Alexander Zonjic Behind the Mic and Artist of the Month for June
June 1, 2005 – For the first time ever Smooth Jazz Now has combined our “Artist of the Month” and “Behind the Mic” features to highlight the career of a proud Canadian who like his best buddy, Bob James, has been doing it long before the format had a name. Alexander Zonjic is often mentioned in the same breath as James, Earl Klugh or Jeff Lorber not just because they work together and are close friends but without them this format may not exist. Zonjic was a recent nominee for ‘Broadcaster of the Year” at the Canadian Smooth Jazz Awards and served as the event’s host. The Flutist was recently nominated for Radio Personality of the Year at the R&R magazine’s Industry Achievement Awards for his work as morning man at V98 in Detroit. Read part two of our Interview with Zonjic.
John Beaudin – I know you and Bob James go way back but how many people get a song written for their club by Bob James? That’s pretty cool.
Alexander Zonjic – You know what, we were reminiscing the other day when we had a P.R. tour that we did for a show coming up and we figured that it had been 23 years that we’ve been working together so maybe that had something to do with it. (laughing) I played on Bob’s “Ivory Coast” CD and I was a member of his touring band for ten years so it’s a wonderful relationship. I love the family connection there too on that song because Bob’s daughter Hillary wrote the lyrics so that was nice and Kirk Whalum’s connection also includes a lot of family members and it’s his brother Kevin who sings “Spill the Wine.”
John – And the second Kevin opens his mouth he has you.
Alexander – Oh yeah, and let me give credit as well to Jeff Lorber who’s an old hippie like me and loved the idea of redoing the song and he came up with the idea with trying to capture that original magic. It’s a big challenge when you do covers of a classic tune you are either going to reintroduce the song and make people say “What a special approach to the tune,” or you’re going to insult them. For the people who love that song they’ll first think, “Why did you mess with it?” So really it is a responsibility that comes with a classic tune like that. Its one thing to redo “Watermelon Man” and it’s another thing to redo “Spill the Wine.” It’s an Eric Burdon classic.
John – It has such an element of cool too; it’s really a very cool song.
Alexander – Yes, very, very cool and we all thought including Jeff that Kevin Whalum who by the way you must see live stole the show on that one. Kevin tours with his brother Kirk and he steals the show every night. He’s beyond a singer he’s really an amazing entertainer. I’m glad you enjoyed that track. I must say it is truly a blessing to get to this point of my career and this was not a situation where I hired people but rather a situation where I got on the phone and called all my friends and just asked them to play on the record and they all responded with originals and playing on the album so it really is a cool deal to get here. There are some quirky tunes on the album like “Brithers” and “Quantum” are definitely different.
John – I loved “Brithers” that’s a pumpin’ tune! I like how you play on that track I was listening to it this morning wondering how the hell you were playing like that.
Alexander – (laughing) I will give you a little bit of humor on that if you should ever decide to play it for the public. The tune was inspired by a Britney Spears video.
John – (laughing) Oh no.
Alexander – (laughing) That’s where “Britters” comes from. I got the tune from Jeff and he’s such a prolific writer, he did the tracks and Kirk wrote the melody and in there there’s big dance grooves and even a breakdown and when I talked to Jeff I asked him where it came from and he said “I was watching a Britney Spears video and I liked the groove.” (laughing)
Alexander – Yeah, if I could just get her on my video then I’d be ok. (laughing)
John – Well “Britters” is one of my favorite songs on the album. I like power energy songs.
Alexander – Well “Britters would be a good morning am drive tune to get people to wake up but then again “Spill the Wine” would do it too. I don’t think you can listen to that tune without getting a big grin on your face especially if you come out of that era. I like Peter White’s tune “Isabella” was so strong with such a beautiful melody and you know we think of Peter White in so many different ways and you don’t think of him as someone who can write such a beautiful Spanish tune.
John – I’ve said this many times but Peter White can do no wrong in my books. He is a good man. Tell me about some of the misconceptions about the Flute.
Alexander – Well, a lot of people think the flute is an extremely lightweight instrument and let’s face it in orchestral music it’s usually the birds but it can be very funky and very powerful in the right hands there’s no question.
