has worked with Anita Baker, Al Jarreau, Freddie Jackson, George Benson and so many others. Our friendship goes back probably close to 30 years,” says Najee. The gale force winds of “Hurricaine” summon the funk edge of Najee’s tenor and flute and a rockin’ horn section featuring Mike Parlett and Lee Thornburg. Najee enlists guitarist Adam Hawley for whom he holds a great deal of respect and adoration. Najee and company has got it all covered with “Bottom To The Top.” Najee’s flute calls to mind a “Memphis Underground” vibe as bassist David Dyson, who wrote the track, propels the groove to the outermost limits. The effervescent “Bounce” adds some unyielding fun and swagger to the unstoppable playlist and the sultry “Savoir Faire,” takes us to our final destination. “I made this album for the people,” Najee simply states. “I hope my fans will have a pleasurable experience and that they will hear what ‘Savoir Faire’ means, which is to live elegantly according to the best of the cultural norms or to know how to present something with elegance. That is my goal and I hope it came together well.”
When Najee was just a kid, he had the great fortune of meeting two iconic jazzmen: Sonny Rollins and Charles Mingus. The introductions, which left lasting impressions further led him down his musical path. “When I was about 14, I was playing on a school instrument and everyone in the house was covering their ears and saying ‘stop, stop!’ My mom noticed that it was my thing and my release and so she bought me my first saxophone,” recalls Najee. As I began to develop on my instrument, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Yusef Lateef and Hubert Laws became influences.” As Najee honed his skills he had the blessing of being mentored by iconic saxmen Jimmy Heath and Frank Foster and flutist Harold Jones. As an industrious and hungry young musician, Najee had the good fortune of coming through Dr. Billy Taylor’s now legendary Jazzmobile program. While a student at the New England Conservatory (where both Najee and his brother attended) he studied Jazz with luminaries George Russell and Jaki Byard. In the late 80s when Najee finished school and returned to New York, he landed a gig with Chaka Khan along with his brother, guitarist Fareed (who is his long-time manager).
In 1987 Najee’s Theme was released and the saxophonist earned a slot on tour with singer Freddie Jackson. The following year, Day By Day was released, and in 1991, Tokyo Blue, which is one of Najee’s most successful and enduring recordings. Tokyo Blue (which was produced by Najee’s brother Fareed) and Day By Day both went Gold and led to two Soul Train Awards for Najee (Best Jazz Artist in 1991 and 1993). Just An Illusion came in 1992 and around the same time he collaborated with the iconic Quincy Jones, as well as with jazz greats Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham and Larry Carlton for the album Live At The Greek. 1994 saw the release of Share My World and the following year, Najee received critical praise for his tribute to Stevie Wonder’s 1976 classic, Songs In The Key Of Life that was produced byGeorge Duke and featured Herbie Hancock and Sheila E. among others. Najee’s CD Morning Tenderness, released in 1998, went to #1 on the contemporary jazz charts. The late ‘90s were marked by extraordinary international experiences, from performing at Nelson Mandela’s birthday celebration in South Africa to playing as a special guest of President Clinton at the White House at an event honoring President Jerry Rawlings of the Republic of Ghana. Najee also spent two years of touring (2001-2003) with Prince and appears on Prince’s albums Rainbow Children and One Night Alone. In 2003 Najee released Embrace, featuring special guests Roy Ayers and BeBe Winans. My Point Of View was his follow up in 2005 featuring his good friend and vocalist Will Downing. 2007’s Rising Sun joined Najee with Phil Perry and Mind Over Matter from 2009 paired Najee with singer Eric Benét. The Smooth Side Of Soul (Najee’s Shanachie debut) followed in 2012, successfully covering such diverse terrain as Jimmy Heath and Ne-Yo and the follow-up, The Morning After, arrived in 2013 debuting at #1 on the Billboard charts and exploring the many sides of love. You, Me & Foreverwas released in 2015 and united Najee with James Lloyd and Frank McComb among others.
In 2017 Najee released Poetry In Motion, dedicated to the memory of Prince and Al Jarreau and featuring an all-star line up including Maysa, Will Downing, Eric Roberson and Incognito. Center Of the Heart followed in 2019 garnering an NAACP Image award. The album showcased the smash singles “Speak Love” and “Face To Face” featuring Kenny Lattimore. Until the start of the pandemic, Najee enjoyed the successful launch of his own saxophone company called Chase of Winds. His first line was the Najee Platinum Series. “Unfortunately due to Covid and the inability to transport things from Asia, where most musical instruments are manufactured, I had to disband the company. However, as a saxophonist, I learned more from manufacturing saxophones than I ever did as a player,” confides Najee. “It was a great experience for me and an expensive one!” Although the line is discontinued, Najee has made it a point to pay it forward and has been donating his saxophones to students in need and to numerous charitable organizations.
A family man at heart, Najee shares that his greatest joy has been “being able to see my children grow up and live productive lives and go out into the world and make their claim. That for me is what makes life fulfilling and gratifying.” He continues, “I have always had family that has supported me and a brother (Fareed) who was there with me. We have always facilitated keeping one another held up, moving along and meeting challenges together.” As for what keeps Najee cranking out the hits. He concludes with a chuckle, “There is a saying that as musicians we never retire, we just stop hearing. I believe that physically, mentally and spiritually a musician has to love what he does and that inspires him to want to continue to grow and associate themselves with things that inspire them and keep them moving.”