Raul Midón: Music Without Borders

The blind singer/guitarist's first Before & After listening session ranges far and wide

ART7060 Raul Midón by Samuel Prather PR550-Edit_web

Raul Midón (photo: Samuel Prather)

When Raul Midón sat down with JazzTimes for his first Before & After, he had only been back in the U.S. for a few days, following a Far East tour that included Japan, Australia, and a week at the Blue Note in Beijing. He strolled into VRTCL Entertainment, a Manhattan recording studio, with his small entourage: a publicist and a brawny assistant, who helps the blind singer/guitarist navigate his jam-packed travel schedule.

The New Mexico-born Midón, 52, writes and plays music that defies easy classification, combining soulful tenor vocals with a prodigious guitar technique influenced by flamenco and other Latin styles, jazz, R&B, and favorite singer/songwriters like Joni Mitchell and James Taylor. He’s also known for his uncanny “mouth trumpet” solos, a technique he perfected while a student in the University of Miami’s jazz program. Since then, he has worked with an impressive list of jazz and pop icons including Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder, and Bill Withers.

His 10th album, If You Really Want, is a collaboration with arranger/composer Vince Mendoza and the Metropole Orkest, the prolific Dutch jazz and pop orchestra that has recorded with everybody from Ella Fitzgerald to Snarky Puppy. After visiting the Netherlands to collaborate with Mendoza and record the orchestral tracks, Midón added vocals and guitars at his home studio in Maryland, serving as his own engineer, using CakeTalking for Cakewalk SONAR, an accessibility technology for blind audio producers.

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Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring all of the tracks mentioned below:

1. Joni Mitchell
“Don’t Go to Strangers” (Both Sides Now, Reprise). Orchestra arranged and conducted by Vince Mendoza; Mark Isham, trumpet solo. Recorded in 2000.

BEFORE: [Upon hearing the lush strings] Wow! [Almost immediately after Mitchell enters] I already know who it is.

AFTER: It’s so funny, because I just did this big-band record, and I love these lush chords. It was a real pleasure working with Vince Mendoza—it has rekindled my interest in arranging. Joni is one of my desert island artists. I don’t know the album well. I knew of it, but I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna be listening to it after this. She sings wonderfully. She really kills it.

You know what’s so great about this for me? She does this after having written so many great things. This isn’t a tribute album after, like, one record. I really have a beef with all the tribute albums in jazz. C’mon, let’s write some songs! Standards are great, but her doing this rings true for me, because she’s got plenty of stuff out there. Her doing this was just awesome. The other thing I love about Joni Mitchell is the arc [of her career]: She goes from being this folk singer, loses a lot of people along the way—which is their problem, not hers—and goes on and works with Mingus and Jaco and Wayne, and does these great records.

Do you happen to know who was the producer here?

I don’t.

Joni’s ex, Larry Klein, who worked with you on the Synthesis album.

[Laughs] Of course it was!

2. John Bailey
Morro Velho(In Real Time, Summit). Bailey, flugelhorn; Leo Grinhauz, cello; Janet Axelrod, flute; Cameron Brown, bass; Victor Lewis, drums. Song by Milton Nascimento. Released in 2018.

BEFORE: It sounds like a flugelhorn. I love those tritones. I love it. Was that a cello? Is it that Brazilian trumpet player… what’s his name, Claudio Roditi? No?

Well, you got the nationality of the composer right. The trumpet player is somebody you know.

Nicholas [Payton]?

AFTER: [Laughs] Oh, shit! Yes, and I really knew him. We hung out [at the University of Miami]. Wow—that’s beautiful! I’m really gonna check that album out. I was using John for feedback [on my mouth trumpet sound]. We would talk about really geeky things, articulation … and we would work on patterns. I was really into diminished dominant chords at the time, the idea that every chord has three other possible inversions if you think of it as a diminished dominant. The pattern was [he demonstrates with his mouth trumpet sound]—a diminished triad with a major seventh on it. That’s what John Bailey and I were into.

