Call Brian Auger the unsung hero of jazz-rock fusion (but expect a riposte from the man himself) or see him as a Zelig-like figure in contemporary rock and jazz. It hardly matters so long as you listen to him on his instrument of choice, the iconic Hammond B3 organ (or the Fender Rhodes electric piano a close second).
A musician not so much visionary as persevering with a capital “P” Auger has maintained a steadfast approach to his musical career since the mid-60’s in England, when he rubbed elbows with the likes of Jimi Hendrix in the process of making a name for himself in his homeland as well as much of Europe through his work with the Brian Auger Trinity featuring vocalist Julie Driscoll. During the course of his career Brian Auger has repeatedly encountered his friction with record companies, first as he preferred not to simply repeat the success of that pop-oriented ensemble, next when the keyboardist/composer/bandleader formed The Oblivion Express, wryly titled as such as a reflection of his steadfast loyalty to his muse rather than the fashion of the day. Ironically, the formation of that group took Brian straight into the jazz-rock fusion movement of the times in the early to mid-70’s: working prolifically (and stubbornly at first as his inspiration was contrary to his record label’s perceptions of his work), The Express found themselves on bills with the now legendary likes of John McLaughlin’s’ Mahavishnu Orchestra (years after the leader of that group offered a tune to Auger from a solo album) and Return to Forever.
As the heyday of that movement subsided, so did Brian Auger’s creative and personal resources. Accordingly, so he took some time to himself, including a protracted period during which time he played not a note of music. Returning to his vocation, the man relocated himself in California where he now lives, keeping a comfortably busy schedule in that area but also playing in a number of groups of his own there and around the world, in addition to impromptu projects with like-minded musicians. A true improvisationalist with his instruments of choice, Brian Auger relishes the spontaneity of life in general, no doubt the reason this conversation with Doug Collette flowed with such vigor from start to finish.
I was really knocked out when I got a copy of your new album Language of the Heart. It reminded me of the sensation I had when I first heard you and The Oblivion Express…
That must’ve been a long time ago (laughs)
It was!...I knew of you, working with Julie Driscoll and so many other people, then I got a copy of Happiness Heartaches: it hit me in such a way I got every album of yours I could find in the next ten days. I lived on your stuff for an entire summer.
Happiness Heartaches?...You must’ve been one of the few people who got that. That one didn’t go to well due to a kerfuffle in the promotion department at Warner Bros records. They missed the boat completely. However, that’s one of the albums that stands out from a long time ago for me: the great Lenny White (founding member/drummer of Return to Forever) came and played on that one with us.
Anyway, I am flattered that you went out and got all the rest of the stuff.
I have really tried to make albums that are different in scope each time out. Round about 1969, I think it was, there was a run of albums by Miles Davis: there was Milestones, which is incredible straight ahead album, followed by Kind of Blue, which kind of blew me away (laughs), then Sketches of Spain, Seven Steps to Heaven, Porgy & Bess—it just went on.
And the lesson I learned from that was: here’s a guy who’s totally fearless. He wasn’t going to be put into a rut. It was so incredibly creative that he had that kind of view. He would make something totally different to what he did before. That was the whole idea I had when I started the Oblivion Express. With the Trinity, I had this idea of mixing up my jazz past with all the rock people I had run into in the 60’s and played with. That’s where I realized somebody had to put a bridge in place between the two scenes: because a lot of jazz guys used to look down on rock and roll, which at the time was really burgeoning in England: there was some fantastic bands coming up—witness the British invasion!
We had a Number One single with our album. It went kind of viral in Europe as it went top five in most of the countries. What happened was Polydor wanted to keep us in that formula even when Julie (Driscoll, Trinity lead vocalist) kind of retired at the end of ’69. Yet I wanted to push on and develop that kind of music and then we went on to form The Oblivion Express. The reason I called it that was that I was obviously going to wade against the commercial tide and the wishes of my label at the time, so I headed in the quickest way to oblivion.
That’s such a great name. The words sound great together and the concept involved you doing what you saw in Miles Davis about being fearless and following your instincts.
