I’ve had the pleasure of writing articles as a jazz musician and
educator about several topics, including jazz improvisation. But
for this article, I get to write about myself a little. It feels kind of
weird to write about myself, so I thought the best way to handle
that is to write an article about the life of a working jazz musician
and the various stages of my life I’ve experienced throughout my
career to achieve specific goals.
I think the first and most important thing about doing anything in life is finding the passion to want to do something. I first found my passion with jazz music through my father, Pete Selvaggio. My father passed many years ago, but he lived a full, active life within world of jazz. After touring with bands like Guy Lombardo and the Four Lads, he came back to the northeast Ohio area and continued to perform pretty much every night until the day he passed. Because he worked so much with so many different great musicians in northeast Ohio, I had the luxury of hearing great jazz growing up. This included local musicians like Bob Frazier, Ernie Krivda, Kenny Davis, Val Kent, Bob “Skeets” Ross, John Klayman, as well as many others. This gave me a wonderful foundation in the sounds and history of jazz. Though I played a lot of sports growing up, as much as I played music, the jazz bug bit me the summer before I went off to Kent State for my undergrad degree.
“The point of our practice is to be able to unburden ourselves and return to reality moment by moment.”
— SOJUN MEL WEITSMAN
Hearing Cannonball Adderley at Kent State for the first time literally changed my life. One of my major mentors is my now good friend Chas Baker, who ran the jazz classes at Kent State for over 30 years. He hipped me to Cannonball and that was it. I was off running, chasing down those sounds I heard, practicing them still to this day. I’ve heard from many musicians that it always comes back to one jazz musician you hear and that initial experience will change everything for you. There are always more that will help shape you into a more complete player, but there’s always the first one. After four to five hours a day practicing while studying at Kent State and building the much needed foundation in all the concepts of jazz through practice, rehearsals, performances, and sessions, I went to New York City to further my education at the Manhattan School of Music. This was the second of my life-changing experiences.
“One of the few, young saxophonists on the scene today that captures you with his strong presence, focus, and sound.” — JOE LOVANO
The one thing my first jazz teacher, John Klayman, told me was that my time in New York has to be about music first and everything else second. It’s a good thing Chelsea, my now wife of 22 years, is also a musician and an understanding woman, because I spent the next few years practicing, rehearsing, performing, going to sessions, and being a music entrepreneur for myself for 12 plus hours about every day. That’s what I learned, above all else during that time of my life; dedica-tion to your craft means putting that much time in. Period. You can’t skirt your way around that concept. You have to either be all-in or all-out if you want to be respected as someone at the highest level. I also started to learn the importance of networking and building a good reputation as a player. My third life-changing event was getting asked to play with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra (VJO) as a sub. Another teacher and mentor was Dick Oatts, the lead alto player for the VJO and he put me on the sub list for one of the great jazz orchestras on the planet. That’s a gig I had the pleasure of doing several times my last year in New York. Plus, it gave me the opportunity to perform at one of the most revered jazz clubs in the world, the Vanguard; a venue where jazz legends John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and countless others have performed.
“Bobby is among the best of players out there.” — KENNY WERNER
Once my wife Chelsea and I started thinking about starting a family, we decided to move back home to northeast Ohio and make that our home base. This was the stage of my life that puts me where I am today. One of the main things I’ve learned being a full-time, working musician is no one will do your work for you. To get to a place of recording CDs, putting tours together, composing -and performing original music, performing with world class, respected, internationally recognized, jazz musicians and educating the jazz youth, I had to put myself in a position to succeed at that, with an understanding that you need to learn about the business world as much as you do the jazz world. For me, I learned it in the real world, through trial and error (mostly error). But because I put the time in to get my playing mostly together, networked and built relationships with incredible musicians and venues, and have taken all I’ve learned from my experiences to come up with a process to educate, I’m now getting ready to release my ninth CD as a leader on Dot Time Records. I’ve done countless tours around the globe, I’ve performed and recorded with great jazz musicians today like Kenny Werner, Aaron Goldberg, Sean Jones, Carl Allen, Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Nir Felder, as well as many others, and I’m now the Director of Jazz Studies at Kent State.
