The Jazz Urbane: Label, Artistry, and Mentorship

By
Mark Small

Bill Banfield's Jazz UrbaneProfessor Bill Banfield and his cohorts in the group the Jazz Urbane are on a cross-generational, trans-stylistic musical voyage. A collective—featuring veteran faculty members, young Berklee alumni, and guest artists—taps influences from jazz, r&b, rock, hip-hop, and more. The late George Duke contributed as a pianist and the executive producer for the band’s new album Playing with Other People’s Heads. The recording—sadly the last one produced by Duke before his untimely passing in August 2013—was released on Banfield’s Jazz Urbane label and is distributed and marketed by Sugo Music Group.

Banfield has been a bandleader and indie record label proprietor for three decades. Through the years, such performers as Najee, Rachel Z, Billy Kilson, Carla Cook, Regina Carter, and others have passed through his groups. For the 2004 album Striking Balance (Inova), Banfield worked with Billy Childs, Patrice Rushen, Don Byron, Sounds of Blackness, and Nelson Rangell. 

A major focus of his group’s latest iteration, Jazz Urbane, is mentorship. Banfield started assembling his cross-generational lineup in 2006 after a conversation with bassist Esperanza Spalding ’05. “We talked about creating a band that would have a regular gig at a Boston nightspot,” Banfield says. “Esperanza invited her drummer and a close friend, [trumpeter] Christian Scott [’04], to a rehearsal.” But after playing together, Banfield realized how different the younger players’ conception of groove and harmony was from his.

Sugo Music Group“I had to find my way back from the grooves of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s to get with the new beats of their generation,” he says. He brought in his faculty peers George Russell Jr. (keyboards), Stan Strickland (vocals and woodwinds), Lenny Stallworth (bass), and Kenwood Dennard (drums). “We started a band and then invited younger instrumentalists Esperanza, Christian, Grace Kelly [’11], Alex Han [’09], and some singers to join,” Banfield says. The result was Jazz Urbane, a musical melting pot where the sensibilities of Banfield and his peers coalesced with those of the younger performers. And there was sharing of musical knowledge going in both directions.

Banfield and company began hosting Monday night jam sessions at Darryl’s Corner Bar & Kitchen in Roxbury. They began drawing capacity crowds and caught the attention of the New York Times in 2008 when Darryl’s was included in the Times’s listing of jazz hot spots. 

In planning for a new recording, Banfield chose some material he’d written in the early 1980s with the idea of giving the old songs a new “urbane wrapping.” He began the production process with Joey Blake and Turahn Dorsey in his kitchen recording his seasoned and youthful players with Garage Band. He also approached his former mentor, George Duke, about being the executive producer to help mold the sound of Jazz Urbane. Duke agreed and asked his engineer to convert Banfield’s tracks to Pro Tools files and the recording work continued in Duke’s Los Angeles studio. Ultimately, 30 artists (primarily Berklee faculty and alumni) participated. Veterans Banfield, Najee, Terri Lyne Carrington, Greg Osby, Stokley Williams, Winston Maccow, and others play on tracks with younger artists Alex Han, Kevin Ross, Annette Philip, Jessie Taitt, and Grace Kelly.

The album has clicked, and as of this writing, it’s in rotation on 200 stations that cross the spectrum, from college radio to NPR to jazz stations. “Jazz Urbane is one of the most artistic, forward-thinking, creatively endowed music labels we have ever worked with,” says Stevan Pasero, the CEO of Sugo Music Group. “Pure soul, heart and ingenuity emanates from its core.”

The name Jazz Urbane infers several things musically to Banfield. “It’s sophisticated and cosmopolitan as the words urbane and jazz imply, but it’s also urban. We are crossing stylistic boundaries trying make noncategorical music that features the best of what music can do.”