Sound Detective: Grammy nom Thomas Hutchings experiments with everyday music

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Thomas Hutchings uses his sax and his mind to create some original, urban, far-out but current jazz fusions. His material has made it onto some culturally cutting-edge TV shows, including “Keeping Up With The Kardashians,” “Bad Girls Club,” and “Real World: Las Vegas.”

“My music is informed by things I hear everyday. I hear rhythms and melodies in everyday moments, like when a cash register prints a receipt or a woman is walking with loud shoes or car horns that fit into certain gaps in a conversation on the street.” –Thomas Hutchings

His work on Linda Chorney’s album, Emotional Jukebox, made news everywhere — perhaps not entirely for the reasons either of the musical friends would’ve liked. A Grammy nomination, in the “Best Americana Album” category, was the good news. The controversy, and the rabid hatred from many in the music industry, over a virtual unknown independent artist grabbing a nominee spot based on the strengths of social networking? Not so much.

Forget the controversy, it’s crap anyway. Take a listen to her album — one she’d planned to be her last. It’s really, really good, clever, Grammy worthy music, a fine mix of folk, rock, and country, full of melodic fun and lyrical dimension. And Thomas Hutchings, with his CNP Horns section, helped make it all happen — at least the sax parts. (It was also Hutchings’ suggestion that Chorney join NARAS [National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences] too, in 2010, so she could get her album in for consideration. Smart move. Now they have a Grammy nom.)

On his own, Hutchings has gotten a lot of mileage out of his first album, the 2008 Jazztronica release, Allergic To Gravity — made after his father passed away a year before. The single, “Waiting To Fly,” played on an episode of Keeping Up With The Kardashians.

The album’s inventive mix of jazz, urban-funk, pop, and smooth soul, underneath a bodacious electronica bottom — ala, rough jazz — has kept this forward-thinking artist’s music alive on the streets, in the demos that count. Better yet, Allergic To Gravity was re-released with a more cohesive flow from one song to the next, while keeping the inspiration of his father’s life and the son’s own reflective purpose in mind.

This is a singular artist who hears music in the sounds of everyday life, and feels compelled to capture everything through his own rough jazz filter. Rough jazz? Read on.

Congratulations on the Grammy nomination (Linda Chorney’s Emotional Jukebox), for which you played sax. I hear you also played a role in Chorney getting enough notice amongst the judges to earn a nomination, in a social networking (Grammy365.com) stroke of brilliance. How important nowadays is making those contacts for an independent artist?

I became a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) in 2009, because I was interested in music production and voting on and attending the Grammys. I wanted to directly meet and gravitate toward other serious, aspiring artists, producers and engineers who were working in the music industry, and I personally wanted something more in my career than to be a saxophonist in bar bands and touring acts, which has its own dues-paying merit, but is solely performance-based — unless you record every performance.

Many independent musicians are very focused on writing and performing, but spend little time or effort learning how to create their own professional, quality recordings. I believe it’s very important for independent musicians to know about at least some of the technicality of music recording and mixing if they intend to really be independently successful financially, because recordings are the fruit of any recording artist’s labor. And quality recordings of great performances will always get you some recognition and long-term sales. A badly produced recording lasts just as long as a well-produced recording in this digital age, which is forever!

Grammy365 didn’t really exist in its current form when I joined. Now it’s a sort of clunky, in-progress, social network, where you can directly discuss and promote the music industry’s more technical aspects, like performance, recording, production and engineering songs, and various technical levels of effort involved with industry professionals. Once I had an understanding of what was making the Grammy cut and how, I began submitting my own music and inviting any artists I was collaborating with to consider submitting for Grammy consideration if I felt it had a chance.

Linda Chorney happened to be one of those independent artists who was more than willing to go the extra mile to get a listen from the many open-minded voting musicians, engineers, producers, songwriters and composers on Grammy365. She did what any independent artist with a good professional quality recording should do when/if they have the inspiration to commit time and effort to it. It’s so much more important these days to not just build a random social network online, but to build a high-quality social network of industry peers who are open and willing to give you constructive criticism directly, so you can improve your craft. This is the possibility that Grammy365.com gives to all independent artists. Neil Portnow, president of NARAS (National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences), made it very clear that their goal was to create a place where everyone has a shot and Linda is proof-positive of this, regardless of any negative press she’s received from a few small-minded people who know nothing or little about the time and level of effort involved in recording an album or the Grammy voting and submission processes.

What did your sax part involve in the making of Emotional Jukebox?

