U-Nam : ‘I always played Funk, since I'm 12’

Samedi 14 Décembre 2013

Interview. U-Nam is e French guitar player almost unknown in France but he is one of the greatest smooth jazz stars in the USA. He talks about his career, his experience with musicians like George Duke, Georges Benson, Wah Wah Watson… and present ‘C’est le Funk’, the first single from his upcoming album.

You began your musical career in France before moving to the US in 2007. Why did you move to the US?

Well, I had a long career in France first. I started as a studio session player at the of age 17 and then moved to songwriting, producing, remixing for more that 15 years, working with major labels in France as well as Major acts such as Ophelie Winter, Mc Solaar, Organiz', Star Academy, PopStars, Barry White, Kool and the Gang, Honeyz and many more. Then, I've felt that what I was writing and producing for the labels and artists I was working for was a bit restricted and pretty limited, so I've started to write and produce some songs for myself that became my first album The Past Builds The Future that was including everything from Jazz Fusion to Hip Hop, RnB, Soul and Smooth Jazz.

This album has a long story, as I've been signed with the biggest management company for Smooth Jazz in Los Angeles and was supposed to signed with a major US label, but it didn't happen so I had to start over and I've signed to a label in UK, that then signed me with a label in US that was through Sony. We had some kind of success but the album wasn't formatted at all for the Smooth Jazz genre so when the time came to do the follow up album, I've decided to adjust it and write and produce songs that were more Smooth Jazz radio friendly. Then the last song I've recorded on the album turned out to be the first single, it was a cover of the Crusaders "Street Life" and all in a sudden the single made it big in the US radios and pretty fast. I was still living in Paris so I didn't really realize how big it was doing, but then my label started to have a lot of offers from Festivals, Radios Interviews, etc.. all over the US and actually maybe 2-3 months after the release of the single, I was doing a tour in US, all the way from the West Coast to the East Coast.

Street Life ended up be a huge hit, reaching Top 3 on the US Billboard Chart and it stayed Top 10 for the whole year. It became a recurrent hit and is still being played today - everyday on some of the biggest stations in US such as 94.7 The Wave in Los Angeles. So I guess then it was legitimate for me to move to the US, which always has been my dream, as it seems I really had a place for me and my music over there, which I haven't been able to find in France since I've started music. So I gave it a try, took the risk and I have to say that so many great things happened to me as well as amazing experiences. I would do it all over again.

Los Angeles was the place where all the great R&B albums that had inspired you were recorded in the 70’s and the 80’s. Did you find the spirit of this period or did it disappear?

Well, I was traveling back and forth between Los Angeles and Paris since 2003, more than 5 years before I made the move, and yes the vibe was there. I could feel it all around. These days it is a bit gone, but still, history has been made here and you can still feel it, just by driving by some places or meeting people, I mean my favorite live album Weekend In L.A. by George Benson has been recorded at the Roxy's on Sunset boulevard and it's still there. I mean I could mention so many examples - the list would be long. But you know, most of R'n'B Artists, Producers and Musicians still live here, and you can meet them often, either in a festival, an event, or the best example is at the Namm show which is the biggest music convention in the world, it's 4 days and it's 4 crazy days. You might run into Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, George Benson, Teddy Riley, Marcus Miller and the list goes on and on - they are there just hanging out, checking out new equipment, do some networking etc... but see that's because they all live here, I've never seen any of them at the "Salon de la Musique" in France or even in Frankfurt. so yeah not all the magic is gone, it's still there...

You recorded you first albums with many veteran musicians such as Jeff Lorber, Michael White or Paulihno Da Costa. How does it feel to have those great musicians playing on your records?

Well, it's such a blessing, most of them I've admired, I was a huge fan, Michael White is my favorite Funk drummer, he has been the drummer for Maze and Frankie Beverly since the very beginning. Live in New Orleans that's him, Live in Los Angeles that's him. All the Maze's hits that's him. And then he moved forward to record with everyone from Whitney Houston to George Benson with whom he has played and toured as well for many years. It's really unbelievable because at some point, those people all became my friends. I've been to Mike's house many times, and he plays on 3 of my albums, but he also called me to feature on a big show as a special guest along with Phil Perry and Oleta Adams.

