A jazz-funk journeyman lends his talents to the truth process

by Jordan Green

The musicians filter into Greensboro’s Sound Lab recording studio around 2 p.m. Friday afternoon, biding their time with idle chatter as the ubiquitous Joya Wesley ‘— who plies her trade as a publicist, freelance writer and jazz DJ, among other pursuits ‘— makes introductions. Within two hours, they’re expected to knock out a theme song for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s cable access TV show. So they wait for the nod from the author of the composition and the producer of the session, wait with the professional poise of journeymen who know how to go in and get a job done.

No one’s getting paid for this gig, studio owner Thomas Rowan included, and it’s unlikely this recording session is going to help establish any of their careers, but a certain balance of giddy anticipation and healthy nervousness pervades the room due to the presence of Joya’s father, Fred Wesley. The 61-year-old trombonist and arranger has driven up from his home in Manning, SC for the recording session, a book signing and a performance with his band at an outdoor amphitheater.

Word has gotten out and local guitar player Sam Frazier shyly pokes his head into the lobby, eager to meet the arranger and primary composer for James Brown’s band from 1968 to 1975, the man known as ‘“the world’s funkiest trombonist,’” who has straddled the worlds of jazz and funk and textured the music of everybody from George Clinton to Van Morrison.

In the room are local saxophonist Wally West and bass player Steve Haines, who directs UNCG’s jazz studies program. Both are musicians with whom Wesley has played before.

He has his composition written out in musical notation on a single sheet, copies of which he distributes to the musicians. It’s called ‘“Ubuntu,’” he says, adding that Joya knows what it means. An online reference provided by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission identifies it as a word derived from the Xhosa and Zulu languages that describes a South African concept of shared humanity.

‘“I wrote it,’” the trombonist says. ‘“We’re about to complete the composition as we play it.’”

Ben Jensen, fresh out of the NC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem and waiting to see if he’ll be accepted to UNCG, sits behind the drum kit, waiting for his cues. A percussionist from Winston known as Oseiku stands in the back of the studio watching as the session congeals. He’ll play congas, cowbells and shakers on separate tracks that will be overdubbed later.

Then the piano player, a young man named Steve Gordon, enters the room and extends his hand to Wesley.

‘“You don’t remember me,’” he says. ‘“I was a trumpet player in the All-State Jazz Band. You did a clinic. I was one of the ones who actually got up and played.’”

Wesley nods.

The young man apologizes for showing up late.

‘“That’s all right,’” Wesley says, ‘“we found a replacement.’”

West quips: ‘“Don’t let the door hit ya where the good Lord split ya,’” as the pianist sulks away, but Wesley stops him.

‘“Steve, I’m just kidding,’” he says. ‘“I got a part for you.’”

Soon he’s coaching the piano player and the drummer, pointing out the tempo, suggesting to Jensen that he make good use of the hi-hat.

‘“Give me a strong hit on ‘one’ of each bar,’” he says, driving his fist down for emphasis. ‘“It’s got to be kind of crazy on the downbeat when you come down on it. Don’t worry about crazy. I want it crazy.’”

The action is quick. They’ll have the track down in three takes, after Wesley gets the piano player straight on his noting and rhythm, and he and West run through their horn solos.

He reminds Jensen to emphasize the first beat to give the song an African feel. Then the musicians launch in, the horns sounding out an announcement of optimistic textures in a breezy song paced at a steady clip from Jensen’s tumbling drumbeat. Wesley stretches the melody in an expository solo that is by turns argumentative and conciliatory, after which West answers him with a brighter sound that emphasizes clarity.

‘“That’s a keeper,’” Wesley says.

Usually he records with musicians with whom he has more familiarity and shared experience, Wesley says, but these are special circumstances.

‘“This is Joya’s thing,’” he says. ‘“She conscripted me and Thomas. I know Steve and Wally. The rest of the musicians are her friends she hit up.’”

Originally, Joya Wesley says, she considered pulling a track from her copy of the Africa Straight Ahead jazz compilation, but the community producer of Greensboro’s Cable 8 warned her that she could run into copyright trouble.

‘“She said: ‘It’s best if you can get some musicians,’” Wesley said. ‘“I know some musicians. I said: ‘Daddy, we need a theme song.’”

The trombonist has by now repaired to the control room to listen to the track.

Oseiko records the conga track in one take. Haines looks beatific.

‘“Yeah man, this guy’s got it going on,’” he says. ‘“Happening.’”

When the percussionist enters the control room, he learns the track is in the can.

‘“Are you serious?’” he asks. ‘“I thought I was just warming up.’”

By this time, Frazier has been tapped to record a guitar track. Fred Wesley is similarly pleased by the guitar player’s performance.

Frazier executes some tight couplets that evoke a bright, melodic West African sound. Wesley asks for major chords on top of a sequence of honking saxophone, a little chunka-chunka figure that propels the track forward.

As the session winds down, the musicians’ shop talk comes around to James Brown and other members of the Godfather of Soul’s band ‘— the gig Wesley knows has given him his lasting reputation despite his aptitude in jazz and other advanced musical realms.

‘“I saw him two weeks ago,’” he says of Brown. ‘“I recorded something for him and he didn’t like it. He said it sounded like ‘smooth jazz.’ He’s doing his thing and I’m doing mine. I get bored. I can’t do the same thing every night.’”

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