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Friday, June 17, 2005

Sommers Time

Following is text of feature from my conversation
with sax man Jimmy Sommers(didn't do Q&A format)
as it appears in the Jamaica Obsever.
Met Jimmy at a welcome party thrown by the sponsors
the other nite and he was every bit as personable
easygoing and vibrant as he was on the phone


Their music may not be comparable, but in outlook,
R&B/jazz saxophonist Jimmy Sommers, who comes to
Jamaica this weekend courtesy of Appleton V/X, appears
to have quite a bit in common with "Margaritaville" icon
Jimmy Buffet. First name similarity aside, both have
interests in themed restaurant ventures along with their
musical careers. And both project a distinctly easygoing
demeanour –at least Sommers did during a telephone conversation.

Ironically, it’s the upbeat drum-and-fife of Junkanoo bands
that is Sommers’ most vivd memory of Jamaica from his previous
visit – several years ago. "I really enjoyed it," he remarks.
"I’m definitely looking forward to coming back and playing there."

In that wish, he is being accommodated by Appleton V/X. The rum
brand is actually sponsoring the saxophonist on a multi-city
jaunt that has so far taken him across the U.S. The Jamaican
leg will culminate at the renowned Fault Line property of musicinas
Peter and Suzanne Couch. Sharing the bill with Sommers on that occasion
will be Gem Myers, Chaka Demus and Pliers, Dwight Pinkney and Suzanne Couch.
The affair is billed as Appleton V/X Evening Escape.

Commenting on the previous dates, which have been club-focussed
[as opposed to the more open vistas of Jacks Hill] Sommers says
the response ahs been "great" and has high praise for his sponsors.
"This gig has helped me to broaden my reach quite a bit, and I’m
sure its been beneficial for Appleton also." The emphasis for the
local dates he says will be on "a party vibe" adding "We’ll be playing
stuff for people to groove to, even get up and dance."

Such fare, typical of the now dominant smooth genre, is the kind
of stuff thattends to alienate jazz fans with a more purist bent.
That’s fine by Sommers, who doesn’t generally attach the term jazz
to what he does. ‘There’s just too many notes in jazz," he says.
"I’m trying to do more groove-oriented stuff, really just laying
some funky riffs over R&B grooves, because that’s what I like and
what I believe people generally like too."

Not that he lacks the chops to make a credible jazz statement.
Sommers started on the instrument at age 10. ‘"It was just one day,
band day, while in fourth grade…Usually people start in fifth grade,
but they came and they had all the instruments laid out. And of course,
when you’re so young, 10 years old, you really don’t know what each
instrument sounds like, so I kind of went for the coolest looking instrument. Well not only was it the coolest looking instrument, but it sounded the
coolest! I got lucky with the sound. I ended up picking it up, and all my friends tried it. It’s funny because usually if there are too many saxophone players, they push you to something else, and thank God that didn’t happen.

Before long, that "cool sound" was taking him to clubs and music joints
in his hometown of Chicago where he would sit in and jam with the likes
of blues guitar legend Buddy Guy. He knew then that he wanted to make a
career in music but elected to study engineering in college, for the sake of having a ‘fall-back’. I know how difficult it can be to build a music career,"
he notes.

After graduation, Sommers took the plunge and moved west – to Los Angeles.
But stardom was elusive and difficult. He played with a few local bands, but nothing really clicked. "Then I ended up going to Europe with a couple of people, did the tour thing. That was fun, but I moved back to Chicago in 1996 and met Eric Benét, he turned me on to his music and I just loved it. He’s from Milwaukee and I ended up doing my first record with him and his producer, his cousin. That got me. I finally got it, how to make records. And that record came out and it’s called James Café. So that kind of gave me the bug again…I finally get it, I finally know how to make records and produce them. So I moved back to LA and things just started cooking"

James Café was followed by 360 Urban Groove and by his latest release Lovelife. Both those albums feature stellar collaborations with some of the top names in the pop-R&B and smooth jazz spheres: Macy Gray (who spices up the title track of the Lovelife album); trumpeter Chris Botti, Ginuwine, Raphael Saadiq and the criminally unheralded soul singer Rashaan Patterson. Of the latter, Sommers says, "He’s amazing, I originally went in to do one track with him and we ended up writing and recording three."

Sommers’ upcoming projects include a "chill-out" album with noted R&B mix artist/vocalist Viktor Duplaix, a Christmas disc, and a more dance-oriented record. Like his previous two albums, these are being released on his own Gemini Records label (licensed to Higher Octave Jazz). "I’ve seen what the big companies do, and this way works out much better for me," he says, "I really get to experiment and to put out what I really like and believe should be on a record."

In between recording and touring, Sommers, who has been featured on both jazz and mainstream television programmes, will be keeping an eye on his culinary venture, the sushi restaurant Koi, in L.A. "We’ve had Janet Jackson, [Leonardo] Di Caprio, J-Lo, we had Madonna in there the other day! We’ve had everyone in there. It’s pretty incredible…it’s become quite the hot spot! His next restaurant venture is called the Rokbar and the partners include bad boy rocker Tommy Lee (formerly of Motley Crue, who dominated tabloid headlines with his now ex-wife Pamela Anderson)

More exciting to the musician than his restaurant projects is a venture called Baby Genius. "It’s a line of kids music products for child development," he explains. "When they’re young or infants, listening to music and helping their spatial intelligence…studies have shown that classical musical does help. So we started the company and distributing CDs and it turned into a monster company. We’ve sold a couple million CDs, videos, toys…it’s becoming a complete entertainment company for kids."

Thus, Sommers brings his many facets to bear on a discerning Jamaican audience. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s easy on the eyes, having been voted by people magazine as one of the Top 50 Most Eligible Bachelors. As for commitments, Sommers insists, he hasn’t yet found the right one, but is enjoying the search.

The "island magic" may well claim him this time around, with or without the assistance of the Junkanoo. In the meantime, music fans and smooth jazz aficionados will relish the opportunity to hear one of the best in the genre at the top of his game


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