Whether cast in the role of being one of the world's premier Hammond B3 players, or whether appraised as a formidable Jazz pianist, Funk innovator, Fusion pioneer, 60's hit maker, Jazz Rock band leader, or as in more recent years the 'Godfather of Acid Jazz', keyboard player, band leader, arranger and prolific song writer Brian Auger undoubtedly owes his enduring career to simply being the best in many fields.
Few artists can boast a 40 year career that has seen them play all the main international rock, blues, jazz festivals let alone front a succession of bands from the all star Steam Packet to the chart topping Trinity and the revitalised Oblivion Express.
In a wide ranging musical career Brian and his succession of bands have shared bills across the world with a wide array of artists ranging from Jimmy Hendrix, ZZ Top and Earth Wind & Fire to one of his greatest admirers Herbie Hancock.
And so it is that as he enters his fifth decade as top flight professional music Brian Auger does so with a revamped Oblivion Express line-up that includes his daughter Savannah on vocals and son Karma on drums, who also holds down the production and engineering roles. Buoyed by an 8 album retrospective on Castle that includes releases by two of children drummer Karma and vocalist Ali, Brian has never been so busy.
And on the evidence of a phone interview in Paris before his appearance at the New Morning Club, he is clearly just as enthusiastic as ever.
Photo: Angie Gray
Given your plethora of musical roles you have held down the years, do you still consider yourself a jazz musician first?
No I consider myself anything but that. At the moment I am back in Paris and there seems to be a buzz on the back of the Acid Jazz thing. Apparently the whole Acid Jazz thing came from some people being into some of my earlier albums, and the phrase 'Godfather of Acid Jazz' stuck.
It was really down to Eddie Piller who started the Acid Jazz label and based the whole model on my 'Closer to It' album. I wasn't ever on the label, but Eddie did pen some liner notes for me, but as a result of that scene there is renewed interest over here. I am amazed in some ways at the popularity as between 1980 and 1991 I couldn't get arrested playing a B3. I mean synths are ok through a Leslie but it lacks the strength.
The Acid Jazz scene brought me back to the UK to play the Phoenix Jazz Festival in 95, and they specifically asked for a B3. In fact the whole Acid Jazz thing started out with a Fender Rhodes and then graduated to bringing the B3 back with vengeance. So in one instance the British Acid jazz thing kick started a whole new era for me, but I would never say I am primarily a jazzer.
I think I have always gone my own way with my music, and have at times fallen between the cracks of rock and Jazz and R&B. If you look at the wide range of rock, blues and jazz festivals we have played it is anything but one style. I've always held by the Duke Ellington quote, that 'there are only two kinds of music, good and bad'. I've never been able to pigeonhole my music, because there are so many elements in it, right through to strong classical influences, and different songs that we give the treatment to. We are still a very powerful band.
From Left To Right: Brian Auger (Hammond B3 Organ), Savannah Auger (Vocals), Karma Auger (Drums)
Photo: Angie Gray
What are the main differences between the original Oblivion Express and now?
Basically we are now a three piece with a vocalist. The band was obviously bigger before but I had so many musicians poached down the years. I'd bring in some great players and give them the freedom to stretch out and realise their potential, but as regards just drummers alone I lost two to the Average White band then I lost Alex the singer to Santana, so I'm very happy with what we have now. It's a settled line-up and features my son Karma who aside from being a wonderful player is also our producer and engineer and he helps with all the logistics of where we are going. Basically the band still continues because of him.
He started out on piano and by the age of 20 decided he wanted to play drums. He then had the godsend of my former drummer Steve Ferrone who gave him a load of gear. It was like manna from heaven. He's cut his own album and is finding his own way, but all my children including Ali who also sings are into a lot of stuff from Jazz to rock and so they bring modern stuff into the mix.
