“I love getting on stage and seeing people smile,” says New York guitarist JJ Sansaverino. He will bring his blend of smooth jazz, R&B, blues and reggae to Nell’s in West Kensington on 16 Sept. His singles have regularly topped the Billboard charts, and he’s worked with Maxi Priest, Maceo Parker, Randy Brecker and many more. He talked about how New York inspires his music and his high-energy performances. Feature by Alison Bentley.London Jazz News:Your family were singers; you started on violin and the trumpet- what led you to take up the guitar?JJ Sansaverino: We all loved music so much when I was growing up. I heard the Beatles, Sinatra, a little bit of opera, and lots of Motown. I started playing those instruments because they were in the public school programme, and I enjoyed it. I found an old guitar in a closet and it had a couple of strings, and I started messing around on it. That was 47 years ago! I started taking some lessons and ended up getting into the Berklee School of Music in Boston. That’s when everything changed for me because I became a more educated player. We loved jazz- we would hear Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Ahmad Jamal.
It’s interesting when you’re playing the theme of a song on your instrument- if it’s something like a Miles Davis or Santana or George Benson song, the notes are relatively cut and dried. With the guitar, you can listen to it and learn it. When it comes to learning songs by singers it’s a lot more interpretive. It’s harder, but it gives your voice more soul and expression, like it’s a guitar voice.
LJN:What is it about Carlos Santana and George Benson that you love?JJS: Santana’s playing is some of the best, because he plays rock, but he also has that Latin, soul and R&B sound. I love traditional jazz but I don’t like to perform it on stage as much- it just doesn’t have the passion of soul and R&B. So that’s why I gravitated towards smooth jazz, because it gives you the freedom to play any kind of music instrumentally. I was always into world music- Latin, reggae, coupled with the rock guitar sound. When you listen to jazz, and the band is really swinging hard, and the trumpet player is holding this note, it’s so powerful. With the jazz guitar, when you hit the note it fades. When you have a rock sound, you can bend that and you can get the same expression.
If you go to a traditional jazz show, they usually start out with something relatively uptempo to get going and they might switch to a ballad and a Latin-oriented piece. So they’re taking you on a journey but it’s still within certain guidelines: the street is only so wide and the umbrella is only so large . With smooth jazz, not only does the mood change with the tempo, you can electrify with a little more rock sound; you can drop some reggae in there. You can capture all these different genres under that smooth jazz sound..
LJN:I wondered if there was some Jeff Beck in your playing?JJS: Oh boy! I loved Jeff Beck- he was so interesting. I think he was one of the most underrated guitar geniuses out there.
LJN:You’ve talked about your musicians having “conversations” with each other onstage, swapping improvised phrases?JJS: Music is a true language: somebody is writing all that music down, we’re reading it and we’re speaking it. We’re having a conversation and it’s fun. [sings improvised phrases] We’re not switching topics; the themes should have a cohesiveness to them. The debate may increase, or we might push each other’s buttons and say things that maybe are controversial.
LJN:You have some strong melodies in your writing.
JJS: I really wanna have stronger, bigger melodies. A lot of the time people just brush over the melody content in their verses so as not to make it too complex. The melody has to be strong in order to make the message and story fun and interesting. If it’s a fun kind of a groove, nice tempo, that’s great but the meat and potatoes has to be the melody.
LJN:So many different styles come together in your grooves.JJS: Well, you know in New York right outside the window you’ll hear a guy blasting salsa music; you’ll hear a guy playing Guns N’ Roses, or reggae- it can all inspire you. A lot of what I write comes from what I’m hearing day-to-day. I write a lot of my music without instruments- I write a lot of it in my head first. Usually when I have the song 70-80% composed in my head, I go to my studio and start to lay it down and piece it together- the solidness of what was already in my head stays there.
LJN:Do you arrange all the tracks yourself, including the horns?JJS: Getting that education at music college was a really intense time. In those days, there were no computers to print things out for you. If I was writing an arrangement for a 25-piece big band, which I was doing a lot of- 4 trumpets, 5 saxophones, 4 trombones and rhythm section with a small orchestra- it would take days and days. I write music constantly; I wanna get that music out there, and I like to do the arrangements and the production myself. I love to really put my signature sound on the finished product. The only thing that I don’t do is the final mix-I send that off and let them clean it up and make it go.
LJN:Have you played at Nell’s before?JJS: This will be my very first time performing in London as solo JJ Sansaverino. I performed with Maxi Priest numerous times in London at the O2 and the Jazz Café. London is a city which holds music in high regard. I’m really excited to bring a beautiful show with all this energy and musicality so that my friends across the pond can get to experience it.
I truly love what I do, and fuels me. As a little kid, I always prayed to God, “Please, this what I wanna do!” All my family members were saying, that’s a great idea but it’s very difficult to make it in the music business. I realised that I had talent, and all I needed to do was be humble, work hard and nurture that talent.
It’s fantastic to let the music do the talking, but I also like to have some chats with the audience. I want everybody to get to know me a little bit. I always like people to know that the only thing we have that is still free in this world is love. I think we need to share that love and make people happy. I love getting on stage and seeing people smile. It makes me feel good that I did something today that’s going to make the world a better place.
PP features are part of marketing packagesLINKS: JJ Sanseverino ‘s websiteBookings for 16 Sepember at Nell’s in W14: JJ Sansaverino- Guitar, Orefo Orakwue – Bass, Andrew Small – Drums, Anita Carmichael – Sax. Andrew Noble – Keys