Alumni Profile: Jeff Lorber '71
Our path in life can often be defined by a small number of key moments. In these moments, as if at a crossroad, choices are made that have a lasting impact on everything that follows. One such moment for Jeff Lorber happened in a snowstorm.
Growing up in the same Philadelphia neighborhood as Randy and Mike Brecker, Lorber was surrounded by music. He played in a number of bands during his high school years and decided to pursue his growing passion for music in college. He applied and was accepted to California Institute of the Arts (CalArts).
Before he left for California, he and some friends went skiing in the Pocono Mountains on New Year’s Eve of 1970, and got socked in by a snowstorm. As luck would have it, the Buddy Rich Band was performing that night in the group’s hotel. Lorber remembers striking up a conversation with Richie Cole ’67, one of the alto saxophonists. Lorber told Cole that he was about to leave for CalArts to study music and Cole’s response was, “Why are you going there? You should be at Berklee.”
“I was very lucky that I ended up at Berklee, and what I learned about harmony, improvisation, and arranging there is the backbone for how I approach music,” Lorber says. “Besides the music education, I found that hanging out with all the talented musicians and finding out what they were listening to was just as valuable. I was lucky to meet and play with John Scofield ’73, who was already an incredible guitar player, and keyboardist Greg Hawkes ’72, who went on to great success with the Cars. A large percentage of musicians I come in contact with who have had Berklee experience is always surprising.”
During his time at Berklee in Boston, he studied with the renowned piano teacher Madame Margaret Chaloff whose groundbreaking approach to piano technique was revered far and wide. Her other students included Keith Jarrett, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Hal Galper ’57, and Kenny Werner ’73.
Lorber remembers his Berklee education as a crash course in jazz. “Along with studying the history of jazz piano, and jazz music in general,” he says, “I was very influenced by both Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea. I was a big fan of Horace Silver, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Wynton Kelly, and Red Garland, and I really admired what Weather Report was doing.”
After Berklee, Lorber moved to Portland, OR, where he discovered a vibrant scene and a community of musicians that were into Tower of Power, James Brown, Earth, Wind & Fire, as well as such r&b jazz artists as the Crusaders, Headhunters, and Billy Cobham. He soon formed a band with some of the best local players and their music was a marriage of the jazz he had absorbed at Berklee and the funky r&b that was popular in his new home town. The band—Jeff Lorber Fusion—released its debut self-titled album in 1977. Their unique combination of complex harmonies and compelling grooves quickly established them as a tight innovative band, first in the Pacific Northwest and then on national and international stages. As an interesting aside, the band included a well regarded local r&b tenor player named Kenny Gorelick, who later rose to solo fame as Kenny G.
During the mid-1980s, Lorber took a break from his life as a band leader and solo artist. “I switched gears and became an in-demand session player for r&b and pop music,” he says. He also developed an interest in record production: “Those were the days of drum machines and sequencers, and I learned how to put tracks together with a Linn 9000 (later MPC60) mini moog bass, DX7 and Emulator II keyboards. I was very lucky to work on a number of successful records. Some of the more memorable projects include DeBarge, U2, and a number of artists produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, Charlie Wilson, and the Isley Brothers”.
Then, in 1994, “Verve reached out to me to do a jazz record. The timing was perfect because I hadn’t done any solo recordings since 1985 and I wanted to be in creative control of the music. I did an album called Worth Waiting For, a real explosion of bottled up musical ideas. That record helped re-ignite my career as an artist. I also switched to cowriting with and producing mostly instrumental artists. Some of the amazing musicians I’ve been fortunate to work with are Dave Koz, Herb Alpert, Michael Franks, Eric Marienthal ’79, and Gerald Albright. I’ve also been lucky that some of my old songs were sampled by hip-hop artists like Notorious B.I.G., Erykah Badu, Jeremiah, and Ariana Grande.”
In 2010, Jeff Lorber Fusion re-emerged with two albums that redefine the contemporary jazz that he pioneered: Now Is the Time (2010) and Galaxy (2011). The outstanding vocal tracks on Galaxy helped earn the album a Grammy nomination.
His latest, Step It Up, marks the fourth consecutive collaboration with bassist, composer, and producer Jimmy Haslip. Inspired by classic 1970s modal jazz, the two coproduced Step It Up. The impressive cast of bandmates includes Bob Mintzer, Robben Ford, Vinnie Colaiuta ’75, Michael Thompson ’75, and Paul Jackson Jr.
As a jazz musician in the constantly evolving music world, Lorber says, “I think streaming is the future. I really enjoy having the history of recorded music at my fingertips. I’m a big fan of Spotify and Apple Music.” He also remains enthusiastic about touring and keeps looking forward. “Success in music has always been difficult and you have to figure out ways to continually reinvent yourself. I think most successful musicians are also gifted entrepreneurs. You gotta hustle.”