I have a horn section called the CNP Horns that regularly performs and records with artists in New York. Linda called and needed a horn section, so it was a no-brainer. I played all the sax parts on the album and, because there were no written parts, we helped arrange the chord structure and rhythm of the horn parts with Linda, which is a common way to add horn parts to a recording. We actually had to show up for the session twice, because the recording engineer, multi-Grammy-nominated Frank Wolf’s computer died the first time around, so we only rehearsed once in April 2011, then met again to actually record the parts in May. The extra rehearsal time was very useful in retrospect, because the horn parts blended in very nicely and well, the album was Grammy nominated… Great job Frank!

You’re also planning to attend the Grammys, February 12. What are you most looking forward to, other than Linda Chorney winning in her category? How are you glamming up?

I’m looking forward to the warm weather and hangin’ with some good friends in L.A. and Santa Monica. The 52nd Grammys were a blast the last time I went in 2010 and I’m sure the 54th Grammys will be great again in 2012. I was already planning on going, so being on a recording that’s nominated is icing on the cake, win or lose. I guess I’m looking forward to also seeing some of the nominees in other categories. I play sax, so during the day, the webcast event where the non-televised categories are doled out is where I’ll be hanging out to see if some of my jazz heroes, specifically nominee Sonny Rollins, will be there. I’ve always wanted to meet him!

In preparation for the Grammys, I have a publicist and I started working out with a trainer to get into better shape, so I’ll look good in a suit. I’m gonna get a nice haircut and I’ll pick up a new suit (from where, I have no idea). I liked the suit that Tom Cruise wore in the latest Mission Impossible movie). I don’t intend to even try to compete with perfectly dressed millionaires at these events. I just want to look my personal best and enjoy the festivities with my friends.

How did your and Linda Chorney’s paths cross?

We met back in 1996-’97, while I was playing weekly Wednesday nights with the comedic art-rock band, the Niagaras, at a little, live music bar in Greenwich Village, N.Y., called Mondo Cane. She was a regular performer at a bar on the corner called the Back Fence and would come up to hang out on her breaks, so we became friends and the rest, as they say, is history.

There’s very little online about you. You got interested in music at 11, you play sax and produce, and you’ve gigged with many New York City artists of varying stylistic stripes. What turned you on about playing sax?

I was born in the Philippines and grew up in Idaho from age four. It was a pretty sheltered existence, so the first time I was interested at all in music was in the sixth grade. The teacher showed a cartoon of instruments with arms playing themselves and I went home that same day and told my parents I wanted to play saxophone. The cool part was that they went out that week and bought me a sax, and I started in the local band program. Music has always felt natural and joyful to me. I used to take my sax out after school and walk home playing it. HA HA HA! I still have that sax. It’s collecting dust somewhere in my parents’ house now though.

Who were your first musical influences growing up?

I’d have to say my dad. He had an amazing collection of records. Mandrill, Richard Pryor, Temptations, Jackson-5, Barry White, Al Green, Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, the Last Poets, Marvin Gaye. He has hundreds of 45s, too. It just goes on and on. I used to just pick records and put them on to see what they were. When I was in high school, I was into car stereos with sub-bass so, music with beats became a part of my listening. I was into Beastie Boys, Techmaster P.E.B., DJ Magic Mike. If it had 808 kick or some kind of sub-bass line, I was into it. The funny thing was that I was also a saxophonist and would jam along.

How did you get into jazz? What about it got your juices flowing?

I got into listening and playing jazz in high school. I was the sax player in the jazz choir and formed a band with the guys from the rhythm section called, the Soulfish. I remember hearing a Branford Marsalis album called, Trio Jeepy, in a record store as a teenager and it blew my mind. I knew I wanted to play jazz, but had few resources. My music teacher at the time suggested I take lessons, so I started studying sax privately at age 16. The juices really started flowing once I started auditioning and competing against other saxophonists in college.

You enjoy playing electronica, pop, soul, and this thing called rough jazz. What is that?

Rough jazz is a description of what I call jazz that’s informed and influenced by electronic music. I have a song that’s an example of this on my album, Allergic to Gravity. It’s called “Wimpzilla.” Named after the Weakly Interacting Massive Particles in physics. It’s a melody that I wrote using a sample of a trumpet player friend of mine on an Akai MPC2000. It has a bass line that consists completely of sub-bass. In rough jazz, I combine jazz instrumentation, melodies and harmonies with electronica and experimental music elements to create music that’s jazzy, but also has a more bottom end than typical jazz recordings. It has an urban energy and feel that isn’t like any other music I’ve heard.

Describe your sound.

As far as writing, I’d say my sound is urban electro-jazz. My music is informed by things I hear everyday. I hear rhythms and melodies in everyday moments, like when a cash register prints a receipt or a woman is walking with loud shoes or car horns that fit into certain gaps in a conversation on the street.

How did you develop your own unique sound?