Absolutely. I don’t know where this is going and maybe this is going to be the end of me as far as recording, but it didn’t work out that way. So the first Oblivion Express album was mainly written by me and one of my old buddies, John McLaughlin (Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, Tony Williams Lifetime, Shakti) wrote “Dragon’s Song”: I was invited to the mix of the Devotion album in New York and when I heard that tune I went “I must play that!” so that got added to the Oblivion Express album. I was going through an exhausted time not having had a break for maybe about ten years and I had to come up with two albums a year for five years for RCA based on my contract, so I did.
That’s pretty grueling...Talk about volunteered slavery!?
Something like that. I’m not arguing about it--I signed it (laughs). Anyway the second album was a collaboration between the two of us in the Oblivion Express, (guitarist) Jim Mullen and myself, which kind of just unfolded and turned out to be completely different and still one of my favorite albums actually; the great thing about it was, I was having a hard time at the time keeping the band on the road and everything, so one morning, when we were making that album, I was thinking “Well, maybe that’s too extreme a change between one and the other?” but then the postman brought me an album by Sarah Vaughan (legendary female jazz vocalist), my favorite jazz singer of all time, and she had recorded three of the tunes off that album.
Wow, you must’ve been blown away when you saw that! Talk about validation…
Talk about uplifting moments (laughs). We split the difference on Second Wind, which I thought was a really powerful album, sort of a real balls-out rock and roll album. We had the great Robbie McIntosh who did a fantastic job on that album, which was the last album he did with me before joining the initial lineup of the Average White Band. Alex Ligertwood, who was flitting around London, and who eventually went from my band to Santana (circa Amigos), he did a tremendous job on the vocals.
I loved hearing him sing with you. It was one more great musical element that achieved this terrific balance between rock and jazz because the sound of his voice was enough in itself, even if you didn’t listen to the lyrics he was singing.
Right I know it was just amazing. We just did a thing together again here in Los Angeles that went off just fantastic. Obviously we just looked at each other and said “We got to do this more often!”
That’s great to hear. You must be quite a bandleader to work for if people like Alex will come back to work with you. Because he came and went a couple of times during the course of the Express. But, after all these years, to want to connect and play with you--that must feel terrific and very gratifying for you?...
When you say ‘bandleader,’ I’ve never been aware of ‘leading’ anything. I think you lead by example.
I wanted to ask you about how you set a direction for a band once you’ve settled on personnel.
When I’ve decided on personnel, it’s based on their individual talents and I try not to get in the way of those. Basically, when we’re recording, say “Let’s run through this and don’t hold back. If you’re gonna make a mistake, do it! (laughs) We’ll do something about it, but I do not want anybody to hold back. If you play, I want you to play! We get some amazing stuff.
The Second Wind album is still one of my favorite albums but the amazing thing is, I lost Jim Mullen, I lost Robbie McIntosh that year, and I lost Alex: Alex had some problems with his wife because she was from Paris and badly missed her family so Alex had to bail out. Jim went to a band called Vinegar Joe, a blues band, and I thought “Well why?...” Jim always tells me “it’s the worst decision I ever made!?” (laughs)
Well, he got a lot of latitude working with you in terms of writing material as well as just playing guitar…
He’s a phenomenal guitar player, even more phenomenal these days, one of the best players in Europe.
So I sat there with my wife at the end of that year and she said “What are you going to do?” and I said “I have to do something, otherwise it’s going to be a very lean Christmas. So I’d decided I’d see what happened if I brought some people together and played with them and, lo and behold, the last drummer for the day was a guy called Godfrey McLean and he was from Guyana and he didn’t have a big technique or anything but his groove was undeniable. So we grabbed him.
(Bassist) Barry Dean brought this guitar player named Jack Mills and I realized Jack was an incredible rhythm player. What I was looking for was a really powerful funk rhythm section. Then we were playing in rehearsals and Godfrey said “Listen, there’s this guy from Trinidad who plays congas…” And I went “Eh… congas…Most people who played congas just went bmp/bmp/dat…I’m really not sure…” and he said “Oh no, you really ought to hear him. We played a lot together and we really suit each other’s playing. “ So I said “alright let’s bring him in!.” So Godfrey brought in Lennox Langton and Lennox really taught me a lot about rhythm because he studied rhythm the way I studied harmony: if there was anything that wasn’t kicking in a groove, Lennox would put his finger on it right away.
