Thursday, February 28, 2013

Fred Wesley: interview

Mister Fred Wesley
Fred Wesley is one of the funkiest people on the planet. If you don't know who he is, well, he played trombone with James Brown and the JBs from 1968-70, and 1971-75 (as band leader and arranger), and then worked with George Clinton (Parliament/Funkadelic). Quite a pedigree.

Wesley joined James Brown in 1968, and his first recording with the Godfather of soul was the hugely important track Say it loud, I'm  black and I'm proud. He went to Zaire with Brown for the Ali/Foreman Rumble in the jungle in 1972 (see When we were kings/Soul Power documentaries for the full story).

Wesley joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1978, pursing his love of jazz (check his version of Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man, off the previously unreleased jazz album he did in the 70s, issued in 2011).

He's playing inAuckland on 21st March at The Powerstation. The 69-year old keeps busy - this year he did a European tour, played Brazil with Maceo Parker, did a jazz festival in Croatia, and jammed with Osaka Monaurail in Japan. And fitted in a recording session with D'Angelo. I had the pleasure of talking with Mr Wesley on the phone late last year. Here's that conversation.

Q: I had a look at your touring schedule this year, you get around! Across Europe, then playing in San Francisco with several former members of the JBs, off to Brazil, and recently out to Japan to play with Osaka Monaurail. So, no plans to retire any time soon?

Fred Wesley: Aw no, I'm not going to retire til they drag me off the stage and put me in a hole. That's when I retire.

Q: So, you really will be doing it to death [a JBs song title]?

FW: (laughs) oh yeah! That's true. I'll be doing it to death. I have no plans to retire. I'm gonna play as long as I can.

Q: How was Japan? And the reunion with Clyde, Fred and Jabo?

FW: Japan was wonderful. The Osaka Monaurail is a very good band. The gig with Clyde, Jabo, Fred Thomas [all former members of James Brown's band, like Wesley] they all did an excellent job. We had them as guests with my band. We did some old tunes, it was a lot of fun. We did Get on the good foot, Cold sweat, I got the feeling, and Pass the peas, Gimme some more, we did a variety of stuff that they featured on, on the original recordings. We had a great time.

Q: Did you need to rehearse them or did those songs just come back naturally?

FW: I had to put it together cos some of the band had never played it before, and Jabo, Clyde and Fred had forgotten exactly what they'd played. We had a rehearsal and it came back real fast, and we had a good time.

Q: You've been involved in many records over the years, what records that you've done are you the most proud of?

FW: I'm real proud of House Party, the whole album never came out in general release, there's some bootlegs that have been out, but that album was a very good album, I thought. I'm very proud of it. Of course, the James Brown albums, Mind Power, The Payback, Good foot, those were good albums too. And the albums I did with George Clinton, Mothership Connection... I'm just proud of my long career!

Q: You've lectured at universities and various academic institutions and worked with James Brown and George Clinton, two of the funkiest people ever to grace the planet, and I was curious, how do you define funk?

FW: Well, funk is music, number one, but it is an aggressive kind of music. People who play it seem to have an attitude, they don't wanna be outplayed by the next guy so they're very aggressive about playing. Funk has a beat and a bassline and a guitar line, that's indigenous to all funk music, its just aggressive music.

Q: I read that your first recording with James Brown was Say It loud I'm black and I'm proud, which was a very important record when it came out in 1968, in the midst of a lot of social change in America. That was some 40 odd years ago, and this year, you played at the White House for President and Mrs Obama - what was that like? Did you get to meet the President?

FW: I met him, just briefly, that was a really mindblowing experience. I played on Say it loud, I'm black and I'm proud, and 40 years later I meet the President and he's black. That was really amazing. I never thought the same thing would happen in my lifetime. To see it twice is really amazing. 

I have really been here long enough to say 'I'm black and I'm proud' and then to see the pride of having a black President, it's really amazing how things have changed over the years.

He [President Obama] came downstairs during the rehearsals, and he sat and talked to my manager - my daughter. And when I met him, he said 'what's your name?' I say 'it's Fred Wesley', he says 'Oh yeah, I talked to your daughter earlier'. So, my daughter got more of him than I did. I got a few seconds with him, but she got about 15 minutes with him!

Q: I’m very much looking forward to seeing you in Auckland on 21st March - a week earlier we also get a live show here from Hugh Masekela. I see on your website you caught up with Hugh at a festival in Croatia earlier this year, and it mentions a 30 years later reunion with Hugh - what’s the story behind that?

We both played the Rumble in the Jungle, a festival in Zaire [the concert covered in the documentaries Soul Power and When We Were Kings] back in 1974, when they had the Ali/Foreman fight. We had seen each other since then, but I hadn't seen him in over 30 years, you know? I was really happy to see Hugh. We've been good friends.

Q: You worked under James Brown, and then George Clinton, how were they different to work for?

FW: Well, James was very creative, but he was creative in the way that he wanted it exactly like he wanted it, you know? But George Clinton was creative, by taking what you gave him. He had a lot of great musicians around him. Like Bernie Worrell, Garry Shider, Bootsy, myself, and Maceo, so he would take what we gave him and mix into a great album, a great song, and that was the difference. James Brown would give you exactly what he wanted and it would come out his way, and George Clinton would take what you gave him and mix it in and out and make a great song out of it.

Q: What can we expect from the Fred Wesley live show?

FW: Well, I do some of everybody's music; I try to do some James Brown music from with the JBs, and some of George Clintons's music, we do a little of that. Even some of Count Basie music. But we will focus on my music.

For years I've been a sideman with all these great musicians and artists, and now I get a chance to do some of the things I want to do myself. So we'll do For The Elders, In Love In LA, and some of my personal music, and I think you'll like that too. It's a mix of all the different music I've been involved with. But we'll play the familiar songs too, like Pass The Peas, and House Party, so we'll have a great time.

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