Jazz luminaries help Romanian refugee realize
“The American Dream”
Damian Draghici’s mission to introduce pan flute to bebop features Chris Botti, Arturo Sandoval, Michel Camilo, Eddie Daniels, Luciana Souza, Stanley Clarke, Brian Bromberg, Frank Gambale & others
WOODLAND HILLS (16 June 2016): A year before he escaped communism in his native Romania by walking through the mountains of Yugoslavia and into Greece, the seed of Damian Draghici’s dream was planted when he was just a 17-year-old teenager who snuck into a Bucharest nightclub to watch a set by an American jazz combo. Nearly 30 years later, his vision will finally come to fruition on July 8 when Century Jazz Records issues “The American Dream,” a 13-song disc of standards produced by Dan Siegel and Tom McCauley that showcases the pan flutist collaborating with nearly two dozen jazz, Brazilian and Latin music greats, Grammy winners, icons and top-shelf musicians. Preceding the album at jazz radio is the sultry bossa nova “Ceora,” an exquisite duet with trumpeter Chris Botti.
As trumpeter Randy Brecker soloed in the crowed club that 1987 evening, what sparked Draghici’s imagination was recording a jazz album that would feature the tones, textures and the unique voice produced on the hollow-tubed bamboo instrument, the pan flute. “The American Dream” also pays homage to the jazz giants that influenced Draghici’s artistic expression.
“’The American Dream’ has been a dream of mine for a while now,” Draghici recalls. “Here’s how the story started almost 30 years ago. When I was 17 years-old during the communist times in Bucharest, Romania, I saw and heard for the first time real American jazz musicians playing live. That was the moment I fell in love with jazz and I knew that I had to go to America to learn jazz – to play and improvise bebop on my instrument – to become the Bebop Pan-piper.”
Twenty years ago, Draghici first arrived in America to attend the famed Berklee College of Music in Boston on a full scholarship, which is where he linked up and began working with a bevy of premier jazz musicians, including drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dave Weckl, who keep time on “The American Dream.” The respect Draghici garners from his musician peers helped him attract an impressive list of guest soloists who perform on the collection, including Botti, trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, clarinetist Eddie Daniels, Grammy-winning pianist Michel Camilo, Grammy-winning vocalist Luciana Souza and Grammy-winning guitar virtuoso Frank Gambale along with a stellar ensemble of internationally-renown players such as Siegel, Stanley Clarke, Brian Bromberg, Russell Ferrante (Yellowjackets), Tom Kennedy, Alan Broadbent, Charlie Bisharat, Alex Acuna, Luis Conte, Paulinho Da Costa, Oscar Castro Neves, Mitchel Forman, Otmaro Ruiz, Ramon Stagnaro and Jorge Calandrelli. With so much talent gathered around Draghici’s improvisational pan flute forays and flourishes, the musicianship throughout the session is masterful while Siegel and McCauley’s acoustic jazz production is warm and organic.
The set list Draghici & Company chose to reimagine consists of selections from Charlie Parker (album opener “Donna Lee”), Lee Morgan (“Ceora”), John Coltrane (“Giant Steps”), Chick Corea (“Spain”), Antonio Carlos Jobim (“Modhina” and “One Note Samba”); Michel Legrand, Marilyn & Alan Bergman and Jacques Denny (“You Must Believe In Spring”); Keith Jarrett (“My Song”), Pat Metheny (“See The World”), Bill Evans (“Waltz For Debbie”) Castro Neves (“More Than Yesterday”) and Cesar Camargo Mariano (“Curumin”) as well as Camilo’s “From Within.” Inventive arrangements chisel space in the elaborately-constructed cuts for the pan flute harmonics, genteel vocalizations and stirring melodies knitted from piano, guitar, horns and strings to effortlessly waft beauty and splendor on quieter numbers. More aggressive tracks are granted the expanse to expound dexterously on playgrounds of layered percussion and sinewy basslines.