Isn’t it great that one musician led to another musician led to another musician…almost as if it was fated to happen that way?
I think that, if you’re on a path, and you’re following your instincts anyway… There was no matrix out there for me to get ideas from…Who knows if every step might be wrong, but I just gotta follow my heart here. All I know is what I want is a phenomenal band with a ridiculous, incredible rhythm section. The idea for the rhythm section came from James Jamerson…
Right, right…I was looking for a drummer somewhat in the style of Bernard Purdie, so I wanted this funk rhythm section and with the addition of Lennox that changed everything as well because it became something with a lot of Latin influence there.
That’s what the great thing was about the band when I discovered the Oblivion Express: the rhythm was strong and sure on every kind of tune that you did. As I got into jazz, I was listening and going along the same path you did, following Miles: Bitches Brew, then The Quintet things, then as I got into listening to fusion, the thing I found missing was a real feel for rhythm. Jazz musicians can tend to be so technically adept, they don’t sweat about it and they sometimes don’t really get into it. But your band’s really got into it, plus they could play their asses off.
Well, there were people about like that. And I think the jazz-fusion (label)—I never agreed with that when it was applied to me anyway. I just felt the jazz community was a little conservative sometimes. The great thing I learned from the rock community was their attention to sound: what they wanted their guitars to sound like, what they wanted the bass to sound like, what they wanted the drums to sound like and everything else. The normal jazz mix was to have the drums in the background, you hardly hear the bass and everyone was unloading with every lick they could possibly play.
Exactly!---all at once!
Where’s the music gone here? (laughs)
That’s great to hear you talk about the attention to instrumental and arrangement detail.
The point of all this is: it’s basically communication. I perform to a public and I wanted them to get it. I wanted to lay the music out so that somebody could come in that didn’t know the band and be able to follow along and go “Wow!”
And also I wanted to expose some of the composers that I really dug, like Herbie Hancock: I did a version of “Maiden Voyage” in 1969 and that was four years before the Headhunters appeared. Herbie became a dear friend of mine—which he still is.
Herbie’s a great guy full of life and invention to this day I saw him play last year in Burlington during our Discover Jazz festival and he filled the (Flynn) theatre, but I don’t think anyone in that theatre that night had a better time than he did! He had as much fun playing as he did talking as he did singing: it was terrific to watch.
It’s amazing! He was one of my idols. I never ever expected to meet him. The fact that we became friends is like a miracle to me. When I met him for the first time, I followed the Headhunters into a little club in Philadelphia: we went the night before to see them and they were on a break and I went upstairs to see them; I went up and introduced myself to him and he grabbed me and said “Hey you’re the guy who did my tune!” I said “well, yeah…”and he said “I’m glad you’re here tonight because I think you’re going to really enjoy my new band.” The band he’d had before was Mwandishi
I love that album!
It’s a beautiful album and I was expecting to hear that and all of a sudden they kicked into “Chameleon” as the first tune and I went “Whoaa!..”
The groove on that is so deep…
I know from my jazz experience that it was a head-trip to venture into the rock world. I had won jazz polls for piano in England, but…
I saw that you had a remarkable amount of recognition from your peers. It made me think of how John Mayall is regarded as the school of British blues, but to look at the names of people like Rick Laird, who went on to play with Mahavishnu Orchestra, and then Rod Stewart plus all the people you’ve played with through the 60’s: that’s why I made the comment about you as a bandleader. It only makes sense that they enjoy playing with you if you let them express themselves; then they probably can’t be happier.
I think that’s it. The great thing about a lot of guys is, I would see a player and go “That guy could actually go up a level if he was allowed to.” I was really knocked out that people would come in to the Oblivion Express and it would break my heart to lose them, but they went out a much better musician.
You’ve done a great service to a lot of people by nurturing them and obviously giving them confidence to move on to other things. I think from looking at some of the things you’ve said today, the pride you take in what you’ve done more than offsets the despair you may feel from watching musicians join your band, then leave.
