Canadian saxophonist and bandleader Cory Weeds teamed up with one of today’s preeminent organ bands to record a blistering set of Italian-themed tunes.
Weeds has performed with the likes of Joey DeFrancesco and Christian McBride, and his record label Cellar Music Group is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.
His 17th album as a bandleader, O Sole Mio! Music From the Motherland is a soulful and expressive record that brings out the jazz in classic and contemporary Italian music. It features a stellar lineup of musicians that includes organist Mike LeDonne, saxophonist Eric Alexander, guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Joe Farnsworth — and when you listen to the record, you can even hear how much fun they had recording it.
For the New Music Spotlight, Weeds joined us to talk about the making of this new album.
It feels like you put a lot of time and effort into choosing the pieces for this album. How did you go about that?
I’ve always had an affinity for Italy. In fact, I almost moved there in 1999. Instead, I stayed in Vancouver and bought the Cellar Jazz Club, which I ran for 14 years. Whether that was the right decision or not, I don’t know! I didn’t move to Italy, but I have a strong affinity for that country. I’ve been there a lot, and the high school that I went to here in Vancouver was heavily populated by Italians. When I closed my club in 2014, one of the first people who came calling was a gentleman by the name of Giulio Recchioni, who wanted to start a jazz series at the Italian Cultural Centre here in Vancouver. We started the series and it did very well, and we’ve continued to do all kinds of presentations. He offered me a grant to make an Italian-themed record. I had made a string of records with Mike LeDonne, who’s a fantastic organist from New York who has Sicilian roots. I told him about this potential project, and he said yes. We started picking tunes that were written by Italian-American composers, and then some traditional Italian tunes. My only real request was that we would do O Sole Mio, because I love that tune. Once we came up with the eight tunes we wanted, we did it.
It sounds like it was really a group effort.
It was. When you think about it, that band — Peter Bernstein, Joe Farnsworth, Mike LeDonne and Eric Alexander — that’s kind of my dream band. It was enough for me to just share the front line with one of the greatest modern-day saxophonists. I didn’t want to worry too much about musical direction. I left that to Mike. The record was actually made under much duress, because we only had about five hours to make it. The guys were on tour and they arrived in Vancouver from Calgary, drove right to the studio, made that record, and then raced to the hotel because they had a gig that night. It was an intense day, but it’s a day I look back on very fondly because we had so much fun. I think that really comes across in the music more than anything else. It’s not a perfect record, but what comes across so perfectly is that we all were having so much fun. I’m happy about that.
Especially with you and Eric Alexander, you have such wonderful chemistry and partnership. It sounds like you’re smiling at each other the entire time you’re playing.
I’m glad you hear it. You know, I have a strong belief in myself as a musician, but he really is one of the greatest saxophone players on the planet today. I’ve known Eric for many, many years. He started out as a hero, and then he became a mentor, and then he became my friend. In some ways, I was able to relax more so than with any other saxophone player, because I’m not going to be him — I’m not going to play like him. I’m not going to match him in a technical way, so I was able to just sit back and just live in the moment, and be musical, and not worry about what Eric’s doing. It made for a very successful pairing. At the same time, he also drove me to play better. He made me play above. That’s always been a big part of what I do. I always want to be playing with people who are better than me, because it makes me rise to that level. I’m glad it comes across to the listener, because that’s definitely what was happening in the studio. He was extremely supportive and very inclusive. It was a really great experience.
Did you ever have a moment where you thought, “Oh my goodness, I’m playing with Eric Alexander right now.”
I’ve sat in with Eric before in different settings, but yeah, I have recorded with Peter Bernstein, Joe Farnsworth and Mike LeDonne before, but never with Mike’s full band. I did look over a couple of times and pinch myself, but it was more about playing with that whole band. That band has been so important to my development as a person and as a musician.
That’s a good lesson in just letting it flow.
I think all musicians need to let go. It’s one thing to say it, but it’s a completely other thing to actually be able to do it. I don’t know what happened that day. I went to bed early the day before, I got up, I was prepared, and I just kept repeating to myself, “Just have fun, man. You’re really lucky.”
I read that you have a bit of a love affair with the organ, and I was delighted to hear it on this album. Where did that love affair begin?
You know, I get asked that a lot because I’m like, the organ guy. People make jokes all the time. I’ve thought a lot about it and I’ve traced it back. When I was young, my dad was a big Wes Montgomery fan, so I think I first started hearing Melvin Rhyne on The Wes Montgomery Trio. But I ended up getting a gig with a groove-based band here in Vancouver called People Playing Music. I was a pretty straight-ahead jazz snob before that, but when I joined this band I started learning about Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Maceo Parker and some of the groove-based music that was out there — whether it was old or new at that time. A really influential record label for me was Criss Cross Records. I was working in radio and they sent me some records, and one of them was a Melvin Rhyne Trio record with Peter Bernstein and Kenny Washington. That’s where the real love affair with jazz organ started. From there, I went to Jimmy Smith, Jack McDuff and Don Patterson, and the whole world opened up for me. It’s something that’s continued. I love the sound, and what I love about Mike LeDonne is that he’s a bebopper. He comes more from the Don Patterson school, playing real bebop but it’s on organ. There’s something about the way he plays that really changes what I do. I can’t put my finger on it, but I play differently when I play with him. There’s just something about the sound of the organ that’s fantastic.
When I think about traditional Italian music like O Sole Mio and Torna A Surriento, I think of old accordion and cobblestone streets. Did the jazz elements immediately spring out to you, or did it take a while to turn it into what you wanted?
We were going in to make a jazz record, so essentially what happened was Mike came into the session with a skeleton of how each tune sounded. Because these tunes are not difficult, we didn’t have to have these elaborate arrangements ready to go. When we went in and did O Sole Mio, all we had was the melody and the chords. It was actually Eric who came up with this vampy thing at the end of the first section that really propelled the tune. I can’t honestly say that as I’m sitting there playing, I’m thinking about Italy or the history. I’m just thinking about swinging and grooving. And then you have the Godfather theme, but that’s sort of the stereotypical Italy, which may not sit well with Italian citizens, necessarily. It was just music. I was trying to make a swinging organ record. That was the goal, and we were using Italian songs as the vehicle. O Sole Mio is such a hummable tune with a really simple melody, and I wanted to stay true to the melody. It was quite easy to do, because it is such a strong melody. We just decided to play it and let the band do their thing, and that’s what happened.
This interview has been edited and condensed.