My other daughter Savannah now sings in Oblivion Express and started from scratch about 7 years ago. She actually liked some of the early Trinity stuff so we thought about bringing some of that stuff back into the repertoire. At present we also have Doug Shreeve on bass, though we kind of rotate five bass players! The current line-up is almost a parallel with what we had with Julie Driscoll, and really I think it's the strongest formation I've worked with far.
Jumping back a few years there is a track called 'The Seeker' on the 1984 'Here & Now' album that contains some seeming autobiographical lyrics about the late 60's and early 70's. What did that period mean to you and what did you take from what has regarded as a golden musical period?
I feel very privileged to have come from the 60's in the UK. It was a time when there was a great music scene before the advent of the real development of the music industry as we know it now. It was a very open time with lots of great musicians of every type.
I was working as a jazz pianist at Ronnie Scott's, and led one of the last jazz trios with a blues edge. We'd play Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, a sort of East Coast Bop outfit with a blues edge. We'd play Horice Silver stuff for example, and it was an easy switch to playing R&B. Personally I loved the rhythm sections to be found at the Flamingo – George Fame's band for example. I'd love to overlay the drumming of Bernard Purdie, and the Motown bass of James Jameson, and Wes Montgomery's octaves. I saw it all as a possible bridge between Rock, R&B and Jazz.
But although the music was great a lot of jazzers wouldn't talk to me, and my idea was to try and build something different, a kind of music that those people could listen to. It was pursuing a new rhythm, and I think we finally achieved that with 'Streetnoise' album, as everything gelled on that album.
Given your musical goals at the time, did the 'This Wheels on Fire' chart success come as a surprise?
It certainly did. We'd been sent some tapes from New York, which were basically 'The Basement Tapes'. Manfred Mann got them first and he picked the hit 'Mighty Quinn'. I thought 'Wheels' was an intriguing track but I only really saw it as an album track at the time, and certainly not as a single, let alone a hit record. I saw the thing as maybe having a rock rhythm and playing over that, but in the end we left the walking bass line and it became a kind of groove march. The result was 'wow, this is really something', but we still didn't think of it as a hit.
And yet on the back of that Julie Driscoll hit your follow up album 'Definitely What' was an instrumental effort?
Yes it was, it was basically my own solo album, but I was still working with Julie and we cut the 'Streetnoise' album which gave us the opportunity to play the music by the people we love such as Laura Nyro, Richie Havens and even a number from Hair' the musical, and we fleshed out the material in our own way.
When you first started Oblivion Express you stressed the importance of playing live. Is this still a strong imperative?
Yes I certainly haven't cured myself of that; the current tour alone is 6 weeks in 10 countries. I love the direct contact with the public, because that is what makes it for me. If I'm not playing live I would be doing loads of studio work which ultimately can be a bit boring. Though I've just done some interesting sessions with Billy Cobham, and Zucchero and I think All Saints have also sampled one of my tunes 'Tiger'. But a lot of the studio stuff means someone sending me an mp3 to listen to and subsequently add my input. So I do most of that at home, but I really prefer playing live.
Were you influenced by other people at the time of recoding particular albums? I'm thinking of the jazz rock era of the early 70's with Colosseum and your later Funk albums and the possible influence of Herbie Hancock?
Well there are loads of musical influences that go back and forth. When Oblivion Express started there were lots of people looking at our records to see what was going on. Of course we were then in the Jazz Rock field and I was aware of bands like Colosseum, both musically and socially because I was a friend of the late Dick Heckstall-Smith. But we played on lots of bills with people like that.
As regards Funk we weren't directly influence by Herbie's 'Headhunters' as I'd already done a version of Herbie's 'Maiden Voyage' in 1969, long before he took off in a funk direction. I knew Herbie as a jazz musician. On one occasion we followed him into a club in Philly as we had a night off. He was my idol, and he came up and said hello and already knew about me. He said 'you will enjoy this band'. I think his last album at that point had been 'Mwandishi' and they went straight into 'Chameleon'.