People grow and then they have to move on. But they’ve always left something with me. That pride is followed when my own children have joined the recent bands and watched them go from one thing and then really blossom.
That’s tremendously unique and I wanted to ask you about that. I saw how your son came to play drums with you when your drummer at the time left without much notice and I see Savannah sings with you regularly.
And my eldest daughter Ali. She’s been suffering migraines and had to drop out of the band because we really couldn’t plan anything. I can tell you though she is going to do the next two nights at The Baked Potato (club in LA) and we’re in rehearsal so that’s tremendous for me.
It was be tremendous to play with your kids who must feel so empowered by you not just as offspring, but also as peer musicians. I can’t imagine what that feels like: even though I have two kids and I’m as proud of them as I can be for what they do (and we have our love of music in common), but to be able to play and sing with your own kids…
It’s definitely a unique experience and something I never ever imagined would happen. It was either last year or the year before that we were playing in Ronnie Scott’s club in London and we sold out both houses; I never knew what was going to happen, but they had a big banner at the back of the stage saying “The 50th Anniversary of Ronnie Scott’s” which is kind of scary in a way because I played the original club?!
It’s great to have history like that though (laughs)
Yeah, it’s a historic event for me when I played at the original club when I was nineteen years old and at that time I never imagined I would be standing here, having brought my band, with two of my kids in it.
It’s one thing to look back, it’s quite another to look back and imagine what you just said: that you would never conceive of being around and being able to sell the place out?
And that my kids would be good enough! Ronnie Scott’s was, and still is, the premier jazz club –though they use other artists as well to get a good mix of different people—but that they would’ve ascended the ladder and gotten their spurs to appear at Ronnie’s with me?
Back in the 60’ when you were first making the rounds and gaining some credibility of your own, did you imagine you would be able to create a career this long-standing and this varied over the course of time?
Absolutely not---no idea. The thing is, at that particular time we were obsessed. All out idols were American musicians and most of mine wee black American musicians: especially since I play the piano, Oscar Petersen was a great influence on me, followed by McCoy Tyner, Bill Evans and all the people who played with Miles and Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley. And most of us, including The Beatles and the Stones and all the blues players, all that music was American music.
But America was, for all intents and purposed, ignoring it…
Yeah, it was an insane thing because our wildest dream was to go to America. Mine was! Just think how lucky people must be to just walk down to the Village Vanguard and hear McCoy play!?
I can feel that now in the city when I visit.
I remember when we first played with The Trinity at The Fillmore East and we got two encores and I was told afterward by Bill Graham that the only person who ever got two encores was Jimi Hendrix—my buddy!
That’s pretty good company to be in and Bill Graham would know what he’s talking about: he had a pretty refined musical taste wouldn’t you say?
I would definitely say! As a matter of fact, I remember standing on the stage and looking out at the audience standing up and applauding…
Fillmore audiences were pretty discerning…
I still have that memory and saying to myself “I can’t believe this is happening?!”
That must’ve given you the confidence that would’ve led you to put together bands like The Oblivion Express and not worry too much about whether it was going to go somewhere: because you had some momentum. That seems to carry on to this day: you’re as busy as you want to be these days aren’t you?
Just about. I’ve had to take some time off. Which is why I’m at home through these months through the middle of July when we go to Europe for the festivals. Then we’re looking to do something in California in late August/early September, then October is more or less booked for our club our in abut for or five countries.
That must be really terrific for you to be able to look forward to that kind of support.
I must say Europe has always had our core fans, but they’ve kind of grown and I have seen the Hammond organ come back. It had disappeared!?. Back in the sixties and Seventies, if you were flying into a date, and you asked for a B3, the promoters would say “Well, I don’t know where I’d get ahold of something like that…”
They probably thought it was a shot of vitamin B3 you were looking for, not an organ…
Yeah! And if they did get one, it was in such disrepair it was almost impossible to play it. But the Hammond’s made a tremendous comeback owing to people like Joey DeFrancesco, Dr. Lonnie Smith—who’s still out there doing it!—there are quite a few guys who are great players and still out there waving the flag. And the instrument’s getting tons of attention in Europe: there are tons of young B3 players. In England it’s C3’s because they can cut the bottom off and it’s easier to handle: they’ve made this kind of joint in the volume pedal which is mechanical—the upright stick that moves the volume inside they’ve cut and put a thread in it—so they can keep the pedal on the bottom half of the C3 and join it up so it works!
