“Since I started going on the road with my dad, everything has been based around trumpet for me as the number one instrument. I love sax players, but I always loved his horn playing. So when I heard Gabe play – I didn’t compare the two – but he has a really good tone and I like the way he plays. I like his choice of phrasing and things like that,” explains Erin Davis (son of Miles) as we sat down to discuss he favorite new player Gabriel Johnson. Davis has even taken Johnson under his wing, managing him and giving him opportunities like none other. It’s not fabricated either. When you hear Johnson play, we’re sure you will agree with the assessment. He is one of the rare few who manage to sustain a great versatility while keeping their own sound unique while playing with artists from Gladys Knight and Blood Sweat & Tears to Jill Scott and P Diddy.
Read on as we delve into Johnson’s musical history, experiences working with Clint Eastwood, developing his own sound, and making great music.
How did your musical upbringing foster the varied taste and influences you have in music today?
The first musician that I ever got to hear was Miles Davis, which is lucky. When I was like eight my uncle put on Bitches Brew in his room. My mom says that I sat there and made him turn over the vinyl over and over again for hours. Fortunately my mom is really cool, you know, rather than going, “Oh let’s take this kid to a child psychiatrist” or something to figure out what the hell is wrong with him. Instead she went and told my grandmother and then my Grandma said, “Well, the Monterey Jazz Festival is happening in a couple weeks.” So I went to that festival and I heard Dizzy play and Freddie Hubbard play. So at eight years old, I had sort of musically had my ass kicked on another level. The first thing you hear is Miles and then after that you hear Dizzy and Freddie Hubbard. This is 1988 before his lip injury he was destroying everything that he played.
So that’s what got me on my path and then I just got way into it. I practiced and practiced and practiced to the point where I missed my high school prom, missed all of that stuff. I played gigs instead. I remember the night of my junior prom in high school, I was playing at a Starbucks with a trio. I just blew everything off more or less. I thought it was going to be way cooler and if I stuck with it the parties would be way better when I’m older anyways.
So after that I went to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, which was a great school. I got to study with Steve Lacy, Danilo Perez, and George Garzone, and just a bunch of amazing jazz musicians. I also learned about classical music, orchestration and just the whole history of music up until about 1970. But also around that same time that I was doing school, what really led me down the path that I’m on now was that Voodoo came out, that D’Angelo record. I wasn’t really a crate digger at 18. I would turn on MTV and then run to play my trumpet horrified because a lot of what was coming out at that time was garbage. But also at that time Kid A came out. So I was going on sort of a parallel path where I was hearing technology being introduced in all kinds of stuff all at once as it were. It’s kind of interesting when you’re checking out Kid A, Voodoo, Miles Davis, and Stravinsky. Being in an environment like that was really great.
How did you bring all of these influences together into something cohesive for your record?
There’s a thin line now between what I would call jazz and maybe instrumental music, which ten years ago would have been called smooth jazz. But now I think instrumental music has taken on a whole other thing with people like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding and Christian Scott. People who are combining influences, but it’s not like Billy Ocean. The instrumental music today is so different.
Knowing there aren’t any words in instrumental music, I think the simpler you make the melodic content, the more direct, the better. And not simpler as in dumbed down either. I have a hard time thinking “So What” and “All Blues” are dumbed down. They’re simple melodically, but they’re impactful and on “So What” you actually hear the words “so what” in the music. So for me, I wanted to approach making something that could be way accessible to the average person, but without being sort of jive. That’s important to me.
I’ve played for places where there was one person and it’s not nearly as much fun as when there’s a hundred people or five hundred people. It’s not necessarily about selling out, it’s just like, “I’m doing this; I want an audience.” When you take all of that stuff into account, you sort of make decisions based on A.) what you’re comfortable with and what you feel good about, but B.) also how is that going to translate live? So I just wanted to do stuff that wasn’t about having 18-thousand chord changes and trying to play as many notes on top of it as possible. I’ve just always been obsessed with the amazing simplicity that Miles had and that Monk had or even Bach if you go into classical music. I think that’s always going to be at the heart of my music – an overriding sense of simplicity with layers underneath that perhaps are more complex.
Now, you played all of the instruments on Introducing Gabriel Johnson?
Everything except for at the end of “Codex” there is some cello and I do not play cello. But aside from that I did everything and I’m surprised that in my studio now it’s not like padded walls. I didn’t really start out to do things that way, but as I developed my ability to make beats and program and stuff like that I started to check out like all of those J Dilla Records and Madlib and guys like that who do stuff in a really mono sort of way by themselves. I thought I might as well give it a shot and see how it goes. At the end of it, I was so sick of it that I couldn’t listen to it anymore. It took me about a month-and-a-half. I mixed it myself too. So I did everything. It’s kind of like a 6-month process where there was at least 3-5 hours every day. You just sort of go at it. I thought about hiring other people, but then I thought, “Do I really want to bring anybody around this vibe that I have myself right now?” I was just so intense and I didn’t want to freak out on any of my friends if they did something I didn’t like or anything [laughs].
