BWW Interview: Brian Newman on New York Jazz, Working with Gaga, Bennett on 'Cheek to Cheek'
There is something so cool about good jazz music. It conjures up images of men in suits, drinking top-shelf scotch in dimly-lit clubs, lounging in rich, elegant gold and maroon furnishings. When I think of jazz musicians, I think of people with a certain level of sophistication; people who appreciate the finer things in life; people who are, honestly, a little intimidating.
So, when I prepared to talk with Brian Newman, who led the band on many of the best tracks on Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett's new jazz album "Cheek to Cheek," I wasn't sure what to expect. I felt a little inadequate in my jazz knowledge (or lack thereof), but from the moment I answered the phone, Brian reminded me that there were many different kinds of cool. He was fun, he was personable, he was passionate about his musicand, most importantly, he was from my home state of Ohio.
We talked about his musical influences, working with Gaga and Bennett, his quartet's upcoing album, and his regular gigs in New York City, where Lady Gaga has been known to sit in for a set.
Brian: Hey Matt, this is Brian Newman.
BWW: Hey Brian, how are you sir?
Great. How are you? Everything's good?
I'm doing great. Thanks for asking. How about you?
I can't complain; great morning. Beautiful day in New York.
Absolutely. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today.
Oh, anytime man. There is one thing I have to say, "O-H!"
I-O. Very good! That was going to be my first question. I noticed that not only are we both from Ohio, but you are only about two weeks older than I am, so I feel like we are pretty much the same person.
Haha, totally. I was reading your stuff today, and that's cool stuff knowing you're a Buckeye. The whole band's from Ohio.
You know, it's crazy, I haven't lived in Ohio for over 10 years, but I've lived in Chicago, outside Kansas City, in Atlanta, and now Orlando, you can't go anywhere without seeing someone representing Ohio State, or just the state of Ohio. So, it's kind of like you've always got a little family around.
I think so too. I know a bunch of people from Ohio, and they just work harder, they're more involved, they're nicer. I don't know, maybe it's the way we're raised, or maybe it's the water.
Now be careful, being from Cleveland, I would think you would want to be careful blaming anything on your water up in that part of the state.
Absolutely, I think that's why I moved south a little farther to go to college.
Very good. Well, let's start with that. You're from outside Cleveland, and I know that music was something that you got pretty passionate about early on. What was it about music that first really interested you? What sparked that passion?
Well, I think it was jazz. I was getting a little bored with playing all the band music, and I wasn't that good to be honest. I was sitting last chair, goofing off a little bit, and the band director approached me after I got in trouble for something, and he was like, "Why don't you try this jazz thing in the summer time?" so I did.
It was a six-week course; it was really fun. It was the first time that I saw that improvised music was something that you could do. You don't have to just play, "Ta ta ta ta ta (to the opening notes of "Hail to the Chief"), you know what I mean? You didn't have to play that all day long.
How old were you when you discovered jazz then?
I was probably, I think, in seventh grade; seventh or eighth grade. How old are you then? 12 or 13?
Yea, something like that. So, you went through high school playing jazz, and then when you decided to go to CCM (University of Cincinnati: College-Conservatory of Music), was it specifically to study jazz?
Yea, totally. Ever since shortly after I did that summer program, I just started hustling with some of the guys. I would go to the coffee shop around the corner, and I'd book us a gig, and we'd play there for whatever, 30 bucks and some chai tea; that was the thing back then. I don't know why we all drank chai tea.
So, I just started booking my own stuff there, plus I got into one of those All-Star big bands, and played with other guys around the city, and started going to other jazz camps around Cleveland, and just had some really good experiences with some older musicians. I really enjoyed what I was doing, and I wanted to do more.
You mention learning from the older musicians in Cleveland, and from my peripheral understanding of different types of jazz, it seems to be very regionalized. Chicago has its own style, Memphis has its own style, New York has its own style. Is that because it is passed down from generation to generation like that?
I think you're right, Matt. Ultimately, it comes from the older guys that settled there. Like in Cincinnati, we were surrounded by a bunch of guys who played with Count Basie and Tommy Dorsey, and all these real swingin' road bands. After the road dried up in the '70s and '80s, they settled in these cities, and they brought that sound with them. I tried to learn a lot from them, that was always my thing.
Then why did you decide on New York being where you wanted to ply your jazz trade. Was it the size and number of opportunities, or was there something specific about the city's style of music?
Well, I just knew that New York, to me, was somewhere that I felt like I could do whatever I wanted to do, and be myself, and grow as a person, and as a musician. And I also knew that I couldn't do what I wanted to do living anywhere else. Maybe LA, but I didn't really dig it so much at the time. I looked at schools out there, looked at schools in Boston, went to a lot of places, but New York was it, at least for me at least. I wanted to come here for college, but my parents made me go to Cincinnati. Not made me, but pushed me in that direction a little bit more.