Paulinhno, what can I say, he's a legend, super nice and humble person. It was magical having him play on my album and put that magic in it, all the amazing percussions ambiances that elevate and bring the music to another level.

Jeff Lorber, it's a very long story as he plays on my first and second album, the first time, he came in my studio in Paris, we did spent 3 days, writing, producing and talking. All through the years, I've played several times with him on some festivals and some jam sessions. He also played the Fender Rhodes on "Street Life", which a lot of people are not aware of.

I know you have worked with the late George Duke too. Could you talk to me about him and your experience with him?

I miss George so much. I couldn't believe he left us, one morning my wife read something on facebook or maybe it was a news through an email blast, and she told me George Duke just died. I couldn't believe it, I had to check with a couple of my friends that were very close to George to be sure and unfortunately, that was true. I was good friends with his wife Corinne that passed away a year before and I was very sad already when she left. Those people are among the nicest I have met, George was the sweetest man.

I have to tell you the whole story . I was playing on the Dave Koz Cruise back in 2008, and during one of the autograph session we had, that was involving most all of the artists on the cruise, we were all sitting in a long table and there was so much people in the line waiting to get an autograph. Then at some point someone tapped on my shoulder from behind, which it could be only someone allowed as it was a restricted area. I turned my head and a lady starts talking to me and handing me a poster, she said "you don't know me but I'm George Duke's wife. George would like you to sign the poster of the cruise. You don't know it but we caught your show yesterday and we've loved it a lot." I was speechless. I obviously signed it and that was it, but a couple years later on on another cruise, I was in line to check in to go aboard and George Duke was in the line as well, so I've started to talk to him and told him, I was a huge fan etc... and also that I did a cover of one of his songs called "Shine On", the previous year on my album "UNANIMITY" and then he said, I know about it Paul Jackson Jr. told me about it and I bought it on ITunes, and finally said "Thank you for doing it. I don't play it anymore" again that left me speechless.

Then, later on the cruise we bumped into each other a few times, and at some point I've asked if he would be interested to play on the George Benson Tribute Album I just started to put together and he said "Yes, just call me", well a few months after, I did even though I was a bit nervous, but I was so wrong, I've called we've scheduled a session in his studio, I showed up and again, so nice. He asked what I wanted him to play, the session was unbelievable, always asking if I like this or this and what I've wanted, then afterwards, back home, I was like, "oh we should take more pictures and do a short video", then I''ve called it and told him that, he said no problem, come back tomorrow, which I did, and he took some time to do the video and some pictures, and you can watch most of it on the EPK/Documentary I've done for the George Benson Tribute Album, it's on my YouTube Channel.

Well, it was a real honor to have George Duke playing Rhodes and Synth Solo on "This Masquerade" and such an honor to have met and be friend with such a nice person, and obviously a music legend. Rest in peace my friend, at least you and Corinne are reunited now.

You recorded a tribute album to George Benson who had an obvious influence on your music and your guitar playing. Was it something that you really need to do? And what was George Benson reaction when he listened to it?

That’s a good question actually and I have a little story about it. George Benson and I have been friends for quite a while and I have so much respect for his music. I also have a respect for him as a human being because he is such a nice person and when we hang out we just talk about whatever because we have a great connection and that’s really nice. He loves what I do as well. I came to a point in my life where I had to do an album knowing some people may or may not like it but I had to do it first for myself. So, I said to myself, I have to call George first because I need his blessing and if I don’t get it, I’m not going to do it.

I called him about two years ago and I said “I am going to start a George Benson tribute album and before I start any music, I would like to have your blessing.” I didn’t expect this answer but he said “well man, sure you have my blessing but whatever you do is going to sound fantastic.” That’s exactly what he said to me! Wow, I was so relieved and so happy.