Being a musician is a continuous thing that never stops evolving. Without growth and innovation, the arts would not survive. We must continue to inspire and educate the people around us to live a life of passion and tolerance so that we all can experience the things that really move us.
THE INAUGURAL SEASON OF STANDING ROCK CULTURAL ARTS' AROUND THE WORLD MUSIC SERIES kicked off on Saturday, October 10, 2015, with an engaging family concert by master African drummer and drum builder Baba Jubal of Cleveland, who took audience members on a journey through the history of the drum from Africa through the Caribbean to the U.S. Along the way, he shared fascinating stories and folk tales, ending the program by inviting everyone in attendance to play and sing along for a delightful collaborative finale. The series, which is coordinated by SRCA Executive Director Jeff Ingram and curated by Kent State University-trained ethnomusicologist David Badagnani, will present excellent performers from around the globe — most based in Northeast Ohio or western Pennsylvania. The new, intimate theater space of SRCA’s North Water Street Gallery (300 North Water St., Suite H, across the street from the old location), which features a small stage, sound system, and sustainable bamboo floor, provides the perfect setting for such concerts, allowing for an ideal connection between performer and listener.
Upcoming performances in the 2016 – 17 season include:
● Sat., October 8, 2016 - The Five Islands (stylish calypso instrumentals from the golden age of Trinidadian music, played by a 5-piece acoustic band)
● Saturday, October 22, 2016 - Paul Stranahan solo and Lisa Miralia/Paul Stranahan Duo (imaginative and otherworldly improvised soundscapes performed on Chinese gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, and home-built electronics)
● Saturday, November 12, 2016 - The Lori Cahan-Simon Ensemble (Yiddish classics of yesteryear sung by one of the tradition's foremost interpreters, accompanied by violinist Steven Greenman and accordionist Walt Mahovlich)
● Saturday, December 10, 2016 - Druk Fusion Band (traditional and popular music of the Himalayas, performed on familiar and exotic instruments by an ensemble from Akron's Nepali Bhutanese community)
● Saturday, April 8, 2017 - Journeywork (traditional music played by three of the area's finest Irish performers: uilleann piper Brian Bigley, guitarist/singer Ruairí Hurley, and flutist Brian Holleran)
● Saturday, May 27, 2017 - Yahya Golestan and Dariush Saghafi (timeless classical music and poetic songs of Persia, played on tar and santur)
Meet and Greet Reception, featuring food and drinks (often culturally specific to the program) begins at 7:30 pm with concerts immediately following at 8 pm. All concerts are Saturday dates.
All ages are welcome and a donation of $10 is suggested.
For more information about the Around the World Music Series, visit www.facebook.com/aroundtheworldmusicseries or http://www.standingrock.net/Performances.html
THE VOCALIST HELEN WELCH performs throughout world, performing entertaining
shows of her own creation with her trio, with big bands, with concert bands, and with
symphony orchestras. She has built an impassioned fan base in northeast Ohio since
relocating here from her native England in 2003. Her brand new recording, Spellbound,
presents an inspired collection of music, including fresh arrangements of songs by
Lennon and McCartney, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Michel LeGrand, Dolly Parton, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, and Chick Corea. The recording also features original songs written by Ms. Welch. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to chat with her about the new recording.
Why did you decide to put out this CD now? While I have been hounded by fans asking when I was going to record a new CD, I have had no inspiration to record for quite some time. My dad passed away in September 2015 after being very ill for about six months. As we celebrated his 94 years of life, I vividly recalled his passion for music. I was suddenly hit with the inspiration and motivation to record again. This recording is really in memory of him.
