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The Sun Interview: Lyman Woodard & Ron English "saturday Night Special"

The Sun Interview: Lyman Woodard & Ron English "saturday Night Special" image The Sun Interview: Lyman Woodard & Ron English "saturday Night Special" image
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The Sound of Detroit is the sound of a city on the move - front the narrow neighborhood streets to Woodward and the Boulevard, from Davison to the Chrysler to the Edsel Ford and John Lodge Expressways, into the city and out to the suburbs or the faetones. Detroit is the crossroaas where native energy meets the industrial crunch, and the music this city has produced is known the world over for its intensity and drive. Through theyears the Motor City aesthrtic has been embodied in the work ofmusicians as widely various as John Lee k Hooker, f A re t ha Franklin, y Smokey Robinson. Bob Seger, W Donald Byrd, Yusef Lateef, Elvin Jones, T Martha Reeves and the MC5. With the departure ofMotown Records to Los Angeles a number ofyears ago, however, the Detroit music scène was vacuumized. Yet through the last few years, a 9 new scène has emerged, most particular!}' evident in the creative works emana ting rom two artist-controlled record companies, Tribe and Strata. One of the Strata groups has just released a fine album which cauld help rcgain Detroit 's musical recognitkm in a current sense. "Saturdav Night cial" is rhc first release by rlie Lyman WooJarJ Jrganization, curren tly beingheard on WJZZ in troit, WCBN in Ann Arbar and a number ofother stations. Upon the occasion of the lp 's release, the SUN took this opportunity to talk with the two principal partners in the Organization - organist Lyman Woodarü and guitarist Ron English, who fortned the band in late 1973. Now in their early 30's and veterans offifteen years apiece in the Michigan creative music community - including the Artist's Workshop of 1964-66 and the latter days ofMotown and Holland-Dozier-Holland - Lyman and Ron have settled into an exciting group format with drummer George Davidson, percussionist Lorenzo Brown, and the truly amazing young alto saxophonist Norma Bell (who recently took a sabbat ical f rom the L WO to join the Mahavishnu Orchestrafor its curren t U.S. tour). The SUN interview was conducted by BUI Adler and John Sinclair. SUN: Do you want to start with some early history? Lyman: Well, Ron and I have known each other for quite a number of years. We first played together, I think, in a night club in Lansing that featured dancers, artistes - you know - back in 1961 or62. SUN: Did you go to college or anything? Lyman: I went to Flint Junior College for about a year and a half, and then I took a six-month course at Oscar Peterson's School of Jazz, in Toronto. The Advanced School of Contemporary Music, it was called. Oscar actually gave each piano student private lessons. It was an invaluable experience. Before that I was nto a very limited Chuck Berry-oriented, Little Richard kind of a background with very little understanding. SUN: Did you play at high school dances? Lyman: Most of the bands we played with worked in bars in Lansing starting around 1960. But it was kind of a sorry crowd of people - a bunch of alkies, lushes. Very crude vulgar people, that's what the crowd was like at those places. Their main purpose was to get stoned: completely drunk, dangerously drunk in some cases. At that time in the locale of Flint there were some musical things happening, you know, but Flint's a really strange city in many respects. After that I moved to Jackson and started gigging with (tenor saxophonist) Benny Poole, and we played in some places that were basically juke joints out in the middle of the woods, like the Woods Club for example. SUN: So when you played in Flint you played mostly to white audiences and when you went out to Jackson you were playing to mostly all black crowds? Lyman: Right. Well, black and white. We were playing some pretty hip jazz lounges too, in Jackson, and in Lansing, and all around the "Oryan-Tenor . Belt of,America," which s what I cali it. SUN: During all this time when a lot of musicians were feeling the cali to go to New York City, a lot of things were happening for you right where you were. You never feit any compulsión to go to New York at all? Lyman: Well, that used to be kind of like what everyone did, I guess, but I never really feit the desire. I didn't think that the atmosphere or the environment would be more active than t has been right here. Then a lot of us became involved in the Artists' Workshop, after I had moved to Detroit around 1964, and we were all working in a structure which gave us the Hinity to observe each other's work and to work out a lot of creative deas which we could do while we were still playing gigs in the organ-tenor thing to make a ( living. So it was very worthwhile. Ron: I think the significant thing, bearing in on what you're trying to get at, is that all of us really represent a decisión that we all made in our own ways to not go to j+ New York and not go to San yfjk cisco or L.A. or Europe and just to stay, you know, why go through all those changes and uproot ourselves when we've got a lot of friends ' here, we're all into t thing, we might as well do I something together here, where we already are. So you get to a point Mke now, where people have worked I over a period of years - ten, f ifteen years - to get to do what they wanted to I do. "Self-determination," f you want to cali t that, I n the simplest sense. That's the beautiful thing about it to me, I would say. Lyman: And the Anists' Workshop was really based in having a basic principie of localism, you know, "here's where we ' are, this is where we live and this s what we're doing" - and it's valid, it relates to what the Jazz Composers' Guild was doing in New York City, and the AACM (an artist-controlled cooperative) in Chicago related to what they were doing i and to what we were I doing in Detroit, and I the whole thing f inf luenced other people over the years. That was ten years ago, and now we are seeing a real f lowering of a lot of the deas that were coming out then, here in a particular way but all over the country as well. It's really all about identifying your own visión of what experience and art are about and doing what t is you think should be done - and enjoying