It’s great that they’ve taken it on as their own and modified it to their own needs without really undermining the beauty of the instrument.
Let me ask you a little bit about how the Language of the Heart album came into being. I saw that Franck and Phil reached out to you after you worked on a project with them and gave you some rhythm tracks.
That’s basically it. Franck and Phil called me out of the blue at one point and said “Would it be possible for you to play on some tracks of ours?” and I said “Well what kind of music is it?” And they said “it’s kind of world music.” So I said “It sounds interesting, but I really need to hear the tracks before I can add anything that really means anything to them.” So they sent me a couple of tracks and I listened to them and said “Wow this is really interesting—I’d love to play on those.” so they came round to my studio and we cut those tracks. And that seemed to go pretty good for Franck and Phil. And then some time later, they called me up and said “Would you be interested in doing an album.” And I said “Well how would that work exactly?”
That’s what I wanted to ask you, so I can’t wait to hear you tell me…
So Phil said ”Franck & I would prepare some backing tracks with rhythm and some guitar and drums plus occasional bass.” And I said “I’ve worked that way before and it really depends on whether the tracks were happening or not. How many tracks have you got?” And they said “We’ve got about ten” to which I responded “Why don’t you send them to me on a disc, let me listen and then I’ll tell you if it’s something I want to do or not?” So they sent the disc and there was a hint of lyrics that came with that and I went “Alright!.” “Language of the Heart” was a very nice groove because it reminded me of Venice Beach when it wasn’t too crowded: I would go down there and take a walk and it reminded me of being there and looking out at the sea--being present in this wonderful environment and all of a sudden music would come because I could hear myself.
I’ve only been to California once, but there’s a great sense of the atmosphere in which you live out there within this album. It’s so consistent from the beginning to the end of the album. It is of such a single piece. How long did it actually take you guys to get everything recorded?
What I found out was that Franck and Phil could only work on the weekends. I was busy as hell throughout last year trying to patch it all together, but what I would say is that it gave me the time to listen to these things and being to develop some lyrics and some feel for the way the tunes were coming out. Also, I changed some of the chords, since most of these were straight tracks with no changes in them: I was able to go “Well, I want to go to this key, then go back.” That way we got some light and shade within the tracks.
When I heard “Venice Streetwalk” I thought it’s got that kind of thing of walking through Venice and all the stalls and the people, so I thought that one should stay as an instrumental, so I wrote as I figured Wes Montgomery would approach it and that’s how that one came to life. Then there was “Flying free”: I was doing a gig at a festival in the north islands with Dr. John and I woke up one morning and it was such a stunning view of the harbor from the hotel where we were staying and the words just came---which is very difficult for me because lyrics are the hardest—but the poem just came straight out so I looked at it and said “Well I don’t know what I’m going to do with that!?” but at least I liked what it was and then I realized I could apply it to one of the tracks.
You may feel like you struggle with lyrics but there’s a very natural flow to the language in your lyrics. You don’t force images and though it ends up sounding like poetry at various junctures, it doesn’t sound like you’re straining to do so---Thankfully!
No, not at all. Just really taking from what the universe is bringing in to me.
That’s what it sounds like. Whatever it is that you’re thinking as you walk along the beach or the streets in Venice, you are able to get transcribed in such a way that you can then sing them, which is great. And again, it adds to the atmosphere of the album as it was one more sound in the mix of instruments.
I hadn’t sung on an album in a long, long time. I would sing if I didn’t have an Alex Ligertwood around me: in emergencies! (laughs). When Alex left for two years and went to Paris, we did the Closer to It album and they got things going real good and we got to America. At the end of the second year, we’d done the Straight Ahead album and I called him and said “Hey buddy!. How ya doin’ over there?” And he said “Boy, I’m not doing anything really.” So I said “Just sitting there must be ridiculous. I’ve got things going in America, do you want to come with us when we go next time?” “And he said to me “I thought you’d never ask!” (laughs)
It’s great you followed your intuition and made that contact Brian!
