Who is Najee, and what are his contributions to music?
Jerome Najee Rasheed, known professionally as “Najee,” is composer and performer of jazz, often in collaboration with artists and producers from both the jazz and pop genres. He is an accomplished saxophonist and flautist, having been educated at the New England Conservatory of Music, and successfully blended rhythm and blues with what is known as “smooth” jazz. His musical collaborations provide a veritable “who’s who” of performers from the R&B and jazz worlds, including Herbie Hancock, Anita Baker, Eric Benet, Toni Braxton, and Quincy Jones, among others. His 2013 CD, “The Morning After: A Musical Love Journey,” represents his most recent and most prominent use of collaborations and fusions of musical styles while incorporating influences from his travels around the world, including to South Africa, Japan, France, and the Caribbean.
Jerome Najee Rasheed grew up in the Jamaica sector of the Queens Borough of New York City. He started his musical career by learning to play the clarinet in elementary school and, by middle school, he was playing the saxophone with neighborhood groups. In high school, his music instructors introduced to the big band sound and paved his way to study at Boston's New England Conservatory [of music] (a combined preparatory school and undergraduate college) where he studied with George Russell and Jaki Byard while being mentored by jazz greats Frank Foster (soprano saxophonist), Frank Wess (jazz saxophonist and flautist) and Jimmy Heath (jazz saxophonist) and classical music flautist Harold Jones of the the New York Philharmonic. It was Wess and Jones who inspired him to add the flute to his musical repertoire. Together, his collected mentors reinforced the need to study classical music while perfecting his ability in jazz, a radical message that changed the foundation of Najee's art because previously his influence had been popular R&B: "I was mainly into Kool and the Gang (jazz, R&B, soul) and James Brown (funk, soul)."
Najee's smooth-pop jazz style, heavy on rhythm and blues (R&B) from his earliest influences, makes him one of the leading smooth jazz stars as attested to by his string of gold albums. Like big band great Artie Shaw, Najee has a commercial understanding of how to deliver music that people want to hear. Nonetheless, this commercial savvy has brought him criticism from some circles that would prefer more experimentation. Najee commented on this criticism to Deni Kasrel of Jazz Times Online: "[W]hen critics come to my concerts, they see the other side. I mix it up ...." A fuller criticism of Najee's style is that there is a dearth of jazz improvisation (in jazz, featured musicians perform "head arrangements" of improvised passages) though his considerable range and stylistic flexibility are rightly acknowledged.
As of 2013, Najee has released sixteen successful albums:
- Najee's Theme (1986)
- Day by Day (1988)
- Tokyo Blue (1990)
- Just an Illusion (1992)
- Share My World (1994)
- Live at The Greek (1994)
- The Best of Najee (1995)
- Songs in the Key of Life (1998)
- Morning Tenderness (1999)
- Love Songs (2000)
- Embrace (2003)
- My Point of View (2005)
- Rising Sun (2007)
- Mind Over Matter (2009): number 1 hit "Sweet Summer Nights" on Smooth Jazz Song Billboard
- Smooth Side of Soul (2012)
- The Morning After (2013)
An exciting deviation from his earliest albums was the 1998 release Songs in the Key of Life, a tribute album in honor of Stevie Wonder's 1976 album of the same name: Songs in the Key of Life. The difference between the original and the tribute is that Najee's tribute album is an all-instrumental interpretation for which Najee plays the soprano and bass saxophones and the flute. Najee takes an original approach by using the flute as the substitution for Stevie Wonder's voice.
During his teen years, Najee played saxophone with a group called Area Code. In between the end of his preparatory studies and the beginning of his undergraduate studies, Najee performed with Ben E. King (American soul, former member of The Drifters) and The Main Ingredient (soul, R&B) and was part of the select support band for the Miss Black America World Tour in 1976.
After completing his studies at the New England Conservatory, Najee returned to New York, participated in the N.Y. Jazzmobile program that provides jazz instruction for professional musicians, public school students and jazz enthusiasts, then began a series of professional engagements, playing with The Fatback Band and Chaka Khan, until Charles Huggins of Hush Productions introduced Najee to executives at EMI Records who signed him to a contract to record for the EMI label.