The musicians on the recording sound fantastic. How long have you been working with your trio? I met the wonderful bassist Bryan Thomas very early on after arriving from England, and we’ve been working together for about nine years. The pianist Joe Leaman came on the scene about six years ago and we’ve been working together seriously for around four years. Anthony Taddeo on drums is our newest addition. He has been with us for about 16 months.
Why did you decide to add the guitarist Joe Parker on a few tracks? Originally, the whole CD was just going to be piano trio, with some auxiliary percussion. While going through all of the possibilities, I decided I wanted to record Chick Corea’s “Spain”. My dad was a big jazz lover, as well as a great flamenco guitarist. I studied flamenco dance. I’ve been surrounded and passionate about that whole genre of music for a long time. I thought that “Spain” lent itself to being a wonderful vehicle for the flamenco sound I so love and associate with my dad, growing up listening to him practice and play. When I met Joe Parker, I played my ‘air’ flamenco guitar for him, which I’m really good at, and he ‘got it’ straight away and played exactly what I was hearing in my head. I wanted palmas, the characteristic flamenco hand clapping. I wanted that whole Spanish vibe, and I love what the musicians came up with. I know Dad would love it!
What do you want the listeners to experience when they listen to your music? When I listen to music, I want to be emotionally moved. I get really excited when I hear music that touches me; that immediately makes me want to play it over, again and again. I hope this music will evoke a spectrum of emotions and that people will want to play it over and over again.
What style is the music on this recording? When it comes to being pigeon-holed into a single musical style, I’ve been told that I ‘slip through the cracks’. I have very eclectic tastes. My dad had me listen to jazz artists like Oscar Peterson, Louis Armstrong, Django Reinhardt, and Ella Fitzgerald, but also to lots of country music. My Mum was a light opera singer singing Gilbert and Sullivan, but she also sang and appeared in many classic musical theatre shows including South Pacific, Carousel, Oklahoma and Show Boat. I developed my own musical tastes from this foundation of early influences. I always loved Ella, but also loved the soulful voices of Aretha Franklin, George Benson, and Eva Cassidy. I loved the musicality and swing of Mel Tormé and Sammy Davis, so I’m a big mish-mash of all of that! What is my style? I would say soulful-pop fused with some jazz elements.
What sets this CD apart from the others you have done? Yikes, that is a tough question, indeed! I’m very proud of my earlier recordings One Dream (2006) with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and my quartet, and Forever for Now (2010). When I decided to record Spellbound and it came to picking the songs, it was like going mining for gold. I kept on sifting and singing through songs and gradually, over about ten months, I ended up with ten big, gold nuggets. They were songs that were so obvious, it was easy. I’ve absolutely loved every minute of the recording process, even the really frustrating moments. It’s been the most amazing journey.
What is your favorite track on the CD? That is like asking a mother who her favorite child is! But if I had to only sing one of the songs, it would probably be Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”.
What is next for Helen Welch? I was crazy enough to have recorded a brand new Christmas CD, Home for Christmas, while we were doing Spellbound, so I shall be getting ready for it’s big launch at the Akron Civic Theatre on November 20th.
Helen Welch’s recordings are available online at Amazon, I-tunes, and CDBaby.
A complete listing of performances can be found at her website, helenwelch.com.
Helen Welch will leave you Spellbound
The Kent and Northeast Ohio music scene is as relevant as it has ever been. Support the local musicians that make our lives so much better, by purchasing local music direct!