And it's not like CCM is a bad place to go to school either.
No, no, it was really great. It ended up being an amazing experience, and I learned a ton there, and we really soaked up the whole scene.
We talked about the different styles of jazz played in different parts of the country, how would you describe the type of jazz that is played in New York? Is it the more traditional cabaret, standards jazz?
There's definitely a lot of that, Matt, but there's also a lot of pockets of other great stuff. There's other small clubs that you can go in and hear guys doing little more ethereal stuff; little more like EDMish. Just different vibes.
But that's what's great about New York. There's pockets of every little type of thing in the city. You know that. It's just something different.
You lead a jazz quartet (The Brian Newman Quartet) that plays all over the city and you've put out an album of standards, but I also know that you write tunes as well. So, where do you get the most from music? Is it experimenting with new styles? Keeping classics alive?
I think it's a little bit of both. I mean, definitely promoting the classics; the Great American Songbook is the only link that we have to this American music. It started rock 'n' roll. The blues came to jazz, and then to rock 'n' roll then to everything else we listen to today. And people forget that jazz is our American thing. It didn't come from anywhere but here.
And I really like to push that, but I also like to do songs, like "You Don't Know What Love Is," which is an old, sad Broadway tune, and we'll put a backbeat on it, or we'll do something different, but keep the lyrics the same. So, I like to do older songs with a newer edge; as well as some originals. We're doing another record, coming out probably in December with just the quartet, and that will have some originals and some more obscure standards, so we're excited. A little Willie Nelson too, so I'm excited.
I wouldn't have thought that Willie Nelson and jazz were things that complimented each other. With all of those different types of influences, who are artists that inspire you outside of the traditional jazz names, like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald? Are there other people that you look to that force you to raise your game a bit?
Yea, working with Gaga over the past few years, and especially on this record with Tony Bennett, has really taught me a lot; and she's told me that she feels the same way, that I am helping her in some way. It's good to be around other people doing what you like. When the three of us have that same mindset, and it comes together in the right way, it can be beautiful, and that's my main goal.
You mention "Cheek to Cheek," and I don't think there were a lot of people that expected Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga to work so well together. But there must be quite a bit that they have in common to have been able to create such an interesting, seamless album. So, you've played with both of them individually, their musical sensibilities, what made them such a successful partnership?
I really think it comes down to the songs; how they both perceive the music. You can hear a lot jazz, and it just sounds a little forced, a little contrived. (People) sing these songs, but they don't know what they mean; now I'm not saying everyone, but I hear that sometimes.
With (Gaga and Bennett), and the way that I sing, and the way we feel about this old music, it brings us closer. I know that's what brought them together in the first place too. She had a lot of experience in school doing plays and doing the Broadway stuff, and that's all this is, old Broadway songs done in a jazz fashion; a little more swing.
Do you have a favorite track on the album?
I really love "Bang, Bang," that sounds really good, but there are so many good tunes. "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," but "Bang, Bang," I've been singing that the most in my head since the record came out.
And that one was recorded live, right?
Yea, at CBS. She told us she wanted to do "Bang, Bang," probably the day before we had that concert. So, our piano player, Alex Smith, arranged that song that night, and on his way in on the train, he lives in Peekskill, NY. So, he came into the theatre at Lincoln Center, he had the charts, we did it, I think once with her, then we recorded it live in front of the whole audience. And then to have that go on the record, I am just so proud of the band, and how professional everybody is; it really makes me happy to be doing this on this level.
One thing that I have always associated with good jazz music is a certain level of passion and freshness. Even though a lot of the songs are familiar, good musicians have this incredible ability to make it sound new and current; and I think that's something you hear on ("Cheek to Cheek"). Even though I knew most of the songs, they seemed modern and fresh and passionate.
Well, thanks Matt. I really appreciate that. We worked on that. We didn't have a lot of time; it was the same kind of thing, I think we did the whole record in seven days, I mean the tracks that we recorded. They had a lot already done with the orchestra, the big band, but she wanted to do some other songs in a smaller group setting, and we were happy to get the call.
And I think that's what you were talking about, that intimate feel. There's the sound of a big band orchestra, like everyone always does it, then there's a smaller group sound, like you're in a club, and you're listening to these two legends sing. That's what really made us happy, hearing that.
The Brian Newman Quartet's next record, which will feature original songs and "obscure standards" will have a "grittier, downtown New York kind of sound," and will be released in December. The Quartet also has a standing gig every Tuesday and Thursday night from 8:00-10:00pm at the Rose Bar at the Gramercy Hotel.
I know you've had "Cheek to Cheek" on repeat for the past month, so let me know what you think in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt.