Asbury Jukes saxophonist John Isley describes Southside Johnny’s Detour Ahead: The Songs of Billie Holiday — already released on vinyl, and out soon with two extra tracks on CD — as a “joint venture.” Southside handles all the vocals, of course, but Isley was the producer, arranger and mixer, in addition to playing sax on it.
The other musicians on the album — trumpeters Chris Anderson and Ronnie Buttacavoli, saxophonists Allen Won and Ken Hitchcock, trombonist Neal Pawley, guitarist Glenn Alexander, bassist Steve Count and drummer Shawn Pelton — were selected by Isley, and include both Jukes and non-Jukes.
I talked to Isley recently, by phone, about his own career, Detour Ahead, the upcoming New Year’s Eve show by Southside and the Jukes at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank (for information, visit countbasietheatre.org) and more. The same day I talked to Isley, I also did a phone interview with Southside; for that interview, click here.
Q: So why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background, first. Are you a New Jerseyan? Did you grow up in New Jersey?
A: No, actually I did not. I’m originally from North Carolina. I grew up in a little town in the middle of nowhere called Whitsett. It’s kind of halfway between Burlington and Greensboro. I moved to New York when I was 18, in 1986, and I’ve lived in New York pretty much ever since. I’ve popped around a little bit. I actually lived in New Jersey, a couple of different stints, for short periods of time. But for the most part, I’ve lived in New York that entire time.
I moved up here to go to school, and I had a pretty good idea that I wanted to stay, even before that. But I fell in love with New York, and the rest, as they say, is history. Thirty-one years later, here we are.
Q: How long have you been in the Jukes?
A: This is coming up on the end of my sixth year. I joined them the beginning of 2012. February of 2012 was my first official date as a Juke.
Q: Do you have more of a jazz background?
A: Yeah. Growing up in North Carolina, I grew up at a time when radio was still a lot less national playlist, and still more regional. I grew up listening to Stax and Muscle Shoals and all the classic Southern soul and R&B coming out of Memphis. A lot of Skynyrd, a lot of Alabama — I mean, you know, the popular stuff of the day, there.
I didn’t come to jazz until quite late in my musical sensibility. I studied it a little bit as I was growing up, but I was mostly an R&B player. Both of my degrees — I have an undergrad and a graduate degree — are in jazz studies. But my heart and my soul and the majority of my musical endeavors, in my life, have been playing R&B and soul.
Q: So was it more your idea, or Johnny’s idea, to do this album?
A: I think it was a joint venture. I guess it was about three years ago, we were sitting backstage … and I should preface this by saying that Johnny — as I’m sure you’re aware, if you’ve spent any time talking to Johnny — but Johnny’s a walking encyclopedia of music in general, but especially of old jazz, old blues, old rock ‘n’ roll. He’s really very well versed in all three of those genres, and just knows an immense amount of music. So, we’re hanging out backstage, probably about three years ago, and the subject of classic, old jazz came up. We were talking about Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and all that stuff. And somehow or other the subject of Billie Holiday came up. And Johnny told this beautiful story about when he was a kid, his parents would come home, and would put on jazz records: Teddy Wilson, and Billie Holiday, and Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins. And then come bedtime, they’d get John off to bed, and he remembers drifting off to sleep with Billie Holiday wafting up the stairs.
He told this beautiful story about how he just loves her music. And he proceeded to say, “I’ve always wanted to do a record of her music.” And I said, offhandedly, “That’s really cool. I’ve love to write that for you.” And he goes, “Great. You write it. I’ll sing it.”
And so, we talked about tunes. We got together in Glenn Alexander’s backyard over braised rabbit, one day (laughs). Later that fall, Johnny came up, and we’re hanging there, and talking about some tunes, and some other stuff. And then before you know it, time evolves … I guess it was August 2016 — we’re backstage, and the subject of Billie comes up again. And he basically goes, “Are you ever going to write this damn record! I’m gonna be dead by the time you write this record.” (laughs) And I was like, “You’re serious about this.” And he says, “I’ve been serious about this for two years.” “Oh, okay.”
So I guess it was a joint venture, but it kind of emerged from those encounters, and those ideas. And I went away and took the material that we talked about, and combed through things, and kind of curated, along with Johnny, the 11 songs that we wound up doing. And then basically just went and locked myself away in a room for about seven or eight weeks, and wrote for the record.
