“…I think Jimmy Smith really produced the modern organ hip Jazz Sound, and that’s his legacy to all of us.” – Brian Auger
Brian Auger is a British born piano and Hammond Organ player, who has definitely earned the title ‘musician’s musician’, one would need to be a Time-Lord in order to accurately trace the longevity of his career. Known to many for his electrifying and impassioned keyboard solos and the varied bands he has established, such as The Steam Packet, Brian Auger and the Trinity and the irrepressible Oblivion Express. He has played with, or alongside, a plethora of stellar artists from a myriad of genres: Blues, Soul, Funk, Rock, Mod, Pop and of course Jazz. Brian also has a healthy respect for Classical music and its historical composers. Now midway through his eighth decade on planet Earth, the Organ Meister with extra-terrestrial hand speed is showing no signs of slowing down. Having recently signed to the visionary UK-based label Freestyle Records – lured by Freestyle Records A&R man, good friend and fellow organist, Greg Boraman – a whole new audience will soon be exposed to this legendary mans distinctive sound and inherent passion for his art.
Michael J Edwards spoke with an ebullient and humorous Mr Auger across the waters in his home in Venice, Los Angeles about all of the above, as well as his numerous musical collaborations, his impressive career thus far, his recent introduction in 2014 to the ‘Hammond Organ Hall of Fame’, his motivation and boundless energy, playing alongside his children and of course his trademark eye-catching colourful shirts.
Michael J Edwards: Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and Lenny White. Your connection with and appreciation of these three drum supremo’s please?
Brian Auger: While we were out with Oblivion Express we did some shows with ‘Return To Forever’, and Lenny (White) would come down and stand in the wing and watch the band. At a certain point during one of the concerts he said, “Brian, do you want to play on my album? I’m gonna make an album when I go back to San Francisco, and you’ll be welcome to come and play with us.” I said, “Absolutely man!” And he was not only a great player, but such a nice guy; such a great guy! So I ended up playing on his album, and then at one point I got a call from Tony Williams who lived up in the Bay Area when I was up there, and said, “Hey Brian do you want to come out to Japan; there’s a festival called ‘Live Under The Sky’ and we’ll be out there for a week…” I said,”Absolutely man!” What could I say?! He was my favourite Jazz drummer in the world at the time. Anyway, we went out there and we had a great time actually; it was pretty amazing! Billy Cobham was out there too and Tony said, “Look, the first set is gonna be with me and just the quartet, and then in the second set Billy (Cobham) is coming on as well. So it will be with both of us.” I thought, “Oh my God, this is amazing!” (Laughs)
A little bit before that, I’d been invited by Lenny White to go to the south of France to do a festival, and the band was Lenny White, Geoff Berlin, The Brecker Brothers, Al Di Meola and myself. And I just couldn’t believe this was happening. All the American guys had a plane to fly all the American bands out, which was really incredible…We played our set and Tony Williams was actually at the festival and he was supposed to play, but for some unknown reason his band had missed the plane in London and were not going to make it. So we were called to do a couple of encores and Lenny comes up to me and he says, “Bri, Look, Tony doesn’t get paid man unless he plays, and his band are not here. Would you mind if we did a couple of encores and we include him? It would be me and him on drums.” I said, “You’re kidding! What!” So basically man within a few months of doing this at that particular time in my life, I’d played in a band that had Lenny White and Tony Williams playing, and also Tony Williams and Billy Cobham, I mean what could you say?! – All my absolute heroes. And the band in Japan was absolutely insane; Herbie Hancock, Roy Haynes, Billy Cobham, Tony Williams, Art Davis on bass. Also there was Paul Chambers on bass. There were other names as well, all names that I grew up with.
Michael J Edwards: You’re a big fan of melodies, harmonies and funky tight grooves. I believe Earth, Wind and Fire were another group which stimulate you in all three of these areas and more?
