One For the Road: Zo! + Sy Smith in Washington D.C. (June 13, 2012)

Sy Smith + Zo! at Blues Alley – 06.13.12
Photo by Lauren Persons

Ever since we booked these two shows to play at Washington D.C.’s Blues Alley back in mid-April, I guess it’s pretty safe to say that I automatically got hyped up about the date. As a matter of fact, I think the last time I was THAT amped up for a show was in February when Sy and I played Privé Deux back home in Detroit… And the time before that? Well… when I was in Detroit on Mother’s Day 2011 with The Foreign Exchange, the show where my home gave me damn near a two-minute long ovation that had a brovah holding his eyes wide open and blinking to keep from dropping tears on stage… Yeah THAT one. You kinda see the pattern here? There’s just something undeniable about playing a touring or a major show in your hometown and/or your place of current residence. It is already certain that the energy will be at a higher level for your performance, so naturally, I almost have to monitor my adrenaline rushes and keep them under close surveillance as I used to have to for big games during my baseball playing days. I even hit Sy up not too long after the show was booked… “Maaaaan, I think I’ma have to suit it up for this one.” And speaking of that, allow me to let you in on a little something in case you didn’t know… Grown folks JUMP at the chance to dress up for some shit. The reason? We are rarely presented with a proper “dress up” occasion. And I’m not talking about some silly ass “color scheme” party where you’re limited to one or two colors to choose from. The next thing you know you’re posing in front of airbrushed backgrounds of champagne bottles for a picture that you’re rushing to post onto your “too much info offering” Facebook page. I’m talking about an all-out “damn, I’ve NEVER seen you look THAT good before!!” event. For example, ask a grown ass man the last time he wore a suit (outside of church and work) and I guarantee he’ll be able to tell you the exact date AND occasion. With all of that being said, when I pulled out my black suit to press and get ready for the show, I pulled a food receipt from my pocket from none other than… Blues Alley. The only other time I had ever been was to play keys for a New Year’s Prince tribute that YahZarah was doing to bring in 2011. So uhhh, I guess it had been a long time since my grown ass had been suited up too. We used to do it regularly when touring with The Foreign Exchange while promoting their album Leave It All Behind. We all looked great on stage, but carrying all of those clothes around on the road got to be a PROBLEM. Baggage fees and overpacking remained our arch enemies on the Leave It All Behind tour… Let’s just say we found close allies in T-shirts and jeans.

Zach Cutler, Biscuit Bynum, Sy Smith & I set to rehearse – 06.12.12

Anyway, as I recover from going way off track… Musician-wise, Sy and I already knew who we wanted to use on the show. We had to have Zach Cutler on that guitar and Chris “Biscuit” Bynum on drums. Zach is a super-talented, technically skilled kat who is a rhythm master that will find that pocket and play in it all night. PLUS, he knows our set like the back of his hand being as though this was his third show with us (he joined us in both NYC and Houston last month). Biscuit is pretty much the drummer who is highest in demand ’round D.C. I met him while playing a gig together back in April of 2006 and have hit him up for more than a few gigs since then, including that Leave It All Behind tour I mentioned previously. Once the two of them locked the date in, we knew that we only needed to rehearse together one good time and the remainder would be good to go… and that’s exactly what happened. We all got together, knocked out a tight rehearsal in my studio and got it together for showtime the following day.

Soundcheck at Blues Alley was at 4:30p… I was so hyped up, I was aiming to be at the spot at 4pm just so I could get there, load in, find a decent parking space (like most, I DESPISE parking in and around Georgetown) and properly prepare for our show. To begin with, I ALMOST walked out of the house without my freshly pressed black suit and shirts (one for the 8pm show and one for the 10pm). Next, the fact that it is always an adventure driving to the Georgetown area just added to the fun. My GPS got cussed out thoroughly for 1.) Leading me to a closed road, and 2.) Attempting to direct me down a one-way street… the WRONG way. My road rage was in the red by the time I pulled in to Blues Alley… But all existing anger took a backseat when I drove directly under this…….