MO’ MOJO’S JOURNEY began more than 20 years ago when a tall East Texan with a Cajun step-daddy came to Akron as a carny and Rolling Acres Mall kiosker. (Can’t help but wonder how many bands get to start their story this way.) That man was Scott “Tex” Gann and when he brought zydeco music in the shape of a C/G single row accordion to northeast Ohio, he left a permanent mark on the area’s music scene. A band was formed, gigs were gotten, and the community dancing and camaraderie began …
When the band suffered the devastating loss of Gann to lung cancer in 2002, two founding members, Jen Maurer and Rod Lubline, kept the zydeco dance party going with many faces and musical stylings crossing their stage. It wasn’t easy at first. Says Maurer:
When I was onstage with Scott and we had a fun crowd, I didn’t recognize a separation between the band and audience. We were just “one,” experiencing a night of magic together and we were all contributors. I used to call it ‘my musical samadhi’—a point where you reach unity with the divine. It was a spiritual thing. It was awesome. After Scott’s passing, it took two to three years to get that back and even then, it was sporadic. But it’s hard to keep zydeco’s power of fun down, so we got through it.
Over the years, the band has included such musical heavyweights as Mike Lenz (a co-founder of the band), Joe Golden (guitar phenom and pedal/amp genius), Sarah and Jayson Benn (Shivering Timbers), and Tracey Nguma (Umojah Nation). The list of talents is many. Maurer, originally a singer and bass player, took over the accordions, lead vocals, and leadership role while Lubline continued his stellar foundational work of blending his world rhythm sensibility with straight-ahead zydeco drumming. Maurer, in particular, has seemed tireless in her efforts to make the show happen, and that included finding pinch hitters for various gigs and for keeping the band going as people moved on. “It seems like half of Akron’s musical community has been part of this band,” says Maurer’s husband, Sam Rettman, who sometimes plays harmonica and sax with the band. “Whether they come as subs for this or that gig, or as full-time players, we’ve had some fantastic people and personalities add to the Mojo. I think I quit counting after 30. It certainly creates a community and unique tie among us.”
Mo’ Mojo’s big break, says Maurer, came when Mike Owen gave the band a monthly slot at the Akron club, the Northside (currently Jilly’s Music Room, next to Luigi’s). “Having a regular monthly slot turned the tide. We could tell people, ‘Hey, come see us next month!’ And they did. It made all the difference in the world. Pay attention to that, bar owners,” she says with a smile. Couple that with Rod Lubline’s booking skills and the band started to play throughout Ohio and somewhat into neighboring states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, performing for festivals, conventions, private parties, and clubs.
Today, Mo’ Mojo continues to shift, grow, and build. Its current line-up features Maurer’s always-dynamic vocals, accordion skills, and high energy backed by the impeccable electric guitar, fiddle, and bluesy vocal work of Anthony Papaleo. They share a soulmate-like affinity for various musics such as old-time, ragtime, old blues, Cajun music, and swing/jazz. The band’s sound has always been rich with zydeco, americana, funk, and reggae, but now listeners might now also detect currents of those roots, too.
Continuing with the lineup today, Leigh Ann Wise adds rubboard, triangle, rhythm guitar, and trumpet. Most importantly, she gives the band a rare sound for the area with her spot on vocals harmonies—not many local bands feature two female singers. Bill Lestock—once labeled “The Great Enhancer” by Martin Jurdine (RIP), the founder of the Barking Spider legacy in Cleveland—adds fiddle, mando, and acoustic guitar when he’s not saving people from burning buildings as a firefighter. Lenny Paul and Toussaint English share bad-ass bass duties. And Rod Lubline, who retired after 18 years with the band, took two years off only to return. When busy with his and his wife’s band, the Calypso Gypsies, you might find area drum-stars Erik Diaz or Anthony Taddeo behind the kit.
The band does have its own sound. While recently attending the Grassroots Festival of Music and Dance in Trumansburg, New York, a Buffalo dance teacher said, “I like your band! No … you don’t understand. I normally prefer a more traditional sound. But I like you guys!” Part of that sound comes from their originals. Mo’ Mojo’s first CD, titled Finally!, was released in 2010, 15 years after the band started. (Alright, the secret just may be that there was once a CD titled Hold My Accordion While I Dance With Your Date, but that was a long time ago under a different name with a very limited pressing, and if you find it, take it to Antiques Roadshow.) Finally! has 11 songs, six of which are original. One of those is My Jolie, a classic sounding waltz and the only song that Gann wrote for the band before his death, and that in conjunction with two band members at the time, Maurer and Kip Amore.