Brian Auger: Well basically man, I was so flattered that these people had called in to our agency and asked for us to open for them. It was seven or eight concerts I think in the midwest. We had heard them on record and loved their stuff anyway… First of all we were doing a sound check and Maurice White came down and said, “We’re so happy to have you!” And I was totally blown away. (Laughs) It was so nice; and the keyboard player came up and was talking about different things that we’d recorded. They were such an amazing team. But when they got on stage the vocals and harmonies were just out of this world man! The playing and the music itself; that’s the best music show that I think I’ll ever see! It was just absolutely astonishing every night to stand in the wings and witness that.
Michael J Edwards: A few words please on ex-Animals lead singer Eric Burden?
Brian Auger: Hahaha! Yes right! I got a call from Eric’s agent, and again it was just one of those things. I didn’t even know that Eric was around in Los Angeles. He was out in Palm Springs and asked whether I was interested in putting a band together. For a couple of years it all ran very well; and then I think things began to get kind of strange! (Laughs) We’d made an album called ‘Access All Areas, and I think that it was great that we did that because it was such a great band, but it was getting pulled to pieces internally. At a certain point it was time to kind of step out. I’ve seen Eric a few times on different festivals and he’s always been very charming. He actually gave Karma (Auger) his first shot in the music business. So Karma came into the band and cut his teeth on those years. Eric always seemed to be happy to see us, and that was basically it.
Michael J Edwards: This year, renowned and respected saxophone player Tubby Hayes would have turned eighty years of age. There have been tribute concerts at Ronnie Scott’s and a documentary soon-to-be-released in his honour. Did you and Tubby ever record or perform together?
Brian Auger: We performed together man, but we never recorded. There was basically no interest at all, or hardly any interest from Jazz labels, and the normal labels didn’t want to know anything about Jazz. There was a label called Ember Records, run by the son of the guy who ran the Flamingo Club. Maybe Tubby might have done something on there. Basically, I really enjoyed playing with Tubby man, because he was such an absolute master of the saxophone it was ridiculous. And the other thing was, he knew so many tunes! I used to scope some really out-of-the-way evergreens – I used to get really tired of going to the Jazz gig and the saxophone player would always call the same old numbers – but with Tubby man, after we’d play together a couple of times and he realised I knew a lot of tunes, he said, “Alright, you call the tunes!” So I could actually call stuff that was really off the fucking beaten track and he just knew all of them; it was pretty amazing!
Michael J Edwards: Do you miss him?
Brian Auger: I think he’s a presence that really left a big hole in the British Jazz scene. So basically that’s it.
Michael J Edwards: You have a big appreciation of Classical music and Classical composers. Which aspects of this genre do you carry over to your own compositions and musical style?
Brian Auger: There are certain things, like I love Debussy and Ravel, and that particular period. In terms of like Holton scales and some of the stuff that Debussy came up with, and I absolutely love that stuff man, it is so out there. The Romantic period, some of that stuff I really dig. There was a Post-Impressionism period with Satie and a lot of others; again. I gleaned a lot of stuff from that. Brahms, if you want to listen to strings and different things. Haydn was a great worker and just came up with some amazing stuff. When he came to London he borrowed a lot of street cries of the London traders to write the London Symphony. Sometimes I kind of think about that you know; I think about ‘Watermelon Man’ which is a Cuban street cry; and ‘Peanut Vendor.’ These are things that have passed over into the Jazz world.
I think the most amazing guy out of that world, including Beethoven, was Mozart. Mozart was really my idea of that really happening word ‘genius’! People are called genius, or think they are; people like Kanye West. I mean it’s such a joke; he should read the history of Mozart. This guy at six or seven years old went to London and went to the Royal Palace, and the world musicians at the time, I think it was one of the Bach offspring said, “Here’s some stuff I’ve written, see if you can read that?” And he put it up on the piano. Then he said, “I’m going to cover the keyboard so you won’t be able to see the notes.” And of course Mozart, even at that age this became a trick that people would pay to see him do it. (Laughs) And he actually played it flawlessly. When you consider this guy died at the age of thirty-six or so, in the last two months of his life he wrote ‘The Jupiter’ which was the last one, and ‘The G Minor’ symphonies before that, which was really beautiful. The thing about ‘The Jupiter’ is this; if you want to write or study counterpoint which I have done at some point, and given it up because it’s like the rules are too tough. You’d have to write on melody, and then at that time, you’d have to write a sub melody which would stand on its own; that had no parallel fifths and no parallel octaves in it and no chromatic movements, just to make real easy (Laughs). But what happened to me was a I’d end up having to rewrite the original melody and then getting to the second one. It’s trying to get to a third, which had to stand on its own and work with others as well; I kind of gave it up at that point.