Photo by Lauren Persons

*takes a deep breath*

*looks up at the sign again*

*smiles*

Well, they left off the “!”, but I’ll take it… At least they didn’t spell my name with a damn “e” at the end. Seeing that marquee put me right back on track on what I was there to be focused on… Putting on two helluva shows. I walked into the venue and saw that Sy had already been in there… Hell, she was probably just as pumped up as I was. As I set everything of mine up, Zach walked in. Our soundman, Melvin Prince wasn’t too far behind him. Sy came in not too long afterward and quickly set up her rig…….. while Biscuit, to no one’s surprise turned out to be the last man of the crew through the Blues Alley door. We hit a solid check and I walked up the block to 31st St. with Zach and Bis to get some kabob-e joojeh a/k/a chicken kabobs before the show. I wasn’t worried about any pre-show  ‘itis” symptoms showing up as I was entirely too wound up. Sy and I were told by Frank Sheffield (the show’s booker and organizer) that the 8pm room was pretty much sold out. Upon hearing that news, I FELT like going downstairs and hopping on the mic with an enthusiastic, “I AM VERY HAPPY TO BE HERE!!” © Prince Akeem.   …….But after evaluating that option a bit further, I decided against it and continued to get dressed for the first show.

The 8pm show began with Sy and I being led through the occupied tables of people in the dimly lit room via flashlight. We were introduced and jumped right into “Nights Over Egypt”. Normally, with a sit-down crowd you really don’t know what to expect, but this group of folks were VERY responsive and into what was happening on stage. There was one group right in front of me who I acknowledged during the show because they had no problem letting us know where they stood on things…

Sy: “I’m living in LA now”… Table up front: *SCREAM!! CHEER!!!!*

Sy: “Y’all know Zo is outta Detroit…”  …Table up front: *SCREAM!! CHEER!!!!*

Me: “Weren’t y’all just yelling for LA? Maaan, y’all cheer for EVERYTHING!!”

They cheered for everything AND they knew every word to damn near every song we played too and THAT was dope. I can’t describe how great it feels to see folks come out to the shows who love being a part of what you love to do. Hats off to the “Table up front.” The second show was no different… Of course we were a bit more loose not only on the mic, but performance-wise as well and our 10pm crowd took to it extremely well. Overall, folks came out to have fun, party, and laugh with us – Even when we managed to crack a few jokes on some of their favorite artists. The fact that Blues Alley provided that baby grand on stage for us to utilize just made things even more interesting during out set. I took first crack at it during our performance of “Driving” and “Greater Than the Sun.” When it was Sy’s turn to tickle the baby grand ivories, I hopped on the bass guitar for her song “Stand Alone.” Most folks don’t even know that I play the bass… Well shit, there are still plenty who think I sing. So those types of “switch ups” are necessary sometimes on stage so that your people can literally see what you can do – plus, it’s always a nice change of pace within the set.

The love we received after both performances was unbelievable. The fact that we were praised by our elders who were in the crowd was a flattering experience and always is when it does happen. Both of us had family in the audience who ALL left with the widest of proud grins on their faces, which made the performances even that much more special. Sy AND I left the venue on much more of a high than when we both arrived for sound check. Shall I dare say that these two shows surpassed our Atlanta show as our best yet? ….Why yes I shall.

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I Don’t Sing… No, really… I don’t.

On the mic in Detroit… Not singing.

One of the most interesting (and sometimes unpredictable) pieces of being an artist is the interaction you have with people who follow your music. Some folks call ‘um “fans”… others even get more personal and call ‘um “friends”… Whatever you wanna call it, to put it bluntly – the folks who listen to and support your shit. Anyway, I love this interaction simply because it brings me and my music closer to those who support it and vice versa – this is why I have no problem with stepping right off stage into the audience after a performance and shaking hands with those who put down their hard-earned money to listen to us share our gift with them. Hearing people tell me how they were first introduced to my music and sometimes even going into detail as to how it applies to their lives and daily activities is a blessing to say the absolute least. There’s nothing more humbling than to hear about how you have affected someone’s life for the better because of some music you have come up with in the comfort of your own home… It gives me goosebumps just typing about it. BUT, sometimes…. juuuuust sometimes things go way left during some of these excellent interactions with the posing of just one simple question…

“Hey, so… Why didn’t you sing tonight?”