Mo’ Mojo has three other full-length recordings. Together in Love We Drown (2012) features 14 originals. Mom’s Birthday Album, (2014) was recorded live at the G.A.R Hall in Peninsula with a packed house celebrating not only the recording itself, but also Maurer’s mother’s birthday. The latest, We All Got The Same, (2015) has 12 songs: 9 originals; two zydeco standards meant to pay homage to the musical tradition, and one two-parts cover/one-part original medley based on Bob Marley’s, Stir It Up.
Mo’ Mojo’s influences are diverse. As far as zydeco and other Louisiana artists go, there are the regular big wigs: Gann was a huge fan of Clifton Chenier and Zachary Richard. Maurer loves Sean Ardoin, Horace Trahan, and Sunpie Barnes. Rettman will drive hours out of the way in Louisiana to catch Geno Delafose and dance all night to Preston Frank. Wise loves the Lost Bayou Ramblers and Preston’s son, Keith Frank. Papaleo gives another vote to Chenier and adds the Balfa Brothers. English loves Buckwheat Zydeco, Preston, and Beau Jacque. Paul mentioned John Delafose and three of the artists listed above (Chenier , Geno, and BJ). And Lubline loves the New Orleans sounds of the Meters, the Neville Brothers, and Professor Longhair, in addition to Terrance Simien. (Note the lack of women listed. Zydeco is very male dominated music; something that Mo’ Mojo attempts to balance out.) Maurer was inspired by really every artist she played on her one-hour weekly radio show (in Akron on WAPS), “The Zydeco House Party.” She started the show with Gann and finished with Rettman. It ran for 16 years until they dropped specialty music programming. Additionally, many band members are inspired by the live bands (both American and International) that they see at festivals like Grassroots and Festival International. (Donna the Buffalo and the Horseflies being two US Bands. Lo’ Jo, Tinariwen, Bombino, Sunny Duval, Oztara, Dengue Fever, The World Culture Band being some of the International ones.)
With its sonic hybrid, Mo’ Mojo has now shared their brand of zydeco in eight different countries over the past two years. Through the U.S. Department of State’s American Music Abroad program, the band traveled as music ambassadors to Belize, Panama, Mexico, Barbados, and Colombia, performing community concerts and educational programs. The affiliation also led to tours in Haiti, Dominican Republic, and Tajikistan. Says Wise, “Being selected for that program turned out to be an even greater gift than I had ever imagined. It was so much more than just traveling to other countries to play zydeco. It was experiencing these cultures firsthand, and mainly through kids … young people. They’re so open and accepting and willing. Like the kids at the orphanage in Tajikistan. At first they were a little shy, but as soon as Sam went to dance with a couple of them, it took on a life of its own, and a really beautiful one at that.”
Mo’ Mojo hopes to continue this globe-trotting trend, and they have a couple of ideas in mind (Ireland tops the list.). In the meantime, they plan to keep touring the states. Since 2012, they have traveled the Midwest, the upper South, the East Coast, and most recently, a bit of the West, playing at festivals, zydeco dances, conferences, and clubs in the following states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware, Rhode Island, Maryland, The District of Columbia, Michigan, Illinois, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Colorado. While they have no current tours planned (although Maurer and Papaleo are headed back to Colombia in August to play the Cali Blues Fest), they are writing songs for the next album, which they hope to record before the end of the year.
During its more than two decades of existence, Mo’ Mojo has weathered: three name changes, its leader’s death, a couple of romantic break-ups, a divorce, and the changing of the front guard with many gifted musicians flowing in and out and sometimes in again. And yet, the music keeps on, the smiles stay wide, and the feet keep movin'. Just like the good life should.