Did you bring in anybody even just for a second set of ears?
Yeah, my main person who I bounce stuff off of musically is my manager, Erin Davis. I really trust his ears because anytime you grow up in a house like that with Miles, for lack of a better way to put it, your bullshit radar is really high. Erin isn’t really a man of a lot of words in terms of technical stuff. It would just be a call like, “Yeah man I’m feeling that,” or “Eh.” Just having someone around who you can trust in that respect is super badass. He was pretty much the only one. But, you know, some people are going to love it and some people are going to hate it. I love eating kale; some people hate kale. That’s what makes the world an interesting place.
How did you get connected with Erin Davis?
I met him when I was working for this young, up-and-coming director named Clint Eastwood [laughs]. I had gotten a call to be the trumpet soloist on a movie that he made called Changling. I had been touring with Clint’s son who is a bass player and him and Erin are buddies. So just through that connection is how I met Erin. And if I could say one thing about him, it’s that he is kind of the anti-Paris Hilton. It’s not like he walks in and is like, “I’M ROYALTY!” There is no vibe like that at whatsoever. So it was a while after I had met him that I asked him, you know, “What’s your deal, how do you guys know each other?” So he says, “Who do you like as trumpet player?” So I said that one of my favorites was Miles Davis. He was just like, “Oh yeah that’s my dad.” He is the least pretentious guy ever.
So we just kept in touch for a while and became very close friends. I just trust him. I had meetings with other big LA manager types, but it seems like to me at the heart of all of it, Erin really gets what I’m trying to do. And just like his dad jumped around all the time musically, I know he’d be cool with me going a lot of different directions. He’s not going to put me in a box.
You mentioned working on some soundtracks for Clint Eastwood. What was the process like for that, very different from recording your album?
I think working with Clint has its own thing. I never met Miles, but I’ve heard stories about Miles about how he was Mr. Simplicity and just trusted his musicians. That’s what I would say about Clint as a composer and as a director.
Basically the story is that I was up there recording something for his son, Kyle, for a soundtrack, and it was at Clint’s house. I had heard that he was around. I played a take and there was a couch right behind me. I said, “Ok that was cool, let’s try another one.” I went to sit down, and you know that moment when your knees buckle and you’re definitely going to sit down? It was literally like I caught myself right before I landed in his lap. I look at him, he looks at me, and I shit you not it’s like:
Then he’s like, “Hey kid, you’ve got a nice sound. You want to come back tomorrow and work on this movie?” I said, “Sure, what time man?” He says, “Two-o’clock” I kid you not I would have been ready at 2 in the morning to go back to his house. I grew up close to Monterey near where he is from, so to me he was like the Pope. But I got in there and he just played me a little melody on the piano and he said “Alright, go.” That was it. And then for the end title I played a solo. He goes, “Yeah that was nice. Come back tomorrow.” So we worked for about a month on all kinds of different stuff and then found out what was going to work best in the movie. But that first thing I did ended up being the end title of the movie. He put an orchestra around what I had played. It was pretty cool. But he also took me to the set a few times and he’s the same exact way as a director.
You’ve been brought into so many different projects and styles and are able to be a chameleon of sorts. How did you get that reputation?
I think that I try to craft a trumpet sound that people who hear me go, “That’s what he does.” For me that’s always been the starting point for everything. It’s having a sound that is identifiable whether it’s your music or anything, your voice. If I did a rock and roll record or a Sigur rós record or something, I would hope that everyone would still know it was me. I’ve tried to come up with a tone that says many different things, but still projects a certain mood. A lot of times guys will be chameleons, but it ends up being so generic sounding that there are 75 other chameleons in there. So that’s the thing that I’ve tried to cultivate.
What’s your next project looking like?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I’ve been performing a bunch. As you do a live show you learn a lot more about ways you can make your live show flow in different ways. Maybe start with a ballad and the next night you start with something else. So I was just thinking that I want my next project to sort of be the ultimate nighttime jazz record. I have to start thinking a whole lot harder about it though. I wouldn’t say an updated because it still sounds so current to me, but something with the simplicity of Kind of Blue. It doesn’t matter necessarily what kind of music you’re playing, it matters what mood you’re setting. I’ve always thought of music as much more of a mood that it was a technical math exercise. That’s why people who aren’t musicians say stuff like, “I really liked the vibe of that track.” A super educated musician would say it’s so generic or what have you. Simultaneously, I really dig my iPhone. But the guy who makes the chip might say, “You moron, you have no idea what’s in this chip!” He’s probably just happy that I dig the phone though. So I think that my next album will probably be something like that. Something that if you’re taking a walk in your city at night, you can just listen to it and go into a relaxed space.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)