John – Is there an Alexander Zonjic in a parallel universe right now in Windsor, Ontario Canada that’s playing rock guitar?(laughing) What about that guy who switched gears at 21 years old? What would have happened to that guy if he would have continued playing guitar?
Alexander – (laughing) He would have been a billionaire Rock and Roll guitarist and he and Ozzie Osbourne would probably be ducking it out rating their television shows.
John – Seriously, do you ever think about that?
Alexander – Just for the record I play guitar on my show and it’s a big surprise to people because they don’t expect you to play well. If you pick up a guitar and you’re a flute player that’s a huge space to the audience. Anyway, I don’t regret changing to the flute because not only did the instrument open up a situation for me to go back to school which had me graduate and have a degree it also opened up a classical world to me so not just a Jazz world. As you know I have three classical albums and I play with orchestras. I have no regrets I think all of us through our own energies and through a little bit of serendipity there’s a path laid out there and you follow it.
John – It’s a great story man you’re a 21 year old rock guitarist who buys a flute for a few bucks then your life goes down another road because of that purchase.
Alexander – Oh, totally.
John – You could make a movie out of that story.
Alexander – It is an amazing story and it’s amazing because I didn’t have to embellish it to tell it because most people don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story (laughing). In my particular case it’s the real story. It is what it is and it changes the whole course of your life. You go back to school, you start studying, you learn how to read, you meet Bob James it really is fascinating and it leads to so many things. The thing I also tell people is I had no natural aptitude to play that instrument, that instrument to this day is a huge challenge for anyone that plays it. It’s a very difficult instrument to play on a high level. Now they are all difficult to play and I don’t mean to underestimate the other instruments but I will tell you that there is a reason why there are only a handful of flute totters out there getting away with this and that’s because it’s a very challenging instrument.
John – Speaking of Bob James I like what you did to the famous ‘Taxi’ Theme, Angela.
Alexander – Well, that was a great tribute to Bob and Earl (Klugh) and I are very good friends so to get Earl Klugh, Kirk Whalum and myself to make a few changes to it was cool and Paul Jackson Jr. plays guitar. I’ve played that tune with Bob a million times so I enjoy that track as well.
John – My Earl Klugh interview is coming up, I’ve heard nothing but great things about him personally.
Alexander – I think without a doubt if you look at a Bob James or an Earl Klugh and a Jeff Lorber though he came along a little bit later than them there is a good argument that they are the architects of all of the stuff we’re hearing. They were the ones who took real Jazz knowledge, incredible abilities to improvise and took those concepts and applied them to very accessible music, music that everyone can listen to. I’m a huge Earl Klugh fan and a huge Bob James fan and the fact that they’re great friends and have been big influences is so cool. Earl and I talk all the time.
John – Speaking of architects of this format you redid Chuck Mangione’s ‘Bellavia’ on your “Reach for the Sky’ CD. I remember that tune, it was pre-‘Feels so Good” I think it came out in 1975 and it was another tune that hit me during my teenage years. It’s very haunting.
Alexander – Yes, very haunting with wonderful vocaleeze on it, I love the idea of using voices not necessarily with lyrics because the tamber of the voice is a beautiful instrument without lyrics and vocaleeze in the literal definition of that. Interestingly enough that was one of those gig tunes that I’ve been playing live for many years that hits a huge nerve so it was a natural to record that tune and of course I’m a big Chuck Mangione fan and I bring him into this market on a regular basis. There is a guy who was doing fusion and cross over way before a lot of people. He would kill me to say this but lets be honest he was the Kenny G of his time.
John – You met Kenny G a long time before he hit it big.
Alexander – I met him in 1979 in Chatham, Ontario at the Chatham Cultural Centre. There was a new guy who just recorded a few records for Inter-City Records with a very unique style named Jeff Lorber and we put this show together. I already had a pretty big following in the Windsor/ Detroit area and had just recorded my very first record the year before and the next thing you know we wind up in this little theatre, there’s no more than 200 people there and Kenny Gorlick is his saxophone player and then Kenny and I get to know each other and we crossed paths for a number of years. Kenny was a great guy who had huge respect for Jeff Lorber and made it perfectly clear that he was never embarrassed about going to Jeff Lorber and saying, “Jeff, what are you doing here when you play this chord?” If you ever get a chance to chat with Kenny he’ll admit that Jeff was a huge influence on him.
John – I saw Kenny in concert a few years ago and he was cool.
Alexander – Kenny gets beat up a whole lot and we all know that measure of success can bring out the worse in a lot of people, Kenny is a very genuine guy, he has a real healthy respect for the instrument, he practices his brain out, he has his own concepts and there were never any pretense with him from the beginning that he was ever a guy who spent his entire life studying Coltrane of Charlie Parker he was an R&B guy. His first big break was the Love Unlimited Orchestra. I have a lot of respect for Kenny and I don’t have any resentment for the fact that he had so much success. More power to him.
John – How did you meet Bob James?
Alexander – I was working in Detroit and I had started to develop a career and following there and there was a famous Jazz club called Bakers Keyboard Lounge and at that time they were bringing in national acts. It was a small club though and George Benson and Earl Klugh played there so getting the opportunity to play there was a big break for me and I think that was early 1982. It was again almost a serendipitous ad buying the flute from the guy on the street for nine bucks. I was there playing, I was already loving Bob James music and he was in town and an agent that I knew was at his show and told him “Bob you really need to go hear this guy play, I know you like Hubert Laws and you’ve written a lot of tunes with flute in them, you need to hear this guy play.” So he walked into Bakers and I was there, he listens to a few tunes walks up on stage and introduces himself and I already knew it was him. He said, “I love what you’re doing, were going to Japan next month and when we get back we’re going to play Ca
rnegie Hall , how would you like to join the band?” (laughing) I said, “Give me about five seconds to think about it.” Needless to say it was a quantum leap for me and of course at that point he had Harvey Mason and all these other amazing musicians in the band so it was really a profound experience for me. To this day as much as he hates to be referred to as a mentor or a teacher that’s who he is. Bob is an exceptional artist, he’s not ordinary. I love all the people in this format but I can assure you as an artist there are very few people like Bob James.
John – Who are your other close friends in Smooth Jazz, the musicians who have really clicked with you?
Alexander – There are many and it just speaks to how lucky I’ve been. Bob of course was one of the early ones and one of my older friends, in the classical world it was Irving Munroe from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra who I studied with and we became friends so early on I had these two very strong mentors. Here’s this amazing classical flute player and this unbelievable Jazz pianist. Earl klugh has also been there with me since the beginning and Earl is on almost every record. Then Kirk Whalum came along and we became great friends, Jeff Lorber more recently has become close, we communicate everyday and I just talked to him this morning.
John – I know about the Kidney transplant, how’s he doing?
Alexander – He’s doing really well, he’s up and around and he’s in great spirits. The kidney is kickin’ in and everyone is pretty happy about that.
John – Peter White is a buddy right.
Alexander – Yeah, he’s a more recent friend. He’s a very eccentric guy just for the record, he is very genuinely different in the best sense. There’s no pretense about him and you never think you’re around anyone who even thinks of himself of as anything but just a guy lucky enough to be playing music.
John – Chuck Loeb told me an interesting story about Kirk Whalum who was recording in Chuck’s famous garage studio and at one point Kirk stops and prays and gives thanks to God for making him part of this song that he claimed really wasn’t his.
Alexander – Again Kirk is one of my oldest and dearest friends and he was just in town a few weeks ago and obviously a big part of “Seldom Blues” and has produced lots of stuff for me. He’s a spiritual guy and he’s also what we call a PK – a preacher’s kid like Everette Harp is. It’s not uncommon for me to be in concert with Kirk and for him to take everyone to church. That’s what he does, he’s very genuine about it and he doesn’t push it on people. I’ve never done a recording session with him where he does not bring that into play. You know my “Reach for the Sky” album and the song ‘This is the Day” is taken right out of scriptures. “This is the day the lord has made” So that’s Kirk and I and we’re working on a tune and everyday we get in the car and that’s the first words out of his mouth. He’s a very fascinating guy. The spirituality is very genuine.