Artist Description

“Music is life,” declares Rod McGaha matter-of-factly. “It’s about finding the common thread, the common bond that we all have. I don’t care whether you’re a classical musician or a jazz musician-let’s see what we have in common, and unite to send a message.”

That’s why the critically-acclaimed trumpeter elected to mesh a hand-picked lineup of first-rate jazz musicians with an accomplished string quartet on his new album, A Gentle Man. The resulting sound is both elegant and intimate, distinguished by both technical virtuosity and emotional directness. With its emphasis on dreamy ballads and fresh interpretations of classic material, the album harks back to such string-kissed trumpet touchstones as Clifford Brown With Strings and Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. “I wanted it to have that classic type of sound,” McGaha explains-but without the grandeur of, say, the large ensemble heard on Sketches. “There’s a certain intimacy about the string quartet,” he says. “A jazz quartet is more personal than a big band, and a string quartet is more personal than an orchestra. I wanted it to be more cozy.” For the self-produced A Gentle Man, McGaha assembled a crew of players he felt would be best suited to create that “cozy” atmosphere: guitarist Andre Reiss, bass player Roger Spencer, drummer Marcus Finnie, viola player Kristin Wilkinson, cellist Kristin Cassell and violinists David Davidson and David Angell. Jeff Steinberg played piano and wrote the arrangements. “I try to choose musicians like Duke Ellington did, each one for his or her own individual character,” McGaha says. “There are certain cats that have different sounds, so I think about who I want in each chair.”

Once assembled, the players gathered at Nashville’s Sound Kitchen studio last October to tackle a set list dominated by beloved standards like Edward Hayman and Victor Young’s “When I Fall in Love,” George and Ira Gershwin’s “Nice Work if You Can Get It” and Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “The Look of Love.” “I wanted to pay tribute to a lot of the old songs,” McGaha says. “It was another page in the book that I wanted to cover.”

But there’s more than vintage binding those tunes together. “All of them have a certain honesty in common,” McGaha notes. “There’s a certain integrity or character to the songs. They all have that thing-you don’t really know how to describe it, but you know it when you hear it.”

The recordings on A Gentle Man were completed within one day-an essential element in its sustained mood and spirit of easy spontaneity. “Sometimes when you become too comfortable, things lose their edge,” McGaha figures. “On all that old Blue Note stuff, if they messed up, they started again. That’s what we did-if we messed up, we started again.” He chuckles. “Of course it was me more than anyone who was messing up-but as the leader, that’s my prerogative!”

Despite the preponderance of classics, McGaha elected to title the album after a new number, Steinberg’s “A Gentle Man.” The title describes both the music on the album and the soft-spoken man whose name is on the cover. “I’m not too hyped,” he admits. “I’m pretty laid-back.”

Indeed, McGaha has the quiet assurance of a man whose musical roots are deep and strong. Born in Chicago, he began playing trumpet in fourth grade. “I wanted to play saxophone,” he confesses, “but the only thing they had left was a cornet, so I got stuck with it. I hated it until high school.”

That’s when McGaha began private music studies, and began falling in love with the instrument’s capacity to create beauty and express emotion. “My first trumpet teacher, Byron Baxter, was a really big role model,” he recalls. “He’s the one who showed me the love of practicing.”

With practice, McGaha began developing a style that encompassed the myriad different genres and styles he grew up enjoying. He first found work playing gospel and R&B, but delved into traditional jazz wholeheartedly while attending college at Northeastern University, just outside Chicago. “It’s like when you see a girl and say, ‘That’s the one,’” he explains when describing his plunge into jazz. “When I heard that sound, I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do’.”

Trumpet legend Clark Terry discovered him playing at a local festival in 1989 and took McGaha under his considerable wing. “Individuality would be the main thing I learned from him,” McGaha testifies. “Be yourself, don’t be afraid to express who you are. That is what you put out there, and if people like it, they like it.” People indeed liked what McGaha had to offer-and not just fans. The wide range of artists who have invited him to record and tour includes Lou Rawls, Kenny Rogers, Bebe and Cece Winans, and The O’Jays. His song, “Wish I Knew”, was recorded by country thrush Shelby Lynne.

It was when he was opening shows for Grammy-winning a capella group Take 6 during the early 1990s that McGaha made the move from Chicago to Music City. “I was ready for something different musically,” he says. The new environment soon began to add new layers to his playing. “It definitely put more of a Southern influence in,” he acknowledges. “The music from the Delta, from Alabama, from Mississippi-all those things come into my playing and writing. It’s what they call the blue notes, it’s real close to the spirituals in the church. I’ve got a lot of that in my music.” Shortly after the move, legendary drummer Max Roach invited the young trumpeter to join his band. “Clark Terry had such joy in his music, and such joviality in his playing,” McGaha says. “Max Roach was a little more radical, a little more hardcore. Max taught you how to be a man on the stand, that warrior type of thing.” Roach, when asked to comment on Rod, called him “An important new and original voice.” Eventually, McGaha stepped forward as a bandleader and producer exploring all his jazz, pop, R&B, blues, gospel, and hip-hop influences. He stretched out as a player, composer and lyricist, in 1997’s The Servant, 1999’s Preacherman (co-produced with Delfeayo Marsalis), 2000’s Seven, and 2003’s Dove Award-nominated The Trumpet Sounds. As he carved out a career of his own, McGaha has benefited from the encouragement of his family: wife Anita, daughters Dorinda, 22, and Terece, 20, and son Michael, 18. He singles out Anita’s unwavering dedication as elemental to his survival in the sink-or- swim music business. “You know how challenging it is for a jazz musician? I mean, come on!” he says with a rueful laugh. “But she’s always been really cool about it. A lot of people have gotten divorced over much less!”

As with any true artist, McGaha’s personal growth and maturing are always reflected in his art. “As you become older and wiser, your life experiences influence your music. That’s how musicians evolve. Their understanding of life becomes deeper.” McGaha’s technical skill has grown along with that understanding. He cites his increased facility with sustained notes as one impetus for his exploration of the ballad format on A Gentle Man. “Ballads are hard, physically, because of those long notes,” he explains. “I’ve become much better at playing longer notes.”

But for Rod McGaha, a panoramic vision of the way our shared humanity is reflected in music will always be more important than his top-shelf technique. That’s the spirit that animates A Gentle Man, and indeed every note that he plays. “It’s all about unity,” he says. “It’s about finding the common thread. As far-fetched a dream as that is, that’s what I want in my music.”