Listen to Topaz!
Brian L. Knight
There is a hot new funky sound in New York City and it is
emanating from the saxophone player Topaz who leads a talented band (also known
as Topaz) consisting of percussionist Ernesto Abreau, keyboardist Ethan
White, bassist Justin Wallace , trombonist†
Squantch, drummer Phelim White, and trumpeter Takuya Nakamura.† Combining some good old funky
jazz with some jam band undertones, Topaz gets a crowd dancing as well as
pushes the limit on sonic improvisations.†
The band has been playing the Big Apple for quite some time now, with
their popularity growing exponentially by the week.† In addition to their numerous live appearances, Topaz released
the magnificent album, Listen!†
Like the album title suggests, everyone should pick these album up,
thrown it on their headphones or crank it up in the stereo and check out the
intense grooves that collectively arise from the band.† In addition to the psychedelic meets jazz
vibes of the band, Listen! also features some great vocal numbers by Rozz Nash
and Christian Ulrich.†† The album
was recorded on and off over the last year.†
Some of the songs were simply tunes that he recorded as a bait to allure
a record company while the remainder were done since signing with Velour
The Vermont Review spoke to Topaz from his home in New York
City, which has been his home for the last six years. Before his arrival in the
Big Apple, Topaz called Washington D.C., England and Austin, Texas his
hometowns.† As a eleven year old, Topaz
played the saxophone on the streets of Austin for loose change.† It was not until his arrival in Washington
D.C that he began to hone his music profession with weekly jam sessions.†
VR: Do you feel the tradition of jazz all around you when
you are in NYC?
Actually, when I first moved to New York, it was not quite as open.
Everyone is really into straight-ahead jazz.†
It wasnít as balanced as it is now.†
Now, there are many super clubs and people are experimenting more than
when I first moved here.† Back when I
moved here, the only places happening, that did not take twenty-five dollars to
get in, was the Knitting Factory.† Even
then, that was a small little joint.† It
was not like it is now.††
VR: Did somebody turn you onto a saxophone at an early age?
Topaz: Yes.† I
played with this guy named Kirk Whalum. He lived in Texas for a good
while.† When I was young, my mom
used† to take me to 6th
Street in Austin, where all the music happens, and listen to him a lot.† I got inspired.
†VR: Which saxophone
do you play?
VR: Have you always played that?
Topaz: I started on alto.
VR: It seems that many musicians start on alto and then
switch to tenor.† Why is that?
Topaz: It is easy to play when you are younger because
tenor takes a lot more breath.† It is
bigger and bulkier.† Than the alto is
actually a little bit harder to play and, I think, to make sound good.††† I also think a lot of it is that people go
through their Coltrane stage phase and they are ďOh I have to play tenor.Ē†
VR: How long has your present band been together?
Topaz: We have been together for about two years.† It has taken a while for the core members to
gel together.† It started out as a jam
session and than I molded it more into a band.†
It has taken until now, with this new album, to mold the guys who are
going to stick around, go on the road and stuff like that.
VR: By listening to the album, it sounds like your band has
obviously spent some time together.
have.† The trombone player and I had
played together for four or five years.†
Many of† the band members knew
each other from different circles.†
VR: Phillip Glass is the master of production and
sound.† How much did his old studio
contribute to the sound of Listen!?
Topaz: That was a great experience.† Four of the tracks were done there. The
sound in that room is just incredible. The live sound just blew me away.† It was also the first time that I got to use
a two-inch tape.†
VR: Were most of the songs done in one take?
Topaz: I would say that we would get it about the third
time through.† Some of them were a
little more difficult because there were weird transitions and stuff.†
VR: The album seems to flow effortlessly from one song to
another.† Was that intentional?
Topaz: Yes. Getting the order took a long time because
there are so few and they are all fairly unique.† It was difficult to figure out how to make them flow.† I am pretty happy with how it came out.†
VR: I am going to name some musicians.† I would like to hear what you have to say
about them. Lou Donaldson?
Topaz: I am crazy about Lou Donaldson.† I donít have that many of his albums but I
have seen him live a couple times and he is an incredible performer.† I got to seem him at a couple festivals here
plus the Village Vanguard.† He always
plays with Dr. Lonnie Smith, the organ player.†
Man! That guy blows me away.† A
lot of times it seems like jazz players do not develop much energy into the
performance side of things and he just does a great job.†††
VR: Lonnie Smith was on my list of people to ask.† How about Pink Floyd?
Topaz: I love Pink Floyd.†
The album that I listen to most is Wish
You Were Here.† There was a period
in my life when I practically listened to it non-stop.†
VR: Melvin Sparks?
Topaz: I have heard a lot of him with Ruben Wilson and I
love his stuff. The organ player that I use a lot has that gig now so I will
have to go check him out.
Topaz: Soulive I love.†
They are dear friends of mine. They are a great, great band.† I just saw them at the studio today.† They were working with Fred Wesley.
VR: Bennie Maupin?
Topaz: I never checked out his solo stuff but I love all
the Headhunters stuff.† Bitches Brew is
one of my favorite albums.†
VR: Do you pick up the flute at all?
Topaz: A little bit but I donít take it out.† I need to get a new flute.† My old flute has broken down.†
VR: Your band is definitely funky and it is definitely
jazzy, but there is a progressive-jam aspect as well.
Topaz: Cool.† We are
definitely trying.† We are definitely
drawing on music from the past but we also try to make it modern.†
VR: What is the best thing about doing what you do?
Topaz: Primarily, I am doing what I love.† I love the way that my music makes me feel
and I hope that I am making other people feel that way.† I am hoping that I am spreading some good
vibes into the universe.† I think I am
so that is an honor.
VR: What is the worse thing?
Topaz: Right now, it is dealing with the business aspect.
Hopefully, I will get a little more successful and I will have people to deal
VR: If you were to hold a party for yourself, and you
wanted it to be the party of lifetime, who would share the bill with Topaz?
Topaz:† That is
tough.† I would like for the first part
a band from Europe, Eric Truffaz.† We
played with Maceo the other day.† We
would play the middle part and have Maceo close it out.
VR: Sounds good.†
What are you listening to right now?
Topaz: I have been listening to Roy Ayers from the
1970s.† I check out of lots of different
VR: When you listen to Ayers, do you study it and try to
incorporate his sound into your sound?
Check out Topaz at http://www.velourmusic.com/