*crickets*

Those of you who know me understand fully that I have a very silly sense of humor and more importantly, I never, ever take myself too seriously. I understand that not a lot of people know who I am, and that sometimes those who may be aware of who I am aren’t quite sure about what I do. Regardless, whenever I get asked about which song I’ve sung on or I get complimented on my “singing voice”….. It’s STILL funny as hell to me. In a similar instance that is way too hilarious to be left out of this particular entry, I can remember playing a show in Portland, OR last year with The Foreign Exchange and someone approached my brother Nicolay, a fellow Musician/Producer/Composer and told him that he was “disappointed” that he didn’t RAP during the show because he was “all over the Connected album.” We STILL laugh about that…

I’ll put it like this, I’m sure that if I practiced long and hard enough on vocals I may be able to do more than just “hold a note”, but to me holding a note isn’t good enough to be singing… in public anyway. I don’t sing because in my humble opinion… I CAN’T sing. I am a perfectionist with regards to what I release, on top of the fact that I feel the vocalists I have worked with previously are some of the most talented folks in the business, therefore I don’t have to touch a mic in the studio (this is the part where your ears should send me a “thank you” shout). Trust me y’all, if I started singing during a show, folks would get up and trample each other attempting to hit the exits. I only sing in two places: 1.) In the studio when referencing an idea for an artist, and 2.) In the car….and the ONLY reason I sing in the car is because I can have the volume turned up just enough so that I can actually sound good – meaning I’m drowning myself out. And now that I think about it some, let’s go ahead and make it three – Sometimes I’ll take advantage of the great acoustics of the shower and sing a little som’n in there. The splashing water is loud enough to create a sound diversion allowing me to “go in” on a song if I feel the need to do so. Honestly, I come up with a lot of musical concepts in the car and in the shower… Maybe I should strugglesing more often!!! ….Nah, I’ll pass.

Then, of course there’s the classic line…

“Well if <insert bad singing negro’s name here> is singing on records, you can do it too!”

Umm…Yeeeeah, well kinda… It’s pretty good logic on paper that I even joke around and use sometimes, but y’all ain’t gonna be out here adding me to some list I don’t want to be included on and talking about my non-singin’ ass either!

Alright… All BS aside, y’all REALLY wanna know the truth? Well, the truth is… I don’t even wanna hear the shit. And if I don’t want to hear it, I’m going to assume that you all don’t either. In the meantime, I’ll do my very best to continue to compose and play some good music for y’all… Just remember, if you hear a male voice over top of it… It’s not me!

SOCIAL STUDIES: An Interview with Musician, Producer and Educator, Zo!

By: John Richards • Source: The Washington Informer

Growing up in Motown and being raised by two musical parents it was probably inevitable that Zo! (Lorenzo Ferguson) would be involved in music. Described by his friend and collaborator Sy Smith as a “young Quincy Jones”, Zo! can do it all, just don’t ask him to sing. The Washington Informer caught up with Zo! ahead of his show at Blues Alley with Sy Smith and discussed his musical influences, finding the time to be a touring musician as well as a music educator and his collaboration with Sy Smith.

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Review of The Foreign Exchange show in Brooklyn, NY (6/4/12)

Beats, Bartering and Brooklyn: The Foreign Exchange Live at Music Hall of Williamsburg

By: Matthew Allen

Source: Okayplayer.com

Phonte “Phontigallo” Coleman and Matthijs “Nicolay” Rook named themselves The Foreign Exchange because they recorded their 2004 debut album, Connected, without ever having met in flesh. This transcontinental changing of hands – forged from their Okayplayer encounters – makes their moniker simple to understand, but there’s much more to the name than that. The exchange of alien musical ideals between the two – Coleman’s North Carolina hip-hop roots as one third of Little Brother, Nicolay’s background as a Dutch electronic music producer – have come to reconcile a form of music that is not easily explained. When they received their first Grammy nomination in 2008 for the song “Daykeeper,” they were classified as Urban/Alternative; a curiously damning and contradictory title, as it combines two terms that are limiting and vague, respectively. Appropriate that such an indescribable band chose Brooklyn as a performance stop. The New York City borough is a terminal where countless cultures, sounds and spirits collide and implode. If their performance at the Music Hall of Williamsburg offered any resolution, The Foreign Exchange (+FE) has to be described as a jazz band. Not jazz in its predictable preconceptions, but rather as an abstract ideal, or a means to an end. The end is to create physical and intellectual rejuvenation for its listeners; the means is to use every melodic and lyrical resource that their mental disc-changer can muster.

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