Randy Napoleon has an all-finger approach; at least that’s what George Benson says of the Detroit-based jazz guitarist, whose highly melodic and groove-oriented style showcases a harmonic richness and giant acoustic sound.
“He doesn’t use just thumb or pick,” observes Benson in a 2010 interview with Vintage Guitar Magazine. “He’s spectacular.”
His unique tone is the full, warm sound that can only come from flesh on string. It’s a roundness that balances the glow of the amp with the snap of the string.
A Brooklyn-born professor of jazz guitar at Michigan State, Napoleon has made a name for himself recording and touring with multiple national artists, including Michael Buble and Freddy Cole.
That signature richness and dynamism that Benson points to is part of what makes Soon, Napoleon’s new release on Detroit Music Factory, so inviting.
Soon focuses on lesser-played compositions from the Great American Songbook; the familiar tunes buried in our subconscious, according to Napoleon.
“One of the songs was darting around the edge of my mind for weeks,” says Napoleon. “I eventually realized the tune was ‘The Second Star To The Right,’ from the Disney animated film Peter Pan. The songs I chose for this record all had that unforgettable quality.”
Indeed many of the selections have a primal familiarity, imparting a sense that feels as though they never had to be written, as though they always existed. The songs, which include architectural masterpieces by such elegant composers as Cole Porter, George Gershwin and Billy Strayhorn, provide a musical playground with a sturdy point of departure for the featured musicians to explore and create.
“These memorable melodies give us more freedom as improvisers,” notes Napoleon. “It gives the listener a strong point of entry.”
Recorded in one room, all in a single day, Soon has a very earthy, natural sound. The record features Rodney Whitaker on bass, Gregory Hutchinson on drums and Etienne Charles on trumpet.
“Rodney and Greg are masters of the highest order,” says Napoleon of the iconic rhythm section. “They helped define the jazz aesthetic of my generation.”
Throughout their playing on Soon, the musicians are constantly orchestrating the music and endlessly creating; the chemistry between Whitaker and Hutchinson verges on telepathy.
Napoleon and Charles perform two duets on the album: “Body And Soul” and “Isfahan.” The sound of Napoleon’s guitar and Charles’ trumpet is often striking and the pieces do a lot to enhance the intimate and spontaneous feeling of the record.
Napoleon’s playing stylistically references his biggest musical influences, most notably that of Wes Montgomery.
“The thing I love about Wes is he wouldn’t use all of his speed,” says Napoleon. “He used a sense of drama and knew how to build.”
Like Wes Montgomery, Napoleon’s playing creates the illusion that there’s more going on. It’s a sleight of hand that keeps the sound full and exciting, and rich with variety.
You can also hear the effects that the last nine years of touring and recording with GRAMMY® Award winning jazz singer and pianist Freddy Cole has had on Napoleon. Like Cole, he artfully edits, choosing melodic over abstract, groove over chaotic, never playing more than is needed to create the “feel.”
“All of the older musicians I’ve ever worked with have stressed to me that you can create more feeling with fewer notes,” he says. “The drama comes from the spaces. If the music stops singing, it stops feeling good.”
The recording also stands out because it’s the first time Napoleon has recorded without a piano player or organ player. The format reveals the full beauty and range of the acoustic jazz guitar.
“There is freedom, danger and opportunity,” say Napoleon of the scaled-back ensemble.
Soon is neither a themed record nor a composition project. Exploring the lesser-used format of the guitar trio, it’s stripped down to what jazz improvisers do every day: create.
“I love it when people relate to the feeling of what I play,” says Napoleon. “You find something new, and sharing that discovery with listeners is what all musicians hope for.”