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Bradley Leighton

The sub-contra bass flute, otherwise known as the Big Flute in orchestras, has the low registers of a bass guitar and a glossy squirming comparable to the oboe and woodwinds of its ilk. It is the type of instrument that you would expect a savvy flutist like Bradley Leighton to be attracted to, and sure enough, he owns one. Leighton purchased the 5th in a series of sub-contra bass flutes made by J. Hogenhuis of The Netherlands. Leighton mainly plays the sub-contra bass flute for demonstrations, but he certainly would not object to playing it in concert or on a solo album if people requested.

Leighton advances that his greatest aspiration is to show people how the flute does so much more than what is conventionally believed about the instrument. "Trying to overcome the entrenched resistance to the flute by the major markets is still my most pressing issue. Supposedly, the flute ‘doesn't test well’ in the various marketing research polls and focus groups." He points out, "See: Broadcast Architecture, and of course, Clear Channel Communications won't deviate from BA's high-priced advice. So I must continue to carve out a niche for the flute within the independent market that is still open to new ideas and music."

Leighton’s latest release Soul Collective does not contain the deep resonating tubes of the sub-contra bass flute, but he does bring out the funky grooves and swift elasticity of the flute and the alto-flute in the tracks. The album displays the flute’s prowess as a tool that enhances the magnetism of smooth funk’s spirit and contemporary jazz’s melodic corals. He addresses, "One of my main goals as a flutist is to show that the use of the flute needn't be relegated to a few select genres. It's all about understanding the idiosyncrasies of the style of music being played."

He examines, "Smooth jazz radio programming was, and always has been, very negative in regards to the flute. I wanted to put out some funky arrangements that featured the flute out in front and more ‘in your face’ but still fit in with the overall smooth jazz vibe. I think we were pretty successful in that regard."

He explains about Soul Collective, "This is my fourth solo release. It's a follow up to my first smooth jazz project, Back to the Funk, which was released in 2006. This project was more about incorporating the sound of the flute into different ensemble settings along side the more ‘traditional’ instruments. I play quite a bit less on this project since the album has so many great guest artists - I wanted everyone involved to be able to make a significant contribution to the overall sound. "

Soul Collective features several guest musicians like saxophonists Tom Braxton and Tom Scott, and trumpeters Greg Adams and Mic Gillette. Leighton remarks about them, "I'd actually never met Tom Scott or Mic, and had met Greg only once at a party, but all three of those guys fall into my ‘legendary’ category of players. It was a blast watching them work and listening to the often humorous anecdotes they shared. Tom Braxton is another fine artist on our label, so it was pretty easy to ask him and he did some really fine work on the project."

He comments about guitarist Evan Marks who also plays on Soul Collective, "We've known Evan a few years now and he's our go-to guy on guitar. He plays most of our live shows and has appeared on three of my four CD’s."

Along with these special guests are musicians whom Leighton has formed a strong bond with and call on first when he is scheduled to play a show. These musicians include bassist Cecil McBee, Jr., drummer Cesar Lozano, and keyboardist/percussionist Allan Phillips, who also doubled his duties as a producer for Soul Collective. Phillips provided his own composition to the album, a Latin flavored jazz number called "Café," which Leighton expresses, "Allan Phillips wrote ‘Café’ and he’s from Brazil; not too tough to go there for any of us, especially living in San Diego. There are many Latin musicians who’ve inspired all of us."

Phillips was additionally instrumental in building the track "She’s Gone" from the album which features riffs played by saxophonist Tom Scott. "Allan Phillips had charted out that melody pretty carefully. Then we let Tom do his take on it first, since it was his styling and interpretation that I wanted. The tricky part for me was to try to copy how he played it exactly. Tom's playing has its own unique inflections and attacks and it took a couple of tries before I got it right. In both the original Hall & Oates version and the popular Tavares cover, the tenor and alto lead are synchronized perfectly, and I wanted to recreate that particular aspect in our version."

Leighton also rendered the services of keyboardist Jason Miles to play on the album and produce some of the tracks. He comments about Phillips and Miles as producers, "There’s no comparison between the two; they have very different attitudes and plans of attack when going into the studio, all of which would require an extensive draft and redraft."

For the remake of the Crusaders song "Keep That Same Old Feeling" from Soul Collective, singer-songwriter Katresse Barnes provided the vocals. "Jason Miles got Katresse to do the track. It's his arrangement and he hand-picked all the players on the 2 tracks he produced. The song is an old favorite of mine that I've used to close my show for years."