On sax, I try to always sound like myself. I’m a huge fan of Michael Brecker and Bunky Green, so I use them as examples when soloing as much as my technique and ears will allow.

I listen to the background music that’s already there and try to make sense of it. Most melodies are organic and already exist in the natural environment. I walk around with a digital recorder sometimes and just record whatever is happening. I’m sort of like a sound detective trying to locate, interpret and share sounds I find with the rest of the world. Sometimes these sounds exist solely inside my head.

There’s been a great divide amongst traditional jazz musicians, jazz-fusion musicians, and musicians who just plain old refuse to be labeled. Where do you stand in this argument?

Even the word jazz itself has detractors that say it should be called Black-American Music or BAM, due to how the word jazz evolved and the negative treatment of early jazz musicians in America, as opposed to other countries where instrumental music talent continues to be respected, revered and honored. It mostly depends on how jazz is defined. Jazz was the pop music of its day. Jazz is just pop music that has passed its prime. Classical music was also the pop music of its day. You don’t see any modern classical composers arguing their music is not classical. They just call it contemporary classical music and go about their business.

Now that we’re in the 21st century, I see nothing wrong with any genres being redefined or new sub-genres existing within any current genre. The true nature of jazz or Black-American Music is to always be moving forward and evolving into something new, so it’s futile to argue what it is or isn’t. It’s like trying to see the same color blue as the person next to you when looking up at the sky. Everyone sees it differently and the same. I think most labeling solely exists for marketing. It’s really just musicians enjoying themselves playing some great instrumental music at the end of the day and we can call it whatever we want in my opinion. I’ll call it contemporary jazz if it needs a name, though, for the purpose of discussion.

What have been your favorite gigs to play and why?

Well I’ve played a lot of gigs. Let’s see. I once played solo to a small village of people at a graduation ceremony at a tiny school on the tiny island of Catanduanes, Philippines. I played the Duke Ellington song, “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and when I finished, it was dead silence, because they had never heard and seen a saxophone in real life before. That was probably my favorite little gig. It’s the small things that you remember about a gig though. Lately I’ve enjoyed playing with SaRon Crenshaw and my own band Anomaly. I like all my gigs, especially when we get to jam. There is nothing like it when a good band rides a nice groove for a few minutes. It’s like you want it to last forever!

Tell me about your electronic jazz album, Allergic To Gravity, which was just re-released. (When was the original?)

I originally released it in 2008. It’s my first album. My dad died in 2007 and I decided I needed to finish something significant in my life. I was feeling very depressed and mortal. Allergic To Gravity was the result of me compiling every bit of music I had recorded and editing it, along with new music, into a full-length album. My great friend, Robert L. Smith of Defy Recordings, engineered it and he is also going to the Grammys this year for some work he did on the Glee recordings. It has many of my other wonderful New York musician friends on it that I called on at the time to add some extra live energy to the electronic tracks. The musicians on Allergic To Gravity are all my well-respected peers. I am so fortunate to know so many talented people.

What’s different about this re-release?

I have made edits to the intros and outros of the songs, so they all kind of go together in order if you play the entire album start to finish all the way through.

How can people find out more about this album?

It’s available on iTunes and CD baby. The best place is on my website. You can also just look at my schedule and if I’m booked somewhere near you, stop in, say hi, and ask any questions you’d like.

What kind of airplay is this album receiving?

It gets played on college radio stations mostly during the “alternative” hour of two. As an independent artist, I really don’t have the financial backing to solely mass market my music. I’m in the long tail of music, so I’m focusing more on creating a robustly marketable Internet brand for myself long-term than just touring and selling albums and merchandise.

Speaking of albums, if I peeked at your record collection, what would I find?

You’ll see a lot of the albums I’ve accumulated from musicians that I’ve recorded or performed with in NYC for the past 17 years. Like Milo Z, Gavin Degraw, the Niagaras, SaRon Crenshaw, Paul Tillotson, John Bardsley, Sly Geralds, Ray Levier, Butterscotch, Scott Brown. There are so many!

What’s going on next for you?

So many great things are happening. I don’t know where to start. I’m in the process of recording my yet-to-be titled album featuring another cast of my beautiful New York musician friends. The working title is Audio Instrumentalism. I’m also planning to release some animated music videos this year, so I’m on the market for video animation artists to collaborate with. I’m still working on new tracks with Stacie Rose. I’m also playing with a new band called Shark, Paper, Scissors that my buddy John Bardsley formed. I plan to start getting together with some friends to record a live album of my band Anomaly.

I plan to meet some nice creative folks at the Grammys and 2012 is looking to have many awesome possibilities!

Interview first appeared in the Examiner Jan. 30, 2012.

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