I was leaning toward Funk and was looking for people who could do that. Back then it was still the case of Jazzers over here, and rock players over there, and with Oblivion Express we started out with rock first and then we lost Steve Ferrone to the Average White band. So I set up some rehearsals and we found Godfrey Mclean and he said we should listen to this guy Lennox (Laington) on congas, and with these two guys all of a sudden there was the groove idea I had in my mind all along. It became the basis of the album 'Closer To It', and in the end that project opened up the US for me. The whole Crusaders, Chick Correa, Herbie Hancock thing happened after that, around '73.
Meanwhile we were still playing to diverse audiences. We were opening for bands like Blue Oyster Cult, Stix and Earth Wind & Fire, and it all worked. Morris White from Earth Wind & Fire came down to our sound check and watched which was incredible. But the point was that there was a lot o crossing over at that point. On one amazing night we opened Madison Square Garden for ZZ Top, and in Richmond, Virginia we were on the strangest bill sandwiched between Rush and Kiss, and it all worked fine.
Could you have made it the same way if you had stayed in the UK?
No I don't think so no. America became very important to us. After the first couple of shows the promoter came up to me and said, 'this is very strange'. I asked him what was strange? He replied that the crowd coming to our gigs was half black and half white. It was no surprise to me as I'd be used to that kind of a crossover audience going back to the Flamingo days, but in the US it never happened like that. .I told him it wasn't strange for us at all especially as my band was also half black and half white. It was the beginning of true crossing over. Herbie did the same the opposite ay round bringing a white audience to his black music.
By the end of the 70's you had run your course with RCA and seemed to be free of big label pressures for the first time?
Well, I was approached by a label called Head First. I had made something like 10 albums for RCA in 5 years. And then this independent label called me up and said they were interested and had a small budget but said I could basically do what I wanted. The whole project essentially became the 'Search Party' album (now available again as part of the new 8 album retrospective).
By the time of the following 'Here & Now' you seemed to have embraced a MOR style?
Well it was part of a decade when the B3 went out of fashion. Everyone was into synths at the time and the other problem was that the record company marketed the album essentially for the Italian market and not for an international audience and I think it suffered as a result.
You then went back to playing rock with Eric Burdon. How did that work out?
I got a call from Eric's people. I didn't realise it at the time but Eric was also living in California in Palm Springs. So we were both in LA and he was interested in working with me. I told him I wasn't really interested in just going out and doing Animals covers. He agreed with me and said he wanted to take the music to another plane.
I came up with some lyrics to some of his tracks, but really he rocked as usual. Eric hadn't played New York for nearly 20 years I think and we had to put some good musicians around him, as opposed to just a bunch of muso's who played with him at the time. After a couple years we thought we ought to record the band as it was really good, and that became the 'Access All Areas' album. But in the long run it didn't work out, and kind of blocked my creativity really.
By the mid 90's you went back out touring with a new Oblivion Express. What made you resurrect the band name?
It came about because I got my masters back from RCA and most of the 80's stuff was one off deals that record companies owned for no more than three years. So I was in a position to possibly re-issue them with modern EQ's and perhaps re-master them.
I was offered some Euro deals in 95 and so started the band up again with the idea of doing a tribute to some of the people that have influenced me. And since then we've toured the States and Europe and are going to Japan. I've been there before with Eric and Tony Williams and worked over there with Tony McAlpine and Dennis Chambers, who was brilliant, on a project called 'Cab'. In fact I think the second album 'Cab2' was up for a Grammy nomination for 'Best Contemporary Jazz' album. It was really a Fusion project.
And what musical goals and ambitions do you have left after 40 years in your role as a musical catalyst?
Well as always the primary task is to push the current band on as far as possible. I've got my musical family around me, so it's one of the most stable units I have worked with and it would simply be great to realise the full potential of the band. I might also explore some archive stuff.
I've got a possible Steampacket album to put out with different tracks and lots of photos etc. I've also thought about a big band project but I've got to get some arrangements down before I can even consider that, and then there's lots more gigs.
Interview © November 2006 Pete Feenstra
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