So Alex came back and did the live albums and Reinforcements and Happiness Heartaches. But then I’d gotten to a place where I was so exhausted, I had this terrible flu on one of the tours and I’d gotten to the point where I couldn’t go any further. I sent everybody home because I just couldn’t take another step forward at that point. I went home and got to a point, for the first time in my life, where I didn’t want to play. It scared the life out of me.
I’ll bet. We all reach a point sometimes in our lives where, based on what’s going on, we feel we can’t go any further.
Yeah, I hit a wall. I went home and didn’t play for nearly a year and I didn’t even touch the piano. And then one day, all of a sudden, I just had to go and play and I played for four or five hours and that was kind of the end of that.
I’m interested to know how you got some of the people with famous names playing on Language of the Heart. Who connected you with (Steely Dan & Doobie Brothers) guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter…or did you know him?
I had played with him previously actually. I met him through a project that was another put together band that was him, Walfredo Reyes Jr. on drums, Dave Margen who was a bass player for Santana, Alex Ligertwood and Skunk. I had never played with Skunk, but I had wanted to and I was sitting at breakfast one morning and he said “I have always wanted to play with you.” And I said, “Well, I’ve always wanted to play with you, so when I knew you were doing this project, I had to come.” We got on like a house on fire, man! We had such a great time: he’s a very funny guy and a great person.
He seems to be quite a character: I’ve seen him play live a couple times.
He’s definitely been through a few things..
Well, to go from Steely Dan to The Doobie Brothers is quite a journey in and of itself and he’s a lot more apart from that. Was he able to play live with you Phil and Franck in the studio?
No, Phil and Franck had already done their work with the tracks. Skunk called and said he was taking a band to Cabo San Lucas and asked me if I wanted to come and I said “Yeah, what is it?” He said “There’s no money in it, it’s just expenses as they’ll put us up in a nice hotel, but it’s for a charity on behalf of a local orphanage local businesses have put money into and we’re going down there for this concert to raise a load of money for these kids.” “Count me in!” I said…
You wouldn’t want to say no to something like that…
So we went down and it was an amazing band, even playing some rock star stuff, some Doobies and Steve Miller, but anyway I just enjoyed the hell out of it. At another time, he was doing some stuff with some other people on Dana Point on July the Fourth, so he called me and I said I’d be there. So every time we do get an opportunity, it works fabulously, so I said “What’s the chance, if we are doing some recording…” to which he responded “Hey buddy—Anytime!.” So when I called him for this, he said “Oh, great!.”
Did he pick the track to play on or did you give him a couple to choose from?
I had the track and I told him what it was and I said “I’ll send you the track as is, and I’ll play the melody, so you play the melody and here’s where I’ll want you to solo.” So he came to the studio and brought his axe and everything, we plugged him in and had a good laugh, then started working on the track. And I said “Great—thanks so much man!” And Skunk said “Anytime! We gotta do this again”
Is that how it worked with Julien Coryell as well?
Julien has a band with my son (percussionist) Karma and they also have the son of (Crusaders’ keyboardist) Joe Sample on bass. So having had Skunk play on a track, I think Julian is one of those amazing players, one of my son’s peers and just as nice a guy as you could meet, a tremendous technical player who could play anything.
He seems to be just bursting with ideas and great vocabulary to communicate them as well.
Absolutely. I was at a festival in Canada with Larry (Coryell, famed jazz guitarist). The promoter said “I would love to have your band with Larry Coryell: what about if he joins you?” “Fantastic! I’d seen Larry round and we’d played with the Express and The Eleventh House (Coryell’s fusion band) on some concerts and stuff and he’s just a beautiful, tremendous player. So I called him and asked him what he wanted to play and we got to sound check to run through a few things—we hadn’t played except on the day when we were doing the concert—he pulled an old chestnut out of his hat. He said, “I did this gig not long ago with (legendary jazz organist) Jimmy Smith and all of a sudden he wanted to play “Stars Fell on Alabama”—which is kind of an out of the way standard, but I said that’s a beautiful tune.” He said “Well you want to play it tonight?” And I said “Sure!.”