Najee's debut album for EMI was Najee's Theme (1987). The success of his debut album launched a worldwide tour with singer Freddie Jackson (soul, R&B) and began the development of a worldwide fan following for Najee's style of smooth jazz with a strong undertone of rhythm and blues. His second and third albums, Day by Day and Tokyo Blue, became Gold Albums [the current standard for "gold" is the sale of 500,000 units (records, CDs etc)]. Najee's fourth album, Just an Illusion, was notable for the integration of light saxophone segments around the vocals, which were implemented without drowning out the singers, as in Will Downing's vocals in "Deep Inside Your Love." His fifth album, Share My World, painted a smooth jazz R&B landscape that showcased Najee's "jazz chops" on his soprano saxophone.
Songs In the Key of Life, Najee's 1998 Stevie Wonder tribute, was born from the inspiration of EMI president Davitt Sigerson who thought a change in direction would best continue Najee's building momentum. Producer George Duke produced the resulting idea for an all-instrumental rendition of the 1976 Stevie Wonder classic that lent its title, Songs in the key of Life, to Najee's tribute album. Duke was dedicated to having the musicians recording Najee's album use the same type and era of instruments and equipment that was used on the Stevie Wonder original.
Duke had built his reputation as a producer in the 1970s when Stevie Wonder was at his zenith and so was an expert on the period instruments and equipment that had been used by Wonder. He and Najee were both dedicated to including every song from Wonder's classic and to having them all in the original order, even though this meant compiling and shortening some of the tracks since Wonder's hit release had been a double album and Najee's was planned as a single. As special feature that Najee added was a medley sung by his son Jamal combining "Isn't She Lovely" and "Joy Inside My Tears." While Najee is showcased as an instrumentalist on soprano and bass saxophone and on the flute, a host of well known artists played with Najee on various numbers, with arrangements by Jorge del Barrio:
- Stanley Clark on bass
- Freddy Washington on bass
- Ray Fuller on guitar
- Phil Upchurch on guitar
- Paul Jackson, Jr., on guitar
- Herbie Hancock on keyboard
- Ronnie Foster on keyboard
- Paulino DaCosta on percussion
- Sheila E. on percussion
As Najee said in an interview for VIBE Magazine, "[Recording Songs] was an incredible learning experience ... [Songs was] my opportunity to take us back to this beautiful era ...."
Recent Albums and Featured Artists
- 2003 Embrace featuring special guests Roy Ayers and BeBe Winans
- 2005 My Point Of View featuring his good friend, vocalist Will Downing
- 2007 Rising Sun featuring Phil Perry
- 2009 Mind Over Matter featuring singer Eric Benét
- 2012 The Smooth Side Of Soul, which was critically acclaimed
- 2013 The Morning After - A Musical Journey featuring "diversity in [Najee's] recordings" for Shanachie Entertainment recording label
Najee has done a goodly amount of touring and playing at international jazz festivals and has played with many renowned artists such as, Quincy Jones [video with Ray Charles and Chaka Khan], Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, Billy Cobham, who helped Najee transition from "smooth jazz" to classical jazz. His first tour was in 1993 and 1994 and he spent 2001 to 2003 touring with Prince; he plays in “Rainbow Children” and “One Night Alone” on Prince albums.
The 1990s brought many international opportunities for Najee, including playing in South Africa for a Nelson Mendela birthday celebration and playing for President Bill Clinton at the White House while Clinton honored President Jerry Rawlings of the Republic of Ghana. Najee's latest album, The Morning After - A Musical Journey, features international artists and a tribute to the courage of those in developing countries who face hardship and destitution everyday. The song "Mafalala" was inspired by the villagers in the township Maputo in Mozambique who, as described by Najee, suffered poverty and daily hardship yet withstood its effect on their resolve to live and conquer:
The town is very poor where some homes have no running water or electricity and the living conditions are very difficult according to our Western standards,” recalls Najee. “What impressed me and the members of my band, was in spite of the poverty, hardships and challenging living situations, the people did not let it reflect their inner resolve. When you see their faces, their spirit reflects a sense of pride and inner glow. This song is tribute to the courageous and strong people who live there. ("Najee" NajeeMusic.com)
Source: Debra Reilly. "Najee." Contemporary Musicians. Vol. 21. Gale Cengage, 2006.