yourself in the process. So you do it however it is you have to do it in order to keep on doing it. SUN: Didn't both of you get involved in the Motown scène quite extensively after the Artists' Workshop period? Lyman: Right, both Ron and I were on the road with sev_, eral different groups. Ron: I did a couple of things with Martha Reeves, but I did work quite a bit with the Four Tops and had the great pleasure of working with Gladys Knight and the Pips on some occasions, like here in Ann Arbor at Crisler w Arena last year. Lyman: I worked with a group called the Undisputed Truth, a Motown band which had a biy hit with "Smiling Faces." It was a Norman Whitfield production, and he was also the manager of the group. Then I iworked with Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, and was Martha's musical director for some time. l'm sure that influenced a lot of my music - we played all of Martha's charts, so many of her tunes, over and over, when I was on the road with her, and it couldn't help but influence our whole musical direction. SUN: Why not talk about the new album . . . Ron: What I think is nteresting about the album s that the song titles and the different moods that are ref lected, you know, have to do with just being he re , in this place, but especially with just being on . . . SUN: Are you talking about Detroit? ; Ron: Being on one fast track or another or trying to get oj'fone track or i another, you dig, so the titles of the tunes have to do with "Saturday Night I Special" and "Joy Road," which is this beautiful, elegy-like tune written by Lyman, or "On Your Mind" and "Help Me Get Away," which are my tunes. j SUN: Is that a major Detroit theme that you picked? "Help Me Get Away?" ; Ron: Right. Actually that tune is something funky in fivefour time, and it 1 actually sounds like a hillbilly tune, you know, a country-and-western-ori' ented kind of tune with a very funky edge to it. But it's right in that pocket j in terms of its feeling, and it's also the last tune on the album. ', Lyman: And in the same vein there's "Cheeba," which s a tune with an esoteric kind of underground drug reference. However, I hate to classify your regular very top grade reefer as a drug because it's quite organic, really. i Ron: It's an herb which is quite natural - natural in its origin and widespread in its dispersión. SUN: Rjght! Lyman: So "Cheeba" s a reference to that particular state of mind which is related to that particular herbal substance. The entire tune had been on an earlier album I had done with the Eighth Day, a group that was aff iliated with the now-defunct Holland-Dozier-Holland production company. Tony Newton, the leader of the group, has just joined Tony Williams' new band, incidentally. The title tune, "Saturday Night Special," is of course the most direct expression of what we were talking about before. It has some mellotron string parts that give what is actually a funky, boogie-type motif against a kind of satin, silky background, which has always been symbolic to me of the mythical silky, satiny style of living which is part of that "fast track" Ron was talking about. It's like the dichotomy of a hit-man, you know, maybe hitting a dope czar who has the golden opportunity to die in his Fleetwood Brougham with the velvet seats and the silk-lined trunk compartment, right? It's like embroidering your own tomb or your own casket, in a way. It's like a concept of living so fast, so close to the edge, and maintaining that as a way of life. You know what I mean, with alUhe complications, the lawyers, the pólice, you know, just trying to maintain that dangerous life-style without just going completely crazy. That's a reality and not one that I really know that much about, but the whole concept of the tune it to try to evoke that dichotomy, in music. Also, in that same tune, the bridge has got a Motownoriented harmonie structure to it, which also gives it a certain particular locale reference too. SUN: Well, t's certainly hard to avoid the Motown influence living in Detroit, anyway . Lyman: Oh indeed, it's beautiful music that came out of that particular creative environment. Musically, of course, it was a tremendous inf luence on us, as we were saying, but we should also talk about the music of Charles Mingus in the same context, because that was just as powerful to me in terms of shaping my own conception - particularly Mingus' variety and his daring use of form. I think Eric Dolphy, who of course played with Mingus for some time, was another major inspiration for me, from a soloing or playing perspective, as an example of what the several harmonie alternatives there are in, you know, any improvisational process. continued on page 20 "I think people are starting to look to improvisational jazz again for nteresting musical work. There's something personal about it, something unformulated compared to the handful of things the radio is pushing." Wodard & Enslish continued from page 19 SUN: Would you like to say anything in particular in closing? Lyman: Yes, I think people are starting to look to jazz again for nteresting musical work, and it's a good sign. I think that people are tired of rock as the only thing that's happening, although the kids that are coming up now haven't beengiven much of an alternative to the AM Top 40 thing and the FM "progressive rock" thing And when they hear jazz, or improvisational music, when they really hear it, then they just love it. There's something that's personal about it, something that isn't formulated so much, that hasn't been used over and over again. It's a sonal form of expression, and I think people are really desperately ready for some imaginative musical approach. I think that's why people are listening to Miles and the other groups that are starting to emerge more and more rapidly. They're ready for it. They're tired of the oíd formulas hammering at them all the time. There's just a handful of things the radio is pushing, usually, and they keep playing the same stuff over and over, just like commercials. They are commercials, and the only alternative is to turn them off and turn on to something different, as long as it relates to where people are at in their daily lives. That's what we were trying to do with Saturday Night Special, and we just hope people will get something out of it they can use. That would make us very happy, l'd say.