What I like about that track, also, is that combination of cello, flute, and trumpet—not common. The biggest thing I’m looking for these days is something interesting. It’s amazing that we have access to so much music, yet it seems like things are getting more generic, like everybody’s trying to sound like everyone else, which is the exact opposite of what it should be. There’s infinite possibility with music, yet we all have to have the same beat on the records. I don’t want that.

3. Bill Withers
“Who Is He (And What Is He to You)?” (Still Bill, Sussex, re-released on Columbia). Withers, vocals, guitar; Ray Jackson, piano, keyboards, string and horn arrangements; Melvin Dunlap, bass; James Gadson, drums, percussion; Bobbye Hall, percussion. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: [Within two seconds of guitar intro] I already know what it is—Bill Withers. [Laughs] That took about half a second.

AFTER: I like that on so many levels. Lyrically, it’s awesome. It’s such a great lyric. As long as I’m gonna be put in the “jazz” category, I want to write songs. I love Cole Porter; I love George and Ira Gershwin. But we need to keep on writing material in this genre. Otherwise, it becomes a freakin’ revue.

That track is so interesting because the whole freaking thing is only one chord, right? And—this is a stand I’m taking as an engineer and producer—you have people playing through the whole track. It’s really great rhythmically, but there’s a little bit of play; there’s no loop repeating exactly the same thing. You have the tambourine enter in the middle of the track. You have this kind of breathing track that, even though it’s only one chord, it has so much going on, both lyrically and in terms of how it evolves.

I love Bill Withers. He says it the way he sees it, no matter who likes it or doesn’t like it. I was in that documentary about him [2009’s Still Bill], and he said, “We gotta write a song together.” And he came up with the first lines: “Mi amigo Cubano/Hola, como estás?” And the whole harmonic idea of that song was his, too. I just sort of filled it in. He told me what he wanted it to say, and I translated it into Spanish. It was fun. On the second day, he put me on the spot. We had written the song, and I thought we were done with it. And he said, “Oh, we’ll need another verse.” So I said, “Okay, I’ll go back and write one.” And he said, “No, no, do it now. We’ll wait.” And I did!

 

“I really have a beef with all the tribute albums in jazz. C’mon, let’s write some songs!”

 

4. Gregory Porter
“Take Me to the Alley” (Take Me to the Alley, Blue Note). Porter, vocals; Chip Crawford, piano; Yosuke Sato, alto sax; Tivon Pennicott, tenor sax; Keyon Harrold, trumpet; Aaron James, bass; Emanuel Harrold, drums; Alicia Olatuja, vocals. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: Well, I know who it is—Gregory Porter. I’m just trying to figure out if he wrote this or not.

AFTER: 
I like it, and I like the fact that it’s an original jazz tune. I think Gregory’s one of the bright stars among those in the jazz genre who are writing. I hadn’t heard it before. Interesting lyric, I’m not sure what it’s about.

He based it on a story he had heard about the Pope visiting a certain city, and not wanting to see the palaces of the rich, but wanting instead to visit the poor and afflicted.

Ahh. Yeah, it’s wonderful. Nice sparse accompaniment, too—I like that.

5. George Benson
“Moody’s Mood” (Give Me the Night, Warner Bros). Benson, vocals, guitar; Patti Austin, vocals; Greg Phillinganes, keyboards; Abe Laboriel, Sr., bass; J.R. Robinson, drums. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: 
[After three seconds] George Benson, singing James Moody’s solo.

This is a twofer. Can you identify the female singer?

[Laughs] I was afraid you were going to ask me that! I don’t know who she is. The album is … I’m not sure. Is it Back on the Block?