Recognized as an award-winning prodigy when he was a teenager in Romania before seeking refuge in Greece, Draghici landed a record deal after busking on the streets of Athens, garnering acclaim in Europe. He’s toured with an array of signature artists that spans James Brown, Joe Cocker, Cyndi Lauper, Shaggy and Gypsy Kings. In 2006, he formed Damian & Brothers with “his gypsy brothers,” adopting the purpose of changing the perception of gypsy music globally. They toured extensively throughout Europe performing over 600 concerts in three years. Draghici now splits his time living in the valley near Los Angeles and abroad. For more information, please visit www.DamianDraghici.com.
Draghici’s “The American Dream” contains the following songs:
“Donna Lee” with Arturo Sandoval
“Ceora” with Chris Botti
“Giant Steps” with Eddie Daniels
“From Within” with Michel Camilo
“Modhina” with Luciana Souza
“You Must Believe In Spring”
“More Than Yesterday”
“See The World”
“Curumin” with Frank Gambale
“Waltz For Debbie”
“One Note Samba”
1. You’ve been referred to as a legend since you were in you mid-20s. When you hear the title “legend,” who comes to mind?
“Legend” is a funny term to me. I don’t pay it any mind. Famous, happy, great, ego, confidence are all feelings. “Legendary” doesn’t really seem to have feelings wrapped around it.
I have heroes like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. These are people I listened to when I was young.
2. You are undoubtedly one of the most accomplished bassists, prolific in jazz-fusion and jazz, and an inspiration for other musicians to emulate. As a young prodigy, who were your major musical influences?
My mother was a semi-professional opera singer and played a lot of classical music. My father really liked gospel. I was very fortunate in that music was always in my home growing up. My parents introduced me to all different styles of music and I have continued to listen to all types of music, new and old. I was not a person to get heavily into a particular genre.
When I started listening to the radio as a teenager, I loved Jimi Hendrix and the R&B music coming out of Motown. Someone gave me a John Coltrane album in my teens that I fell in love with. That motivated me to listen to artists like Miles Davis, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. All are incredibly creative and innovative in their own way.
I began studying music around 12 or 13 years old. I first learned on the acoustic bass. I was blessed that the foundation of my career was a great musical education. My initial music education was very traditional and somewhat strict, but it gave me a strong base that I could build upon.
3. How was the transition fresh out of school from the Philadelphia Academy of Music to New York and into the company of musical bandleaders such as Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon?
I was very lucky in that when I came to New York to launch my career, I immediately landed jobs with famous bandleaders such as Horace Silver, Art Blakey, Dexter Gordon, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Saunders, Gil Evans and Stan Getz among others. They were great role models, each in different ways. It was the best on-the-job training. One of the wonderful things about Jazz is the nurturing that takes place of young musicians by the masters. I now try and do this myself.
In Charlotte I’m going to be bringing along Beka Gochiashvili on acoustic piano, Mike Mitchell on drums, and Cameron Graves on keyboards. We’ve been playing together for the last few years. Beka is now about 19-years-old and Mike 20-years-old. They are already award-winning, extraordinary musicians. They are about the same age I was when I first started playing with some of the masters. Cameron has been around a bit longer and is a very talented musician.
4. Shortly thereafter, as a masterful jazz-fusion bassist, you had gold albums and were selling out shows as the headliner. Were you prepared for the success you were achieving by the age of 25?
My ultimate goal has always been to bring the bass out from the rhythm section to the front of the stage. I worked very hard to give the bass a distinctive voice and I could see the progress with each success. Playing in huge arenas was pretty heavy stuff and certainly different from my earlier jazz combo experiences, but, wow, what a great adventure. Specifically to answer your question, I don’t think anyone can really prepare for that kind of success and fame on a major scale.
Things were pretty different for a young musician 40 or 50 years ago. Probably the biggest thing is that we didn’t have the media scrutinization created by the Internet. I’m thankful I didn’t have to deal with that.
5. Throughout your illustrious career, Mr. Clarke, you’ve received countless accolades including 4 Grammy’s and are well established as a composer, producer, and film score composer, arranger, and conductor.
You had the honor of collaborating with some of the greatest artists in the world. The list–just to name a few–includes Jean Luc Ponty, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten, Lenny White, and Larry Carlton.
Another one of those artists is Chick Corea. Together, you formed the electric jazz/fusion band Return To Forever. The band won a Grammy for Forever and recorded eight other successful albums. Describe what made that collaboration such a huge success.