Now in the final movement of ‘The Jupiter’ Mozart’s got five lines of counterpart going! (Laughs) All of which work on their own and all which are in harmony with everything else. I think a lot of the composers at the time would have gone away and committed suicide when they heard that. Not only that, but at fourteen years old he had to go and study counterpoint in Italy from a guy called Padre Martini. Mozart turned up and was given exercises, and Padre Martini said, “I’ll give you a couple of weeks and you can bring them back.” And Mozart came back the next morning and gave them to him. Padre Martini then said, “I don’t think there’s any reason for you to come to me, there’s nothing I can show you!” Then at fourteen years old he goes down to St Peters in Rome and there is a twenty-minute piece of music of ‘Miseiere Recordiere’. There are two choirs, so it is like a stereo choir deal; it’s a call and answer thing which lasts for twenty minutes. Mozart goes home that night and he writes the whole thing out from memory! Right Kanye, well, let’s see you do that Sonny boy! (Laughs)
And not only that man, one other thing just to kind of rub it in, he writes on Opera that is put on at the La Scala, Milan – he’s fifteen years old! He not only writes it, but he is the conductor – he conducts it. And there was a lot of jealousy going on, but the public in Italy absolutely adored him and called him ‘il Maestrino’ which means ‘Little Maestro’. Generally, if you did something at the ‘La Scala’ you lasted one night, or two, maybe three if it was something amazing. His tenure lasted for three weeks! Kanye!!! (Laughs) If you’re going to use the word genius I think that you really ought to have some kind of standard as to what it really is. Ego is one thing, genius is something else. Just because you sold a lot of records – Good on ya; and you’re welcome to everything that comes from that. But, you’ve got to check it out man! That’s all I’ve got to say.
Michael J Edwards: For the uninitiated, what is the major difference between playing the piano and the organ?
Brian Auger: Well, obviously with the organ when you put the note down it plays until you take the finger off of it. So you need a completely different technique for it, and you also need to be aware of all the sounds that you can produce from it and I think Jimmy Smith really produced the modern organ hip Jazz Sound, and that’s his legacy to all of us. Piano requires a really different technique man, because it’s a thing that has a lot of dynamics. You make your own dynamics, loud and soft, If you want to play different things. You don’t have any dynamics in the organ, you put the note down and it plays until you take your finger off. The other thing is it has a volume pedal, so you’re constantly riding the volume pedal to give it the kind of dynamics that you need; it’s a different machine. There’s a lot of piano players and I hear them play organ, and it’s like a piano player playing organ. Then there are organ players that play, and then there are organ players: Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, Jack McDuff, Shirley Scott, Rhoda Scott and lately Joey DeFrancesco.
There are other guys out there I’m sure and I don’t know all of them simply because the Hammond (organ) has made such a comeback, particularly in Europe. In Italy there’s a ton of Hammond players. Also Switzerland, Germany, and I get a lot of fan mail, particularly from Russia, Belarus, Poland, Czechoslovakia and China! I just wonder where they get my records from! (Laughs) Japan; the funniest one was a couple came from Kazakhstan, so whatever it is some people are turned on to organ.
Michael J Edwards: What is your assessment of the state of Jazz music today in America, UK, Europe and elsewhere?
Brian Auger: I think it’s very difficult, there’s a lot of great Jazz players. What has happened is even the Jazz Festivals are not pure Jazz Festivals anymore. I think it’s because the great guys that were supported by their record companies, like Miles (Davis) with CBS, (John) Coltrane with Atlantic, Eddie Harris with Atlantic; many of those great guys that would draw are gone and there’s never been a kind of record company movement, or a radio movement even, to kind of replace them. What happened was it all went into Smooth Jazz, which was Jazz with its nuts cut off. There was a joke about one of the Smooth Jazz player’s went into an elevator and said, “Man! This place is happening!” I don’t know what to say about it, I just look at it and I go well, I play Jazz festivals, and fortunately for me there’s enough Jazz content and stuff; but to go to a Jazz festival in Spain as I once did and Jerry Lee Lewis was the top artist! It’s kind of tough. God bless all of them. Stick with it, as there’s a lot of great players man. So there we are, that’s all I can say about that.
Michael J Edwards: How have online video sharing platforms, such as YouTube, impacted on you, with so much of your back catalogue freely available to the masses?
Brian Auger: Well, I don’t watch all the time, but people keep telling me, “Have you seen … whatever it is?” It’s not had that much impact; in Europe we draw very nicely to keep our heads above water. It doesn’t kind of worry me, I’m in it until the end. And I think that as long as I’m happy and I’m playing what I want to play, with the kind of passion that I want to play it at, and I’m playing with the people who I want to play with; whatever you say it doesn’t get any better than that. And if keeping a head above water then we’re doing the most amazing thing. There are billions of people on the planet, that of doing things to keep themselves alive, that one wouldn’t wish to think about. I’ve been one of the absolutely privileged people in the middle of all that. It’s not been easy but it’s not been easy for anybody.
Michael J Edwards: What advice would you give to aspiring organ players and musicians nowadays?
Brian Auger: I would just say this, I would just say follow your heart, really, that’s what it is. And if it gets too hard and you have to do something else, well do it and still keep playing in the evenings. Check out the business, be careful what you sign. Make sure you read anything and it’s something that you want to do, because you’ve got to learn to swim with the sharks and stay alive.
Michael J Edwards: You’re renowned for your trademark electrifying colourful stage shirts. Even in black and white the colours are intense. Were they purposely incorporated to heighten your stage presence or are they a reflection of your inner personality?
Brian Auger: I don’t know mate! Sometimes I go to a local jazz club and these guys get on stage, and I’m tired of seeing people with washed out black jeans and washed out T-shirts, so that they’re grey, and wandering in like they’ve just come off the Street, looking like ‘The Men In Grey’! I don’t want to be like that, I may be getting on in years, but I still like colour. People have caught on to the fact that I like it and bring me stuff for my birthday (Laughs). They may bring a Hawaiian shirt or something that’s really cool. I just like to put something on to go on stage with and say, “Hey! Check this out!” Now I make jokes about it and people ask me, “Where did you get that shirt man?!” I like to have a laugh and a joke with everybody, and it’s a celebration when we can play.
Michael J Edwards: You have this boundless energy reserve and childlike wonderment and aspiration still. I was just as curious to your motivating force that keeps you getting up in the morning?
Brian Auger: It’s music! It’s loving to play still. I thought I would have had enough of it by now, but I haven’t. It’s been my guide and it’s been the road less travelled I suppose, and I’m still on it and looking left and right going, “Wow! This is just absolutely amazing!” I’m still learning, I’m looking to actually push forward still. I’m still understanding the effect on music and people, and the different harmonic things and looking to get better. I think that process goes on, and the only way I can do that is not sitting in the studio playing a few nights of some jingle and getting a load of bread for it; that doesn’t matter, because what I’m doing is much more satisfying to me.
Michael J Edwards: Do you plan to bring your Oblivion Express Band to the UK in the near future, especially given the fact that you are now signed to the UK-based Freestyle Records?
Brian Auger: Well, yes, of course! We will be talking to a UK agency; somebody who’s coming to Los Angeles to talk to us… An agency called Bite the Apple, a lady called Ema Nosurak. And we hope to put something together this year so that we can come and play some dates in the UK; absolutely, I want that to happen!
Michael J Edwards: 2015 and Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express train is still moving full steam ahead and showing no signs of abating. There’s a saying which I think is very apt, “When the end comes, let it find me conquering a new mountain not sliding down the same one.” It seems to me that you are the embodiment of that statement Brian. Thank you for the music, thank you for keeping it real, and thank you for the funky fresh shirts!
Brian Auger: Everything will be alright in the end, and if it isn’t, it’s not the end! (Laughs)
Michael J Edwards
Back To The Beginning – Brian Auger Anthology
Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express feat. Alex Ligertwood – Live in Los Angeles