AFTER: Oh, Give Me the Night! And Patti Austin, of course! I know Patti. Here’s what’s funny: When that album came out, I was just a kid and I was in this stage where I just hated George for “selling out,” you know, doing pop music. Not with “Moody’s Mood,” but songs like “Give Me the Night.” I’ve come to see it in a different light now. “On Broadway” [Benson’s pop hit] was in a different category for me, though, because of the incredible soloing in it. It was a quintessential recording for me. I’d already heard “This Masquerade,” then I heard that, and it was over. He was a huge influence on me—as big as it gets. Him, Al Jarreau, and Stevie. George Benson opened my mind to the possibilities by being such a good singer and such a good guitar player. That was my ticket. That was [when I realized], “Oh, we can do this … You can sing very complex solos and play them at the same time.”

Every one of us who writes songs has thoughts of crossing over. The idea of having that 5,000- or 10,000-seat audience, that’s a pretty appealing idea. I admire that he was able to take his thing and cross it over to a mass audience. I mean, who doesn’t want that?

And of course, he had the right producer to do that with, Quincy Jones.

Right. And I was lucky enough to work with somebody of Quincy’s ilk, Arif Mardin [who produced Midón’s first album]. Somebody with that kind of talent, that kind of broad understanding of music, not just some kind of hip-hop button-presser, but somebody who could actually write a chart.

6. Peter Bernstein
“Tres Palabras” (Let Loose, Smoke Sessions). Bernstein, guitar; Gerald Clayton, piano; Doug Weiss, bass; Bill Stewart, drums. Composed by Cuban songwriter Osvaldo Farrés, made famous by Nat “King” Cole and, more recently, Luis Miguel. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: 
I think I know who it is, but I want to listen some more. I don’t recognize the song. I liked it [although] it got a little rambly at times. First I thought it was Joe Pass, but I don’t think so. Somebody more recent—because there’s more compression on the guitar. Russell Malone? No? Does he usually play electric guitar? Have I worked with him before?

No, but you’ve worked with the piano soloist.

Gerald Clayton?

AFTER: Wow! Yeah, Peter Bernstein! Very inventive soloing, both players. I have a couple of Luis Miguel records, but I didn’t recognize the tune. Gerald has a way of playing harmony and chords that’s pretty special. I did the Monterey All-Stars tour with him. That’s how some of the tunes on [2017’s] Bad Ass and Blind came about. I had written knowing that I was going to play with these guys, so I wrote “All That I Am,” “If Only,” and “Wings of Mind” in a linear, modal style. Not something you do unless you know that the musicians are going to be able to handle such things.

I love the fact that we’re taking the time to listen to whole songs. We’re in the middle of New York City, where everybody’s in a hurry. And we’re sitting here listening to whole songs, not fading them out in the middle. Very uncommon. People don’t take the time to listen to music without doing something else. I sat and listened to a whole album the other day, from start to finish, without doing something else. I haven’t done that in a long time, and I’m a musician. It was Macy Gray’s new album, and I thought it was brilliant.

Raul Midón
Raul Midón (photo: Samuel Prather)

7. Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway
“For All We Know” (Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway, Atlantic). Hathaway, vocals; Flack, piano; Eric Gale, guitar; Chuck Rainey, electric bass; Bernard Purdie, drums; Ralph MacDonald, percussion; Hubert Laws, flute. Strings arranged by Arif Mardin. Recorded in 1972.

BEFORE: Donny Hathaway. [Laughs] I knew even before he started singing. [When strings enter] Arif!

AFTER: I think that’s one of the two masterpieces Donny Hathaway did, that and “A Song for You.” His singing is so soulful, but absolutely clear, correct—in the good sense. It’s not soul with lots of runs; it never forsakes diction or pitch. Absolutely a perfect piece of music. I worked with Roberta in Japan. We sang some tunes together. I was the “Donny Hathaway” and she was … Roberta Flack. We did it at the Budokan, about six years ago. One of the tunes was “You’ve Got a Friend,” and I played guitar for her on “Killing Me Softly.”

8. Spanish Harlem Orchestra
“Un Gran Día en el Barrio” (Across 110th Street, Libertad). Oscar Hernandez, piano, musical director; Rubén Blades, guest vocalist. Song by Ray de la Paz. Recorded in 2004.