Chick and I started playing together around 1970 with Stan Getz. Later we formed many different groups of which Return To Forever was one. A major one. It was great being able to spearhead a movement together. That movement was jazz-rock, jazz-fusion or just fusion…whatever one wants to call it.
One thing special about my relationship with Chick was that he was very encouraging about me writing my own compositions. I had never been challenged in that area before. Composing has become essential to my career.
On the whole, Return to Forever was like a traveling university. At the time the record companies didn’t know what the hell we were doing, but people were coming out to see the shows and we were selling records. Basically, we were as loud as rock bands, but we brought technique to it. It was a great time. We were experimenting with new concepts of uniting those genres. Fusion of jazz and rock was somewhat of an “exposure gateway” of the time. Fans of rock were exposed to jazz and jazz fans were exposed to rock. It gave listeners an appetite for discovery. It still does.
I think it’s interesting that jazz-fusion or jazz-rock has been assimilated into so many genres of music now. I hear it in Gospel, Rock, Pop, Country and more.
6. You also had tremendous success working with the late George Duke. You were known as the Clarke/Duke Project in 1981. You two recorded three albums and toured together in 2006, 2012, and 2013, actually, up until Mr. Duke passed. What was the highlight of working with George over the years?
Probably the best connection I’ve had on stage and off is with George. I loved George as a brother and had the highest respect for him as a man and a musician. I feel forever fortunate to have had him as a friend for more than forty years. The most fun I had touring was with George because we had such a good time together. So often on a tour the comedy doesn’t live up to the music. In our case it did. George left a huge footprint in our industry. He was a light, bright star with a certain unique skill set.
I always admired George’s sophisticated musicality. Few have the ability to walk through so many different genres as he did…R&B, Jazz, Pop, Rock, and Classical. He knew all well and didn’t have any weaknesses. Incredibly, he understood how to weave these all together. I strive for that myself.
In homage to George, I dedicated my last album, UP to him and made a conscious decision to include his music in every show and project this year.
7. In 2014, you produced The Stanley Clarke Band: UP which received a NAACP Image Award nomination for Best Jazz Album in 2015, and the song Last Train To Sanity was nominated for a Grammy in 2015 for Best Jazz Arrangement Instrumental or A Cappella. How was UP different from other projects?
UP is the most energetic, fun, rhythmic and upbeat album that I have ever done. My goal was to make a record with my personal friends. The entire album concept was experimentation. I wanted the creative process to be as effortless as possible.
Everyone came prepared and ready to play. All are fantastic musicians and there was an ease and naturalness to our sessions, especially considering the various genres everyone came from. The talent ranged from the great Michael Jackson session rhythm section of John Robinson, Paul Jackson, Jr. and Greg Phillinganes to my friends from rock like Stewart Copeland and Joe Walsh to my newer friends from the more classical Harlem String Quartet as well as so many more. They came to the studio to give everything they had and it was a creative process that I am grateful to have experienced.
8. Your own record label Roxboro Entertainment was formed in 2010. Aside from your own projects, it’s also home to other musicians as well as projects geared towards education in music. Has this been a goal of yours since the beginning of your career?
Not really. The music “business” is a whole different industry from when I started out. Then, major record companies ruled. Now we’re all trying to find our place. Access to new technology and the Internet has changed almost everything.
I launched Roxboro Entertainment Group in 2010. My business model includes music publishing for my own and other musicians’ work, as well as the development of various projects aimed at music education.
I chose a selection of artists whose work I personally liked, but had not had a lot of recording exposure. So far the roster includes guitarist Lloyd Gregory, multi-instrumentalist Kennard Ramsey, keyboardist Sunnie Paxson, Ukrainian-born pianist, arranger and keyboardist Ruslan Sirota, jazz piano prodigy Beka Gochiashvili from Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia and most recently singer Natasha Agrama’s CD, The Heart of Infinite Change. Natasha is my daughter and I’m very proud of her work and accomplishments.
9. In addition to your success over the years as an accomplished artist creating music that will live forever and establishing a respectful legacy, you and your wife Sofia established The Stanley Clarke Foundation over a decade ago. What is the foundation’s main mission?
