During a recent concert tour of Indonesia and South Africa, saxophonist Najee came to realize audiences abroad were as receptive to his sleek blend of jazz, pop and instrumental R&B as those back home.
“Veteran artists tend to do very well in those territories – you know, the ones that have been around for awhile.”
Veteran artists. Najee used the term as if he were talking about a class of players far removed from his own artistic turf. But given how his debut album, the Grammy nominated Najee’s Theme, came out over two decades ago and that his subsequent string of gold and platinum selling recordings roamed the charts back in the early ‘90s, you have to acknowledge that Najee is now a bit of a veteran himself.
“Absolutely,” he said. “And thank goodness for that.”
In town tonight for his first-ever Lexington concert, Najee has seen commercial trends, the industry and audience that sustains them, even the very tag used to describe his music (“smooth jazz”) shift. But his popular appeal has never wavered.
“Initially, there wasn’t even a market for the music I played,” said the saxophonist born Jerome Najee Rasheed by phone by from his current home outside of Orlando, Fla. “In fact, when Najee’s Theme came out, I didn’t even consider it jazz. It was really an R&B record with saxophone, a collection of demos. But it became a platinum album and a career was born.”
Versed on soprano, alto and tenor saxophones as well as flute, the New York-bred Najee came to appreciate R&B-savvy jazz through the ‘70s recordings of crossover sax men like Grover Washington, Jr. and David Sanborn. Washington’s music proved especially inspirational.
“I remember hearing Grover Washington in 1973 when I was in high school. My saxophone teacher brought in the album (Soul Box) that had Stevie Wonder’s You Are the Sunshine of My Life on it. He was playing alto saxophone and I said to myself, ‘Wow. If I could only play like that.’ ”
After an initial tour playing behind soul vocalist Ben E. King the summer after graduating high school, Najee received his big break: a seat in the touring band of R&B diva Chaka Khan. It was an introduction to the performance life of a working musician as well as an education in playing alongside an established hitmaker.
“Chaka was the first real superstar of that time that I had the opportunity to be around,” Najee said. “I got to observe how an actual tour functioned and about how a superstar actually lived on the road. I also met people who helped me start my career as a solo artist. For me, it was a life changing experience.”
After Najee’s Theme hit big in 1986, the saxophonist took his instrumental music to large audiences as opening act to then-top selling R&B acts like Freddie Jackson. A fanbase of his own soon developed. The music industry took note that Najee was becoming an even bigger hit with what was being termed “urban contemporary” audiences than with mainstream jazz crowds.
“At that time, Freddie Jackson was playing arenas and big venues. So I went from being an unknown instrumentalist to a sort of a celebrity. Then publications like Billboard started a contemporary jazz chart. Najee’s Theme was No. 1 there for 13 weeks.”
As the years went on, Najee’s popularity bloomed. Though he responded with often adventurous recordings that included a 1995 instrumental interpretation of Wonder’s Songs from the Key of Life, Najee’s saxophone and flute tones were consistently bright and upbeat.
“I’ve always tried to find my own angle as an artist,” he said. “I’m really motivated by a lot of different types of music. Still, you always want to do something that reminds the audience of what you’ve done in the past but at the same time lets you evolve. I try to create music that is interesting to me first. Then I test it against people who may not be jazz lovers, or maybe even those who are, and see what works.”
Today, the mildly dubious smooth jazz label affixed to artists like Najee is very much a double edged sword. R&B audiences readily accept it as a variant of the instrumental groove sound they’ve supported for years. Jazz die-hards almost universally abhor it as commercially bound mutation of the music’s improvisational heritage.
Najee confidently considers himself a true jazz artist, and with good reason. In addition to his own R&B-inclined records, he has collaborated with a host of jazz pioneers. Among them is the late jazz organist Charles Earland. The saxophonist was a key contributor to a progressively minded recording session cut only two months before Earland’s death in 1999. It was released posthumously as If Only One Night.
Najee also had a chance meeting with a true jazz veteran, saxophonist James Moody, in a New York music instrument shop. That prompted Najee to cover the signature tune Moody’s Mood for Love on his most recent album, 2007′s Rising Sun.
“I’m a jazz artist,” Najee said. “I play jazz. And I’ve never made any apologies about my music. I always believe that the one thing that makes a successful music career is having something people want to hear, purchase and support. If people don’t come to see the artist in performance, if they don’t buy the records, we have a dead industry. As an artist, I understand the position of the pure jazz thinking. But I also think the market is suffering as a result of that thinking.
“The market has changed for everyone. As artists, we have to find new avenues to keep ourselves in the marketplace in a competitive way that is also fresh for the audience. People, I think, are looking for something new in this genre called smooth jazz. We have been given an opportunity to creatively find a way to reach that audience.”
Najee performs at 8 tonight at the Lexington Opera House. Tickets are $42.50-$50. Call (859) 255-2653.