Now that’s a real musician’s moment: to pick a tune that you both recognize but is not, like you said, a familiar standard, but it’s a Jimmy Smith tune—so everybody should hear it, right?
Absolutely! And Larry said, “Have you heard my son Julian play?” I said “I don’t think so…” So he said “Well he’s better than me.”
A father would say that right? (laughs)
The funny thing is, the way the universe works, Larry, having seen Karma on that festival, came to California to do some gigs and called Karma and said “Hey you want to play with me on a couple of gigs in San Diego?” and Karma said “It’d be an honor.” So he went down there and who should turn up but Julian to play a set with his dad?!. Karma called me and said “You’ll never guess who showed up!? Larry’s son Julian came and he’s phenomenal!.” So they struck up a friendship and came to find out, Julian lived about here streets away from us…
Talk about fate, huh?
Just down the road?! So Karma talked to him and said “I’ve got my friend Nick Sample, so do you fancy doing a jam, getting together and seeing what happened?” And it just exploded, so they’ve written all this material every time they get together. Julian and Nick I’ve been impressed with, he’s been in The Oblivion Express and toured with me, and he’s a great groove player and a great soloist. So as we had the opportunity, I asked Julian if he’s like to come a play on a tune on my album and he said “I’d be knocked out!.” So that’s really how it went.
Bass players were added by Phil and Franck and sometimes, when I’d realized the textures Franck is capable of, he’s really got something all his own.
The music on the album, from top to bottom is really dense, but as was one of the main virtues of The Oblivion Express, as you mentioned a moment ago, you want people to get it, and it’s so accessible it draws you right in, then you can see the layers upon layers of guitars and keyboards in there.
There’s one, no a couple of weird ones, strange things that happened: talk about the universe calling!?. The track “Ella” is for my wife of forty-three years now (laughs).
Congratulations to you two…
I just went to Phil and Franck’s studio down where they live and I just went one day right at the beginning and they asked “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I don’t really know. I thought we’d just talk over stuff and maybe I’d just do some stuff I’d take home.” They suggested I put this little track up, absolute minimal track, and I thought “This is not going to go anywhere, so I will just noodle around” And I started playing and what ended up was this sequence of chords, which they immediately named “The Ballad.” I couldn’t even remember what I played eventually, so surely I didn’t think we could use that but they said, “Oh come on, you ought to listen to it!.” And they were so enthused about this, I eventually ended up, listening to this thing, and having to write the changes out, at which point I thought “I don’t know what to do with this!” Then I’m driving about one day and suddenly comes this thought about this (saxophonist) Stan Getz album called Focus; long, long time about, maybe in the middle sixties, I was in Ronnie Scott’s album and I hear this album, which is a whole string orchestra. This guy had put together all these beautiful orchestral arrangements, going where they go, then invited Stan Getz into the studio to jam over all these changes..
What a great concept!
And what a great album! If you ever get a chance to listen to it, it’s absolutely beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. So, I thought about that and went “Why can’t I do that? I’m going to run this thing and just put an organ solo over the changes and that’s what it’s going to be. So, having listened to the changes a few times and mapped them out, we took it and in the end I listened to it and thought “That’s kind of out there?!
It’s a perfect ending to the album though. The more I hear the album-- and I always listen to it start to finish—it’s seems it’s sequenced to cover a day in your life, morning afternoon and evening—and that is just such a restful sensation to listen to that cut at the end of the album.
Right, well when the stuff starts to flow, that’s it. We had an intro where we hadn’t played anything, and Franck or Phil said “Why don’t you put some Rhodes (electric piano) on this at the beginning until the organ comes in and maybe at the end as well?” Because I had stopped before the ending, thinking we’re going to have to fade this off. So I put the Rhodes on at the beginning in one pass and thought “Whoa I don’t know where that came from!” and rolled on to put some stuff on the end and went on and on—for me. So when we finished, I said “We’re going to have to edit the end.,” then there were all these protests: Franck and Phil weren’t having any of it.
I said “There’s too much Rhodes at the end, come on guys!” And they said “no no.” In the end I was persuaded just to leave it.