It’s very simple really. In 2002 my wife, Sophia, and I created The Stanley Clarke Foundation. So far, we’ve been able to offer a generous amount of scholarships to the Musician’s Institute in Los Angeles. One day I’d love it to expand to other regions. There is certainly the need.
The foundation is something near and dear to our hearts. We strongly believe that those who have reached success in realizing their own artistic vision have a duty to help others in their struggle to emerge. I’ve always believed that “talent” and not one’s socioeconomic background should be the basis of an individual’s chance to go on to create artistically.
10. On November 6th, 2015, D-STRINGZ, an acoustic project, was released featuring yourself, violinist Jean Luc-Ponty, and guitarist Bireli Lagrene. How would you describe this album, and what sets it apart?
D-Stringz is entirely acoustic–drumless. I think the album will make listeners rethink how to listen to some of their favorites like: Blue Train and Mercy Mercy Mercy. I’ve been very pleased that reviewers have been very positive and seem to get the point.
We first played together as a trio at a concert last year marking Jean-Luc’s 50th year as a professional and agreed to record together. It was a treat and a true collaboration. Jean-Luc and I had toured on and off for years, but Biréli Lagrène, who is also French, is much less well known to the jazz establishment. Bireli, a guitar virtuoso very popular in Europe, comes from the classic French mold of Django Reinhardt-laced gypsy swing. But, he’s also good at dancing around the fringes of soul, blues, flamenco, jazz and whatever else can be played on guitar. I think people here will enjoy getting introduced to him.
11. Aside from touring, Mr. Clarke, what does 2016 look like for you?
2016 looks like it will be a wonderful busy year. I’m going to be touring in Europe starting mid-February. Over a break in Europe I’m planning to record my next Stanley Clarke Band CD in Brussels.
I have a movie I scored coming out April 15th. It’s the next in the popular Barbershop franchise, Barbershop: The Next Cut. This one is directed by my old friend Malcolm D. Lee. I’ve done several movies with him, the last being Best Man’s Holiday. Barbershop: The Next Cut stars Ice Cube, Anthony Anderson, Common, Nicki Minaj and others.
I’m also working on a documentary about my career and have some other projects up my sleeve.
I always have things going. I love to keep busy
12. Finally, if you could have a super power, what would it be, and why?
To be able to be physically in more places than one at the same moment….
The reason is that I would be able to get more things done.
Ruslan’s story is just as incredible as he is a pianist. Fleeing with his family from the Communist Soviet Union to Israel would prove to be the perfect catalyst for his future. He was such a great musician that he was granted a full scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, and it was there that he would learn many valuable lessons about music and life. He accredits his journey for allowing him to explore and be creative. With aspirations and perseverance, he navigated his way around the music scene. It wasn’t long before Ruslan found himself working with the legendary Stanley Clarke. And that was just the beginning. He’s won a Grammy as well as collaborated with George Duke, Marcus Miller, Seal, and Chick Corea. When Ruslan decided to do an album, it was only befitting that he do so on Stanley Clarke’s label, Roxboro Entertainment Group. His debut album, “Ruslan,” has 14 songs–some of which are collaborations. It serves as the culmination of Ruslan’s varying abilities while maintaining authenticity. I find it magical and mesmerizing.
Listen to his story in his own words.
Najee once again very poignantly delivers a collection of songs that we can all connect with on his latest album, “The Morning After.” It encompasses stories of love and journeys well traveled, and it debuted #1 Contemporary Jazz album on the Billboard charts. With a career that spans over several years, Najee continues to captivate audiences without fail. Over the years, he has collaborated with everyone from George Duke to Jeff Lorber to Phil Perry. Najee has the ability to create songs that everyone loves and that reach across multiple genres. As is displayed with the release of the single titled “In The Mood To Take It Slow,” featuring his long time friend Meli’sa Morgan, he does this by making music that is accessible and relevant. She was the perfect person for this sensual slow groove. Smooth Jazz radio stations as well as R & B stations have been giving the single a lot of airplay, and fans are starting to request it more. Najee will be on tour throughout the upcoming year, promoting “The Morning After” and continuing to share his new music.
Najee and I discuss it all via Skype.