From the day in 1945 when Lionel Hampton saw this ecstatic 5 year old jumpin’ with joy at what he had just heard, and handed him the gift of a lifetime, a set of his vibe mallets& his destiny was set. Today, Ayers continues to pack venues round the world, playing with the same energy and passion that he exhibited back in 1945.
With 2004’s release of Virgin Ubiquity: Unreleased Recordings 1976-1981 , Roy’s loyal and deserving fans were treated to a selection of unreleased gems. The second volume of the series, out in May, will feature more never-before released Ayer’s tracks. Ayer’s latest full-length “Mahogany Vibe” combines re-interpretations of his most memorable classic tracks with Erykah Badu on the classic Searching and Everybody Loves The Sunshine and Betty Wright on a stunning update of Long Time Ago . Philly newcomer, Kamilah and MC Sakoni add to the album’s rich flavor. This album once again proves that Roy’s ears are as much to the streets as to Jazz s lineage of sounds.
Roy s career maintains a timeless momentum; in the studio, on the stage, in the US or abroad, for Hip Hop and Jazz heads alike, for your mother and daughter, for slow dancing and serious funk aficionados, Roy s vibes are forever.
Mundovibes: It’s just an honor to speak with you and I think it’s incredible that you’re doing what you’re doing today. I’d lke to begin by talking about your new relationship with Rapster and BBE records and ask you how firstly that came about.
Roy Ayers: Well, you know, the relationship is good. I told Peter Adarkwah from BBE that I had some tapes from back in the day when I was recording. I had all of these tapes that I had recorded since I used to be a fanatic in the studio. I was always recording something, I always had something and set it aside. I’d almost finish something and I’d say ‘well, this is not good enough.’ Then, my mind’s so fast I’d go and change to another song right away. And, of course, I write very spontaneous anyway, that’s the way I am. So, I was doing all those songs in the ’70s and ’80s but as I was doing them I was doing other songs which represent most of the albums that I put out. Either the albums or other productions because I had a production company; all of the things I was doing was with the production company. So, I just kept doing things. I mean I’ve got a lot of things, even on this new album, that were meant for different people, like this group called Brood (sic) out of D.C. I did that and I just decided to put my voice on it because why not put Roy Ayers voice on it? It was a nice track, but the relationship between myself and Brood never got off the ground but we just started recording to see what we could have you know?
So, I told Peter had these tapes and he shot over here from London. We went into the studio and took them out, and we had to bake them because they were old, and then transferred them to Pro Tools. And he flipped out, he found one album and then he wanted to do another album and another after this. This is some nice stuff man, it’s all analogue, it’s all real groovy. As I listen to it I say ‘damn, I was a bad MF!’ When I listen I say, ‘damn, this was good!’ (laughter) It’s something that I did, and this is stuff that I had never even thought twice about but I had the tapes there. I wasn’t going to throw the tapes away and after we baked them we found that there’s some nice stuff, and we still have another 75 tapes that we haven’t even touched.
MV: You’re on volume two now of this “Virgin Ubiquity” series and this is going to be a series of how many?
RA: Well, it’s probably going to be a series of at least four. It gets better all the time so I’m excited about it and I’m glad that Peter and K7 and everybody’s into in whole heartedly. And I guess for them to have some quality Roy Ayers is like a rare opportunity for anybody to have. I’m doing it to get myself out, to get it released and to get it distributed.
MV: Right. And for anybody that loves your music this is another side to your musical history.
RA: Yeah, this one makes it 93 albums and or CDs under my name.
MV: You’re extra prolific!
RA: I’ve done that many and I’m not even talking about the one’s I’ve done with other people under their name. I have to count those, but the albums I’ve done under my name is 93 now.
MV: I’m sure you’re going to over 100 real soon.
RA: I think I will, just as long as I live long enough. Let’s see, Lionel Hampton did 134 in his lifetime albums, Dizzy Gillespie did about 101, and Tito Puente did over 100. It’s amazing how many albums these guys did, and then Whitney Houston has only done about 12. And she’s sold so many records it’s ridiculous. So, maybe in my 93 I’ve sold as many as Whitney (laughter). But I also recorded with her, which was nice.
MV: Well, on “Mahogany Vibe” you did some collaborations with Erykah Badu and Betty Wright. Tell us about “Mahogany Vibe”.
RA: That was nice, also is out on Rapster. It was a very nice recording, when I had talked to Erykah about doing it with me she said she couldn’t come to New York so I said I’ll come to Texas. So, we went to Dallas and we did it with her there. She did a very fine job, she’s very professional in the studio I admired the way she handled everything; she was real cool. It was interesting because we were recording and she said ‘You know Betty Wright is in town.’ And I said ‘Oh, she is. Is she playing somewhere?’ She said ‘No, she’s not playing, she’s my friend. She came to see me.’ And I said ‘Oh, that’s wonderful’. So, she called Betty on her cell phone, she gave me the phone and I said ‘Hey Betty how you doing, can you be on my album?’ Betty said yes and an hour later she came to the studio and recorded two more tracks with me. So, other than the fact that Erykah is a classy diva and a very talented woman, she also puts things together like that. Very nice. I was very surprised and happy with it.
MV: Yeah, she’s a very talented woman. You know, Erykah’s kind of at the lead of this newer generation they call the ‘neo-soul’.
