Roy Ayers spins out his unreleased jams

Music Notes

August 18, 2005|By Rashod D. Ollison

MUCH HAS happened in the past six years, so I didn't expect him to remember our nearly hour-long chat.

In 1999, when I was a music critic intern at a newspaper in Dallas, Roy Ayers was the first musician I interviewed. My editor asked me if I was interested in the assignment, if I had ever heard of the veteran jazz-funk musician. Please! At the time, I had two of his CDs in my bag. And there were several more at the house.

He may never have broken big on the pop charts in his 40-year career, so your average Joe or Tamika may not know the guy. But lovers of sophisticated funk and acid jazz, the sound Roy presaged by nearly 20 years, know all about the Los Angeles-born artist. Lovers of hip-hop, particularly the genre's smoothed-out "Daisy Age," dig him, too. Aside from James Brown, Roy is one of the most sampled artists in rap. His classic music, which often extolled black beauty, black pride and mystical spirituality in the lyrics, has been generously referenced on fusion, house and modern R&B tracks. Mary J. Blige built "My Life," her 1994 soul-exposed classic, on "Everybody Loves the Sunshine," one of Roy's best-known joints from 1976.

At 63, the singer-songwriter-vibraphonist remains fairly popular, touring regularly around the country and overseas -- especially in London where the dude still sells out venues. He also does countless interviews every year. So, no, he doesn't remember our lovely conversation during the summer of '99. But I remember still floating somewhere among the clouds 48 hours after we talked.

"I'm at a high creative level now," says Roy, who plays Washington's Carter Barron tomorrow night. He's calling from his New York City home. "I try to stay stern in my beliefs and leave a message in the music."

Roy's latest project is the second installment of Virgin Ubiquity, a collection of unreleased cuts from his peak years at Polydor Records between 1976 and 1981. The first set, released last January, received wide critical acclaim and renewed interest in the artist's warm melange of soothing jazz, kinetic Latin rhythms and earthy R&B. Virgin Ubiquity Vol. I was a revelation, rich with vibrant funk and dance cuts. And some of the ballads rode shimmering, lushly undulating grooves. My first thought was, "Why in the world did Roy keep these jams in the vaults so long?" "It all sounded good to me at the time I was doing this stuff," the musician says. "I have about 300 tapes, a lot of stuff. I just released what I liked at the time."

During those prolific years at Polydor, Roy recorded, mixed and mastered everything he did in the studio. So there aren't any half-baked or incomplete tunes on either volume of Virgin Ubiquity. The unreleased material rivals (or in some cases surpasses) much of the music Roy issued back in the day.

He says, "As I listened to [the unreleased music], I was like, 'Wow, I hadn't heard this in a while. I was into some nice stuff.' I'm always trying to create a new beginning for Roy Ayers. I used to think that over 60 was old. It's not at all, man."

I caught the performer's show at Washington's Constitution Hall last winter. He looked good, and his energy on stage was boundless. He was ingratiating that night, singing and jamming on the vibraphone as if he hadn't aged a day since 1975.

Roy continues to make new music. Mahogany Vibe, featuring Betty Wright and Erykah Badu, appeared last year. But like so many musical veterans who paved the way for so many less-talented knuckleheads, Roy gets overlooked.

"The thing that's bothering me is that the industry isn't recording more black musicians, primarily jazz musicians," he says. "They're not recording as many as they used to. My suggestion is to make your own label ... Clear Channel's controlling everything. I hope our people wake up and start recording themselves, our history, our stories in the music."

With more than 91 albums to his credit, I asked Roy if he feels as if he's done his part. Does he have anything more revelatory to share in the music?

"Oh, yeah, man. I used to spend 27 hours straight in the studio," says the artist, a married man of 33 years and the father of three grown children. "I'm a fast worker. I'd record 18 or 19 songs straight. I don't do that anymore. But as long as I'm here, I have music to share."

Check out Roy Ayers with George Duke at Carter Barron Amphitheatre, 4850 Colorado Ave., N.W. in Washington, tomorrow night at 7:30. Tickets are $20 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.

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