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Roy Ayers - Ayers Rocks

Author: Fat Tony
Wednesday, October 22, 2008

One of the most prolific artists of the twentieth century and an inspiration to countless performers, legendary soulster Roy Ayers shows no signs of running out of steam. As he tells 3D’s Fat Tony, “the old pro that still keeps kicking” loves the business as much as ever, and on his Australian tour will show it in living colour. 

It's an apt time to be publishing this story in Sydney; spring has sprung, the sun is shining, and as we all know Everybody Loves The Sunshine. Perhaps it's Roy Ayers' most famous song, possibly not his best, possibly not your favourite, but most definitely his signature tune. It was released over three decades ago in 1976, the title track off his fourteenth album - he'd already been recording for 13 years before he wrote it with his Ubiquity band. Eighty-six albums later, enter 2008, and Ayers is still writing music. The man is, without a doubt, one of the most prolific recording artists of the 20th century.

It's truly an honour to talk with a man who can take such public pride in his musical legacy. The legendary vibraphonist, bandmaster, and all round soulful cat just completed an album with DD Bridgewater, the celebrated jazz vocalist from Memphis, Tennessee. The pair are old friends, having worked together many times since they met in '78, and Ayers speaks of her with great fondness.

“DD is an old crony of mine, I went back and did some stuff with her,” Ayers, who'll be celebrating his 68th birthday this month, rasps warmly. “She was very excited, and she's still got the fire and the touch and she's still as exciting as ever. We had a good time, we recorded it right here in Manhattan.”

Born into a musical family in Los Angeles, Roy's father played the trombone and his mother the piano. The oft-repeated tale goes that Lionel Hampton, one the era's greatest jazz vibraphonists, gave young Roy a set of vibe mallets for his fifth birthday. This gift, combined with the nurture that Ayers received from his family and community, resulted in one of the most amazing musical careers ever documented. Having worked with an extensive list of history's greatest musicians, including Fela Kuti in the early '80s, Roy Ayers and his Ubiquity are credited with sowing the seeds of acid jazz, disco and neo-soul. He's described as the godfather of many things, and his work has been sampled over and over again by some of the world's most respected hip hop, soul and funk artists including A Tribe Called Quest, 50 Cent, P Diddy and Brand Nubians.

“Are you joshing me- I love it,” comes the reply when I query his policy towards having his work appropriated. “There's a lot of money involved in that, it really strengthens my pocket book. I'm very proud that it happens a lot, especially the hip hop and the rap artists are doing it a lot. The people at Christmas music, they’re the people who do my publishing, they call me and let me know who it is, and I say great, I'm glad to hear that. Things are still happening and it makes me feel good, I'm the old pro that still keeps kicking.

“But more than that, it makes me feel good that some of the artists are picking my music. And when I have asked the artists, 'why did they pick my music-' they all tell me the same thing: 'It's the sound!' They pick my music for sampling, because I have more hits than anyone out here.”

The only volume of Roy's work missing from his personal collection is a Japan release vinyl LP called All Blues. Nonetheless it's quite a catalogue to look back on, physical proof of a life spent pursuing something meaningful. “But other than that I have all of them, I'm glad I kept them,” he continues. “I'm very proud. I'm very happy that I did it, it makes me feel good. And people talk about all the old stuff all the time just like you and I are talking about it. It's a wonderful feeling.”

There are rooms all over the world where Ayers is constantly in demand to appear. Chicago and Philadelphia are both US soul strongholds and Roy has residencies in both cities, as he does at SOBs in downtown Manhattan. Although interestingly enough the recording artist describes the London crowd as his “greatest crowd of all.” His residency at historical London venue Ronnie Scott's has been on hold for the last three years to allow him to play to a larger audience at the Jazz Cafe.

“We do ten dates [at the Jazz Cafe] every year from Christmas until right after New Year’s. Ten days straight, and we sell out every show. So now Ronnie Scott's are going to have me back in March because they are hungry,” the raspy voice breaks into peals of infectious laughter. “They changed the format for a while, but now I'm going back to Ronnie Scott's to kick booty!”

The Pacific leg of this Roy Ayers Ubiquity tour takes in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast, as well as New Zealand. Joining the Ubiquity ensemble will be Lee Pearson on drums, whom Roy expresses generous praise for. “I think probably he's the greatest drummer in the world. He studied here with Max Roach many years ago. He's only about 24 years old; he's fantastic. He makes people stand up and say 'wow, he's incredible!' The piano is in the safe hands of Mark Adams (“One of the great pianists, he's worked with the great bass player, Ron Carter”), Donald Nicks on bass, Rae Gaskins on sax, and John Pressley sharing the vocals with Ayers himself.

“We're gonna be playing all the favourite songs like Everybody Loves The Sunshine, and Running Away, Don't Stop The Feeling – some great songs. Last time I played out there was at the Basement, it was wonderful. I'm looking forward to the same excitement every time I come there, because the Sydney crowd reminds me of the great people in Britain, in London.”

WHO: Roy Ayers
WHAT: Plays The Forum
WHEN: Friday 24 October