Whether you are an R&B or jazz fan, his music is familiar to everyone. Multi-talented multi-instrumentalist Najee marks 30 years since Najee’s Theme debuted him as a solo artist and he celebrated with a multi-city tour that started at the Soiled Dove Underground on March 12. Although he doesn’t get to Denver often, after a brief hiatus, he says it’s a great place to warm up for his tour. “It’s good to get some of the cobwebs out in a venue like this,” Najee said.
On March 19, he shared the stage with Aretha Franklin, Kool and the Gang, and Usher in Miami with guest performers Regina Belle and Alex Bugnon. The tour is reflective of where he has been and where he is musically. Although he is credited with growing the smooth jazz genre, he says that 30 years ago when he fused jazz and R&B on this first solo project Najee’s Theme, that wasn’t his primary intent.
Before Najee, there was George Benson, Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn in the smooth jazz vein, so he doesn’t take credit for creating the genre. “When my time came in the mid to late 80’s, there was a void. There was an audience for people who wanted instrumental music,” said Najee. “The industry had gone into a serious decline, and as an artist I naturally gravitated to jazz and R&B, growing up in New York City.”
His music education and career has run the gamut of genres. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, as a teenager Najee participated in Dr. Billy Taylor’s New York Jazzmobile project, where he was deeply schooled in the fundamentals of jazz by Frank Wess, Jimmy Heath, and Frank Foster. But Najee and his brother Fareed grew up in the same neighborhood of Jamaica, Queens, as Marcus Miller and Omar Hakim, the drummer with Sting and Weather Report. Musical tastes were as diverse as the neighborhood, and as a kid Najee played R&B.
“So when I did my first album in 1986, it was a conscious decision to create an R&B album with a saxophone. The world called it jazz. I didn’t feel that way about it because I am a jazz musician, and I know what its like to play with changes, and play standards. I played in big bands and so I understand the music well. But I made a conscious decision that I was making a commercial record because of the time and it was hugely successful.”
His success can be attributed to his musical nature. At the age of 18, he and his brother toured with the USO, and his career went to another level when he joined Chaka Khan’s band in 1983. “I have been very fortunate to play with top R&B artists as well as top jazz artists.”
Najee is one of the most sought out working musicians. The list includes Stanley Clarke, Billy Cobham and Larry Carlton recording live at the Greek Theater in California. “That band was really one that did everything. There are recordings of things that were not released – you know really stretching out – going “Deeply in the Trane.” So for me I have to do collaborations.”
Najee also recorded and toured with Prince for three years, and appears on Prince’s albums Rainbow Children and One Night Alone. He considers Prince one of the greatest musicians and artists of our time, and one admired by numerous contemporaries. “George Benson gave him a guitar that he loved and played onstage every night,” said Najee. “When I got with him, we were in Paisley Park at 2 a.m. and he was just playing and going and ripping up things and there was no audience, and he was just doing his thing trying to find new stuff. And it was incredible. I was highly impressed.”
These collaborations have been the signature of Najee’s career and he is keenly aware and conscious of that core audience that has purchased his records and brought him success. He says he fits well into the jazz genre, but his core audience that sticks with him is R&B, and that is why he is invited to numerous types of music festivals. Collaborations that are most dear to him were with the late George Duke. “I miss George. We toured all over the world together, and he was one of the greatest people that I enjoyed collaborating with. You always felt free with him. He came to wherever you were musically, and I loved that about him.”
Musically Najee covered the entire spectrum at his tour launch performance at the Soiled Dove Underground. He inter-mixed his standards with songs from his new project TBD. Songs included a slow jam tribute to Earth Wind and Fire as well as ‘Sweet Love,’ made famous by Anita Baker. The dynamic stage presence of RiShon Odell Northington and Chuck Johnson with lightning fast bass lines and lead guitar licks were reminiscent of the best funk bands. Najee’s instrument of choice for the evening was his trademark soprano sax, as he blazed through familiar and new melodies like Day-by-Day and No Way I Can Live Without You. Ever mindful of his fans, he commented that he would get emails, if he didn’t play particular songs.
But Najee was equally at home with the flute on which he makes intricate runs like a saxophone. He told the story of having his horns stolen on Christmas Eve, after a rehearsal when he was 15, which necessitated him to becoming a flute player. And, we are all grateful. Heads were bobbing, and fingers were snapping throughout the evening as Najee and the band performed their set. The rhythms of Daniel Powell on drums and Rod Bonner on keys, who Najee has known since 14, excited the audience, as they didn’t miss a beat.
Everyone was up to the task, and after 30 years, Najee continues to choose effective collaborators. Chuck Johnson, on guitar and vocals, entertained as he did his best rendition of a classic R&B artist complete with falling down to his knees on the tune All I Ever Ask, which Najee had recorded on a video with Freddie Jackson. Thirty years after Najee’s Theme, Najee continues to excite and mesmerize audiences as he performed a solo non-stop for nearly two minutes on Noah’s Ark, as bassist Odell Northington wiped his brow with a handkerchief.
Of lessons learned from 30 years as a solo artist, Najee says, “Not taking this stuff too serious that’s the number one thing. That is probably what it has taught me the most. And every time we were at the top of something we were at the bottom of another thing. It’s been a continual evolvement. I really have no complaints with how my career has gone. I have been able to survive the shifts in the business.”
Thirty years in the music business is a milestone, and Najee will continue to make new fresh music for his fans. “That’s an inner need for me, an internal need if you will. There was a saying that I heard a few weeks back – musicians don’t retire; they just don’t hear any more music. Well I am still hearing things I don’t plan to retire anytime soon.”
We’re happy Najee launched his 30th anniversary tour in Denver and treated us to an exceptional evening of music. The tour goes throughout November. Make a special getaway to see him.
Editor’s note: For more information and the Najee 30th Anniversary Tour schedule, visit www.najeeofficial.com.