RA: Yeah, she told me that, she said ‘you’re the neo-soul king’. I said, ‘what are you talking about, what’s neo-soul?’ (laughter). She said people like her and the Roots and Jill Scott, they like to emulate my sound in their music. And I thought ‘that’s beautiful, that makes me feel good’.
MV: Well, you’ve influenced so many people. Did you ever anticipate that happening?
RA: I never knew that it was going to happen. When it happened it was really wonderful because I never pursued it and I never went after anybody to record my music or sample it. And it’s been fantastic because it’s been economically rewarding, for me very rewarding. When you have people like Mary J. Blige who does your song and samples your songs and plays your songs and sells 3 million records, triple platinum. So, you get paid for that. And you got Tribe Called Quest and Brand Nubian and all these people. I’ve got more sampled hits than James Brown. James Brown has more samples, I’ve got more sampled hits. It’s a wonderful career I have had.
MV: Talking about your sound, you’re a fantastic vibes player and in a sense that leads to the energy of your music.
RA: Yeah, I think that’s probably the essence of my music, it really started out with my vibes because that’s my first instrument, that’s my first love. And of course I incorporated the singing. It probably pisses me off to some extent when people say ‘Roy Ayers, you mean the singer?’ Because I’m a vibist before I’m a singer, a better vibist. And some people know that but I’ve had a few hits with the vocals in my career. It always surprised me when it happened but I’d realized the importance of crossing over and being versitile.
MV: Well, there’s a younger generation that doesn’t realize you have a long jazz history.
RA: Yeah, I guess you’re right but I guess it comes through when you keep chugging along.
MV: Absolutely. I want to touch on your formative years because you started at such a young age and it seems like you were almost pre-destined to be a vibes and jazz musician. A lot of people today, they don’t necessarily have the schooling and the influence at an earrly age. I just wondered how important that was to you?
RA: Well, it was very important. As I reflect on it I think about my mother and father who instilled a lot of postive substance in me. They were very instrumental in creating a desire within me because of the enthusiasm, because of their approach. They gave me a lot of confidence and I think about that all the time. My mother used to say things like ‘one day I’m going to see your name in lights’. And she kind of put that in my brain. And that became a reality. My mother did see me before she passed, she did see me and my family saw me. It was a wonderful goal to try to reach because of their input, so it was a good thing. It was something that was wonderful and positive. I continue to try to tell as many young people as possible the same thing if I can. Motivation is an important factor that you can give a person. And that’s what my folks gave to me, they made me believe in myself and made me believe that I could do anything that I put my mind and time into.
MV: And the musicianship is so important too.
RA: That’s right, I can remember going to see and playing with older musicians, guys that I knew knew more than me, especially in the art of improvisation. And when I realized this, cause I had been playing with a lot of young cats and I realized ‘man, I’m going to start playing with them real musicians’. I played with giants like Bobby Hutcherson, Curtis Amy and Gerald Wilson’s Big Band. It was jut wonderful and I learned very fast, I was like 18 or 19 years old. I was with the pros man and it really paid off for me. That’s the reason why I’ve been able to be as versitle as I am: I’m open to not just bebop or jazz but I’m open to R&B and funk and blues and soul. I play it all and I feel good doing it all.
MV: How did you make a transition from a more traditional jazz artist to funk?
RA: I saw the need for it. I realized it was time, especially when I did my first album on Polydor, that was the first album I did with vocals in it. That was 1970 when I realized that it was important to incorporate vocals. I wasn’t that good a vocalist, but I realized that instrumental and vocal would work. And it’s been good for me, I’ve been working ever since.
MV: Well, you devoped your own style working with female vocals.
RA: That’s right, I was smart enough to use people like Dee dee Bridgewater, Edwin Birdsong, Carla Vaughan, Silvia Cox and Chicas and several other woman who have worked with me over the years. And I found in the quality of their voice, when I put mine with theirs I had no problem making myself sound as good as I could.
MV: It also creates a nice exchange. It’s sexy and nice and warm.
RA: Very true.
MV: You also worked with Fela Kuti, can you reflect on that?
RA: That was a unique experience for me to have been in Africa. For any musician to go to Africa is a wonderful experience. When I went to Africa it was wonderful because to meet Fela and to experience it. As Fela would say ‘this is the African way’. To meet this brother who was married to 27 women, who did alot of things because he wanted to rebel against the government because there was a lot of corruption in the government. And he spoke about it, he was very courageous, very instrumental in a lot of things. He even ran for president in Nigeria. But he was a brilliant man and he was a loving man, he loved Nigeria and he loved Africa. It was good to know him. In knowing him and having spent some time with him that stands out as one of my most unique experiences, in meeting him. A real warrior, a real fighter and a great talent. He was a great dancer, singer, performer and musician. He was all the things a musician wants to be and to have known him has been a great pleasure for me.
MV: So, where are you going in 2005? What’s up for the new year?
RA: Well, I’m going all over, doing a European tour. I just came from Australia, that was a long trip but it was a wonderful tour down there, it was a great experience for me again. I play there every two years, they want me back in two years from this. The remainder of this year I’m going to be touring the United States and of course I’ll be in Europe, doing a lot of things there. The next thing I’m working on is a video that we have of Fela and myself. It was something I filmed when I was over with Fela so you’ll be hearing about it. It’s “Music of Many Colors”, it’s a beautiful video.
MV: Well you’re a busy man, thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Please keep kicking out the great music.
RA: Alright, peace.
– Interview by JC Tripp, May 2005
Roy Ayers website