Also, on Soul Collective is a remake of country songbird Bobbie Gentry’s tune "Billy Jo," which Leighton admits, "This is another tune that I've been performing for years. We were just able to add a few touches in the studio that we normally wouldn't have onstage. Country music was all that was played in our house when I was growing up, so I heard the original many times and it was always a favorite of mine."

Growing up in Tacoma, Washington exposed Leighton to the music played on country music radio stations which his mother listened to, but he also developed a strong leaning towards R&B, soul and funk groups like the Crusaders, Tower of Power, Herbie Mann, and Earth, Wind & Fire. Drawn to playing the flute in high school, he describes, "I would call myself a ‘journeyman’ musician. I've played professionally since, and during high school, in just about every kind of musical situation you can name. My music is a reflection of everything I've been exposed to over the last 35 years or so."

According to his online biography, immediately after high school, he enlisted in the Army and played in the Army’s 9th Infantry Division band at Fort Lewis in Washington State. In time, he was appointed the jazz ensemble’s musical director and was relocated to Seoul, Korea to serve his duty in the 8th Army. He was discharged so he could pursue a life in playing music. He stayed in Seoul where he began teaching and performing in the country’s only jazz bar. He returned to the USA years later and settled in Seattle, Washington where he searched for more professional opportunities. He spent the next 15 years playing in several rhythm and blues bands, Hammond organ trios, funk-dance bands, and straight-ahead jazz groups.

In 2001, Leighton moved to San Diego, California and in 2003, he released his first solo album, Groove Yard. He cites, "Groove Yard is a collection of jazz standards that many players have covered before. Like we all do, I tried to approach each one a little differently and in my own unique fashion."

In some ways, it is music technology that he thanks for making his solo records possible. "Technology makes everything easier," he professes. "From how we compose . . . to the instruments we play . . . and how they're recorded . . . the list goes on. The basic process of composing, pre-production, recording and post-production remains the same; it's just way less expensive and time consuming."

He confesses, "Yeah, I'm a techno-junkie with plenty of nerd-like qualities. Helpful?? Maybe. But sometimes I feel like 1/3rd of my life is spent going over user guides and calling tech support in order to make all this stuff work."

Although when he performes live, he requires actual musicians to take the place of what music technology covers in the studio. "It's really hard to keep the same group of players together for any length of time these days" he notes. "Guys have to take whatever work comes their way. So, unless you're on the road year round, you just hope your favorite people aren't already committed when the gig comes in. I'm very fortunate that I've been able to play with pretty much the same lineup as I have for the last 3-4 years. Allan Phillips has produced my last 3 CD’s. He plays keyboards and percussion and acts as musical director on many of our shows. It would be easy to be jealous of the wide range and depth of his skills was it not for the fact that he's one of the nicest cats I know. Everyone knows that Evan Marks is a great player and he's a lot of fun to be around. That's my prime prerequisite of the players - that everyone have fun."

He emphasizes about playing live, "The important thing is that the audience enjoys the performance. All other considerations are secondary to that. The hardest thing is maintaining your own interest and energy after you've performed the same song a couple hundred times. That's when the band has to stretch out for new ideas and different ways of playing the same song without losing the essential elements that make the song popular. Performing in a group is all about listening to each other and supporting your comrades on stage."

Whether he plays in an intimate club or a large football field, he says that he enjoys them equally. "I was taught that it doesn't matter how many people are in the crowd, be it 4 or 4000, they all deserve the same effort and attention."

His only wish is to make one lasting impression on his audiences. "I just like hearing people say, ‘wow, I didn't know the flute could be that funky‘. If I've succeeded in entertaining AND made someone more aware of the possibilities of the flute - my work is done."

Bradley Leighton’s desire to be recognized as a musician who plays smooth funk, jazz and R&B enriched music is easy. It’s achieving this by playing the flute, an instrument that is resigned to chamber music groups and being played in New Age spas, which has been the difficult part. With each solo album, Leighton has been chipping away at the partitions that people have put up to confine the flute; and possibly someday, even the sub-contra bass flute will have as much of a presence in smooth funk/R&B music as the late Barry White’s vocals do. It takes the mind of a dreamer to see these changes and put them into songs.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Bradley Leighton
  • Interview Date: 8/1/2005
  • Subtitle: Back to the Funk
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