It’s interesting you say that because going back to what I said earlier about hearing Happiness Heartaches, what really knocked me out about that, long before I got into jazz or any kind of improvisational music, I loved the sound of the organ, but also the sound of electric piano. The combination and the contrast between the two instruments is to this day one of the most delicious sounds in all of music to me.
I’ve just begun to bring the Rhodes back on the road with me. I’ve tried all the various instruments and digital pianos and I don’t know what it is.
It’s the crispness and clarity of the sound of the Rhodes: it just sparkles!
Yeah, it’s just a beautiful sound. The most strange track was the backing of “Hymn to Morning;” there was this kind of fog of sound, not sure how Phil had got that effect, but it was a rhythmic thing going on underneath, with all these textures and sounds, and the more I listened to it, the more it seemed like waking up in the morning, looking into this mist, the sun coming up and the birds tweeting into the mist, all this kind of thing. Then I was listening to some Debussy, a track called “The Sunken Cathedral” the story of which is that the sea has invaded a town and swallowed up the whole place and you can hear the bells ringing in the church steeple underneath the water at certain times. And suddenly that hit me: maybe I could try something like that?
There you go. That is the eerie sensation of that track and, by extension, what it feels like when the day’s starting and the dawn is starting to come on.
So I borrowed some of the chords from Debussy and then kind of added to that and started to find some lyrics.
I find it constantly fascinating to find sources of inspiration that crystallize an idea like that.
It’s funny how things happen. Because we had a lot of time between recording and I was able to listen to the tracks over and over, because of Phil and Franck’s schedule, I really became familiar with the tracks and that, in turn, allowed these things to surface.
It obviously gave you time to really become immersed in the project and yet not feel hurried by it. That’s almost an ideal, the counterpart to doing things in the spur of the moment is that kind of leisurely immersion of the moment, where things percolate and then they’re right there in front of you.
And to that I added some step down things, like a church choir, and then the organ with reverb like a cathedral for a couple passages. Then a line from a Robert Browning poem came to me where and we ended up titling it as we did.
It’s a complete idea unto itself. I was looking at your website and wanted to ask if you own the rights to all your Oblivion Express CDs now?
I do. When I was going through the eleven lean years in the eighties, I started to work on getting all my albums back and I managed to get the stuff I did with The Trinity and also the ten albums I did with RCA. There’s a story behind that that’s really funny. Back in the Seventies when I made that contract, most of the guys in the business affairs department were middle-aged guys with mortgages and kids in college; the recording industry had gone on for years and was going to go on forever. I said to them “Look, if I’m going to make ten albums for you, I’d like these to come back to me at some point as an estate to my family.” And they said, “We don’t do that.” And I said “Maybe you don’t but I’m not talking about tomorrow, I’m talking about, say you have the rights to these for fifteen years, and then the rights come back to me.
That’s forward thinking!
They looked at each other again and said “It’s something we don’t do,” So I said, gentlemen, how may of you will be here to take the consequences of this in twenty years?” Then they all started to laugh and said, “Yeah, you’re right”
Point well taken Mr. Auger!
So they put in the clause that in 1990, believe it or not, they had to give me back the ten albums.
Did you then spend getting all the recordings remastered and all that?
Yes, we remastered everything with the best remastering equipment I possibly could. I used all the original tapes and went analog to digital, so the sound is the original. I’ve been spending time running all over the world, but I’ve put together a little studio so we can produce what we want and, as we are entering the world of the industry, not as we knew it…
Not for the guys in the suits back in the 70's
…I’m able to continue to record what I like.
You’ve really set yourself up to be as independent as anyone would need to be in the internet world, wouldn’t you say?
I think that really that’s it. And holding on to your independence as an artist, otherwise it will be taken from you.
And you’ll lose your personality to boot. That’s one of the things I got from listening to Language of the Heart: your personality as a musician is so vibrant and vivid, no one would mistake you fro anyone else. And, by the same token, the sounds you make are of their own time; they never sound dated and always sound so fresh and full of energy.
I must thank you for that. When we finished the album—and this must go through every artist’s mind as they play back a recording—“Well it sounds good to me. I don’t know how it will fall on anyone else’s ears! (laughs)