Q: Had you ever done this kind of thing before, where you came up with arrangements for classic songs, and put together a band? Is this your first time in a project like this?
A: I had done large arranging projects before, as far as writing for a larger ensemble. I had done recording projects with other people, also my own stuff. And then with (Jukes trumpeter) Chris Anderson, we have New York Horns, so we’ve done a couple of large-scale recording projects with that. This is my first time doing, basically, the entire thing, where I produced it, I basically picked all the material, I arranged the whole thing, orchestrated the whole thing, and then produced it and mixed it. It was a monumental … it was about nine months of my life, and I think I aged about nine years in the process! (laughs)
Q: What was the most challenging part of it, for you?
A: I think the most challenging part of any project like this, when you’re working for someone else, was to make sure that … Johnny basically left me to my own devices. I had written a couple of arrangements that I demoed up, and sent to him, and I said, “This is kind of what I’m thinking.” Just to make sure we were in a similar mindset about where things were going. And he got back to me and basically said, “That’s great. Do whatever you want.” (laughs) That’s more challenging than anything you could possibly imagine. “Oh, great, no boundaries.”
So basically, I went away and I wrote what I heard, but always trying to keep in mind who Johnny his, his vocal style, his musical sensibility. And I think the biggest challenge was to use my own ideas, and at the same time, remember that I was writing this for him.
Q: On another subject … as a member of the Jukes, have you found your role in the band evolving, over time, or is it pretty much set, what Johnny expects from you?
A: I think it’s a pretty defined role. I think the beautiful thing about working with John as a sideman is that he … obviously there is guidance, and there are limits, but he’s an incredibly generous leader, and an incredibly generous boss. He’s allowed me to step out and be a real featured part of the band, in a way that I didn’t necessarily expect when I joined the band, but I was able to push that boundary a little bit, and he has allowed me to expand that boundary.
When it’s your turn to shine, he’s like, “Here you go. Here’s the stage. It’s all yours.” As long as you go out and deliver what the band needs and what the audience needs and what the music is calling for. And then he’ll step back in and take it back from you. But it’s not a jealous generosity. It’s real open. He takes as much joy in hearing us play as we take in backing him up, listening to him play.
Q: Of course, a lot of the songs the band plays have been Jukes songs for years, and other musicians have created the parts. Do you have leeway to do parts the way that feels right to you, and not necessarily the way they originally were?
A: Any time you get a new crop of musicians … take the horn section, for example. If you listen back to what LaBamba and (Mark) Pender and Ed Manion and Stan Harrison and all those cats brought to the horn section, and to the horn parts … that was a really specific thing that identified, and still identifies, the Jukes. Any time you have guys who replace that … now you have Neal (Pawley) and Chris and myself, it’s inevitable that there will be differences of interpretation. But we try to maintain a relationship to the original, especially on the iconic songs from the early Jukes period. We’re always aware of the history, and we try to play it in that spirit, but without being shackled to it. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. But it’s definitely our interpretation of the original.
The same thing could be said of the solos. The “Talk to Me” saxophone solo … that’s an iconic part of that song, so for me to go out as a saxophonist, and not play at least the majority of the original solo, is not really the right thing. But then there are other things like “Walk Away Renee” or, especially, the newer material — the things we recorded with the band, especially on the Soultime! record — that’s mine to do with as I please, to a certain extent. But still trying to keep an awareness of, I’m playing in a Jersey rock band, I’m not playing in a Jersey jazz band. (laughs)
Q: Have the New Year’s Eve shows you’ve done with the band been particularly memorable for you, or are they just another show?
A: I would say the New Year’s Eve show is the second most anticipated show of the year, at least for me. I think the annual Fourth of July Stone Pony show … that’s the Jukes show of the season. Followed six months later by the New Year’s Eve show … they’re two highlight bookends of our year.
As all the fans know, you never really know what you’re going to get with Johnny. It’s always unique, it’s always interesting. And yes, we’ve had some very unique and interesting shows at the Basie. I really like playing that theater. I’ve played there with other acts, as well as the Jukes, and I always like playing that space.
Q: Why would you maybe rank the Stone Pony show a little ahead of the Basie, as far as being the most important show of the year?
A: I think the Jukes are a Jersey shore bar band. The greatest bar band in the world, so to speak. And that seems to permeate the Pony shows. It’s a big outdoor beach party, basically. It has that vibe to it.
I’m sure there are people, though, who feel the exact opposite: That New Year’s Eve is the ultimate show.