After another short break, I have returned with my summer jazz series. To shake things up a bit, I reached out to a well-known composer and keyboard player, Gregg Karukas. His music is perfect for these remaining summer days. Plus, I am a big fan of his work. Luckily, Gregg was kind enough to take some time off from his busy tour to share with me his music exploration.
His beginnings in music are quite detailed. “Listening [to] the jukebox in my father’s roadside tavern in Bowie, MD absorbing the hits of the sixties, from The Beatles to Motown. Growing up, my older brothers took piano lessons, but my role models were the great composer/keyboardists: Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, Chick Corea, Carole King, Laura Nyro, Leon Russell, Joni Mitchell, Joe Zawinul, and the recently departed George Duke. Thanks to them, I was inspired by the idea that you could touch people’s emotions with melodic songs and lyrics that meant something. I was in the choir in Junior High School, but I still kick myself for not working on my singing more once my voice changed. Any semblance of a voice or style got left in the 70’s.”
Even his fascination and later mastery of the keyboards has its own origin story. “My approach on ‘Soul Secrets’ was to go back to the vintage keyboards I grew up with. I first played a Wurlitzer Electric piano when I was 13 at my Dad’s restaurant, (he tore the old Bowie Inn Tavern down and built a nice big restaurant); it was in the closet where the dinner music was. [The] solo piano guy would store it on off nights. Then, another guy brought in a Hammond B3! Wow, I started working as the Sunday afternoon cleanup guy, vacuuming and cleaning the bathrooms while the restaurant was closed. I begged to play it and my Dad let me have the key once I finished my work. I was in love with the sound but didn’t really have any organ chops. Later, I took organ lessons at the chapel of McDonogh School on a C3, Bach mostly, but I would practice some rock stuff when I could. I owned a Farfisa F.A.S.T. 3 combo organ and a Leslie 145 so I could get a similar sound and paid dues in rock bands as a teenager. Then I got asked to be the understudy pianist in the High School Jazz Band the Bowie High School Starliners. That, and, believe it or not, Frank Zappa, turned me on to jazz.”
While he perfected his craft he sought out like-minded musicians to broaden his sound and experience. “So many projects are famous, or infamous… I played keys and bass lines on the Rockwell Album ‘Somebody’s Watching Me,’ which had some of the first rap tracks along with the big hit with MJ singing background vocals. I also did a few ‘live in the studio’ projects, the first ‘live to digital’ recording on the east coast using the JVC system with East Coast Offering. Then much later, a ‘live at Oceanway’ project for singer/songwriter David Lasley, ‘Soldiers on the Moon’ with Jeff Porcaro, Abe Laboriel, Luther Vandross, Rita Coolidge, David Benoit and Luis Conte. That was very cool. The ‘Moonlighting’ record, the first Rippingtons project, I played all keyboards on that (David Benoit on acoustic piano, Kenny G. on sax) and it features me playing a rarely heard synth solo that still holds up and gets airplay on She Likes to Watch.”
His favorite work has been varied thanks to his vast history in the space. “Obviously, my first number one, Summerhouse which featured Boney James, who played in my band before his breakout Warner Brothers deal, was a big thrill. That was 1993 and the radio was strong with many Contemporary Jazz or Smooth Jazz stations in all the major cities. I played a few shows outdoors at the World Trade Center in NYC, sponsored by CD101.9. Otherwise, working with Kirk Whalum on a few on his CD’s and having him play on mine. My work with Jessy J. (not to be confused with the pop star Jessie J) on her first and almost all her CD’s, co-writing Tropical Rain, which was a big number one hit. Especially satisfying is the Grammy award, which I won for producing, composing, playing all keyboards, arranging and engineering the Best New Age Album in 2013, ‘Echoes of Love.’”