BEFORE: [Upon hearing spoken introduction] Rubén Blades! [Laughs and drums fingers throughout] Great arrangement—it’s awesome! I love Rubén Blades for a lot of reasons. He was never afraid to speak his mind politically, as he did a little bit in that song, with his improv about the coming of the “proletariado.” His song “Pedro Navaja”—in my growing up that was huge. I only realized later that, lyrically, it was another version of “Mack the Knife.” I just love salsa when it’s done well. It’s a killer band, but I don’t know who it is.

AFTER: Ah! Man, Oscar Hernandez! Really, this kind of music happened in New York, because it’s a combination of the music of Cuba and Puerto Rico. This way of putting it together happened when all these people got together in Harlem, and they decided to call it salsa so that it would be uniformly accepted in Latin America. It was a Bronx thing.

9. Luciana Souza and Romero Lubambo
“Amanhã (Tomorrow)” (Brazilian Duos, Sunnyside). Souza, vocals, percussion; Lubambo, guitar. Song by Walter Santos and Tereza Souza, Souza’s parents. Released in 2002.

BEFORE: Is that Romero Lubambo? Yes? And is that Luciana Souza? What I like about this is that it’s so sparse—just voice and guitar. And I like it when she sings in Portuguese.

AFTER: I’m just in awe of Romero’s playing. There’s nobody else who plays like that. What he’s doing there is absolutely in a pocket that’s unique and very Brazilian. I might have to check that album out. I’m writing it down.

 

“I saw Hermeto Pascoal in a Miami club. I said to the club owner, ‘Just give me tickets for all shows, both nights. I’m just gonna live there.’”

 

10. Gilberto Gil & Caetano Veloso
“Eu Vim da Bahia” (Dois Amigos, Um Século de Música: Multishow Live, Nonesuch). Gil, vocals and guitar; Veloso, vocals. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: I have not heard this. It’s, uh… I know. [Veloso sings the second verse.] Oh, I can’t remember his name. Caetano Veloso? I got it right—goddamn!

AFTER: Oh, right, Gilberto Gil—wow! Brazilian music has been a huge influence on me. Obviously the bossa thing with Jobim, but also heavies like Gil, Egberto Gismonti, and Hermeto Pascoal. I think Egberto and Hermeto are geniuses. Hermeto’s creativity, the building of his own instruments, the command of harmony in a way that’s so unbelievable—I don’t think he had an academic background. How did he learn what he learned? Incredible. And Gismonti—someone who is as great on piano as he is on guitar. He can rip on both. That’s real talent; it’s mind-boggling.

You must have seen them live.

Absolutely, when I was [studying] in Miami. I was sitting in the first row for Gismonti. That’s when I saw Hermeto, too. He was appearing in a club for two nights. I said to the club owner, “Just give me tickets for all shows, both nights. I’m just gonna live there.”

11. Lizz Wright
“Freedom” (Freedom & Surrender, Decca). Wright, vocals; Pete Kuzma and Kenny Banks, keyboards; Dean Parks, guitar; Dan Lutz, bass; Vinnie Colaiuta, drums; Pete Korpela, percussion. Song by Toshi Reagon. Recorded in 2015.

BEFORE: I think I know what it is already. [Laughs] Lizz Wright.

AFTER:
Lizz is one of those singers who could sing absolutely anything and I’d like it. She has a way of singing that’s unlike anybody else in the world. I had the honor of touring with her and producing her [as a guest] on my record [2014’s Don’t Hesitate]. I hope she continues putting out albums of original music. She is [the kind of artist] that keeps the jazz genre fresh … not just people doing new versions of old songs. A little bit of Americana in there, but also jazz. We need to keep imagining and not just do the same old shit. There are no borders in music, you know? I’ve never thought of myself as a “jazz musician.” I’ve always thought of myself as a musician. I love jazz, I love soul, I love contemporary classical music, I love Latin music. I love true music, music with commitment. When it sounds like there’s commitment there, I’ll listen to it.

Many thanks to Terry Derkach and VRTCL Entertainment.