I asked Gregg if he could share his ideal musical venue and event. “’Ideal’ is where I am at any time playing my own music, and whether its 50 or 5,000 people, it is still a great feeling. That was my dream… I am very fortunate to have been involved at the very start of a few ‘movements’ in the contemporary jazz genre. In the mid-late 70’s, our fledgling ‘fusion’ bands, East Coast Offering and Natural Bridge worked steadily and got to open many shows at The Cellar Door in DC for artists like Jimmy Smith, Oregon, Larry Carlton, Dixie Dregs and Robben Ford. Later in LA, the spawning ground was a few clubs where we built our followings and tried new songs [such as] Donte’s and The Baked Potato. Dave Koz was one of the first sax players in my band back in 1986, while he was a student at UCLA, and we played LA clubs like Bon Appetit, At My Place and Le Cafe. [Other proud moments are] Playing with The Rippingtons, Boney James, Richard Elliot, and Grant Geissmann at the beginning of our careers. A few memorable ones are the fourth of July [in] 1982 on the DC Mall opening for the Beach Boys for 500,000 people. [Also] Brazil Night at The Hollywood Bowl with Dori Caymmi, Ivan Lins, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Toots Thielmans, Montreux with Dori, my first Catalina Island Jazztrax headline show (I’m doing my fourth one this fall), the annual Hawaii Dolphin Days all-star concerts with Jeffrey Osborne, Brenda Russell, Kenny Rankin, Oleta Adams and many others over the years.”
Touring is not without its difficulties. “Usually it involves sweltering weather, like in Manila with Boney James, or when the keyboards they provided are not working and I have to scramble to get some sounds right. Many long drives up and down the east coast to play a single show at a college or club in NYC in the middle of winter, running off the road on the ice and living to tell it, that’s paying dues!”
“One of my most memorable, hair-raising experiences as a musician was the last night of a four night run with Dave Koz, Marvin Hamlisch and The Pittsburgh Symphony at Heinz Hall, when Marvin, who had been felling ill from [the] flu, got dizzy and had to leave the stage in the middle of Dave’s third to last song with me and the orchestra cranking away on You Make Me Smile. I watched Marvin all evening from the piano and saw that he was not his usual joking self with the audience, a little shaky. Luckily, he made it down from the podium and was off stage! We all kept playing. The next thing I know, Shelly, the orchestra manager, comes from the wings behind me and is in my ear shouting, ‘Can you conduct from the piano?’ I nod my head and she says it again. I nod, and my career as a guest conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony began (and ended 20 minutes later). Dave reassured the audience that Marvin was ‘under the weather’ and would be fine. We really didn’t know that at the time. Everyone really kept it together. The show went on. The coolest thing was how, in a split second, we almost cut The Way We Were, a big choral/orchestral arrangement finale with a 30 member College All-Star Choir, but then out walks Robert Page, the ‘Dean of Choirs,’ half the size of Marvin, who had written the arrangement and rehearsed the kids for weeks. The kids, way up in the back of the stage on risers, screamed with such adoration and then the hall hushed as he conducted his chart with the most subtle hand gestures. Goosebumps. We continued with the last song, and read about it in the papers the next morning. Marvin was fine.” Glad to hear Marvin hung in there. What an unexpected experience to have!
On the music today, Gregg shared his thoughts. “People need music in their lives. They like it and buy it if it makes them feel something. If it is given away for free, without the artist’s consent or participation in a reasonable royalty that can be a problem. I like to hear the songwriters, stripped down. I love Adele, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran and John Legend. It is pretty cool to discover new, young artists on YouTube; Jacob Collier is one [example]. Milton Nascimento has been an inspiration for 40 years! Also, Wayne Shorter, Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny and Herbie Hancock. I still enjoy lots of new jazz artists and new instrumentalists who are expanding their sound, not just putting out another version of George Benson, Boney James, David Sanborn or Brian Culbertson. My thing is, I write lots of songs and make rough demos, sometimes just solo piano, and over time, I pick the best ideas. I don’t rush it or think of it like a project with a deadline. That is one cool thing about being independent now.”
I have been a fan of Gregg’s music for quite some time with a love for his songs like: Riverside Drive. I wondered if Gregg would add or change anything about his music for his own means. “I would re-record some songs slower than the originals. My production chops have grown over the last 30 years, so I always hear some sonic improvements I could make if I were to remix… I also keep looking forward; and as much as I let the music flow, I can always make it sound better with today’s technology and enough time in the studio.”
Currently, Mr. Karukas is a busy man. “I just finished producing four tracks for my friends David Lanz and Kristin Amarie at my studio. Playing my music any chance I get, getting ready to play a few all-star shows. Letting new songs come up to the surface.” Let them float up! I am looking forward to hearing some more of his new stuff. By the way, I think all of you readers should too. Give Gregg and listen and go see him live. It will be worth your time!