What I want people to know is that sometimes people think you pick some hits and you just put it on the album and that is not at all what this tribute album is. (Explaining with great emphasis) To me it was SO important to respect George’s music and the sense of how he played but obviously add my own thing on these existing master pieces. That is why I picked certain songs and I picked the right people to play them. There are a lot of people I didn’t call but it’s not because they are not good. A lot of people wanted to be on the album but I picked certain people because I needed the people who knew how to play that music. It’s not a matter of just playing, it is the heart, the soul and like I said, because I have so much respect for George, that was the most important thing to me. There are songs where I even include George’s original guitar parts like George’s solo on Give Me The Night and even some parts in On Broadway. To me, it is such an integral part of the song, that it had to be included in it. There’s been a lot of covers of Give Me The Night but no one ever did it [include George Benson’s original solos] so if you don’t include it, it is not Give Me The Night to me.

He loves it. He is really happy about it. He’s really really excited about it. He’s talking to everyone about it. (Laughing). He even wrote the liner notes on the album, here's a sniper of it : "... The man known as U-Nam, is destined to become one of the most controversial musicians and his music will give you renewed desire for powered guitar.This monumental project includes some of my superstar friends who are among the world’s best known artists of our time. It is an honor to be the subject of this new guitar and musical star. this project sounds FANTASTIC…” - 10x Grammy Winner and NAC Jazz Legend - George Benson.

Fusion and smooth jazz in general were not that popular among jazz maniacs who criticized the commercial compromises and the lack of authenticity of these musical styles. Especially in France where you cannot hear that kind of music on the jazz radios. What do you think about it?

Well, to be honest, you are so right and that is very sad, the few Jazz radio stations in France, play what they think is "right" even if it's not that good quality music, but also they are just not really aware of all the great stuff that is out there, and this is one of the reasons I left France for the US, cos my music is as authentic as authentic could be. I put all my heart and soul in it, and the musicianship level is very high too. But why can't we put it in a good song, with a nice groove, with a nice melody and great production. Is that preventing the musicianship and the improvisation? Obviously not as Jazz masters such as Mile Davis, Herbie Hancock, George Benson, Marcus Miller, David Sanborn, and many more did it and had commercial success, well I think it's a European mentality and the Jazz promoters in Europe as well are a bit like that, but you know what, the people, the audience the ones that go to the shows and buy CDs, they don't think like that and I have more and more fans in France so...

You had the opportunity to play in one of those musical cruises, a very popular concept in the US. Could you tell me how does that work for the musicians and for the travelers?

That is the funnest and greatest things ever, especially for the travellers as there is so many shows and music, everyday and all day long, and as you are "stuck" on the boat for a whole week, then the people have the chance to hang out and talk to their favorite artists. Except if you get locked in your cabin for the whole trip (I know some artists that did that), otherwise it's very casual and you talk and meet all of the people and they are super excited cos they are fans and they are there for the music, there is also a lot of Jam sessions, so you got the chance to see a lot of artists playing together, which doesn't happen very much, also for us artists, it's a chance to meet other artists and hang out with them, as for example, we all have the same private area at the restaurant.

In popular imagery, a guitar hero is a hard rock guitar player. Do you think the R&B guitar players are underrated musicians?

Yep, the "Guitar Hero" thing is attached to Rock for sure, and all over the world. For me, I see things a bit different, regarding the "Guitar Hero" thing. Technique is obviously great, and most of the Rock guys have a very strong, amazing technique but most of them don't improvise. The hardest thing in music is to improvise a solo, that will touch people and can be, at the same time, amazing technique wise etc... etc... but anyway, to talk about R'n'B guitar players, this is very different as most of them don't really solo and some can't at all, but let's take someone like Wah Wah Watson, that is a true legend, he has his own style, influenced so many people, played on so many hits songs (Motown, Barry White, H.Hancock,Maxwell), such a big influence, he can't solo but he's the groove master.

And here's a story, I was hanging out with him, in his studio in L.A, years ago and we were talking and jaming, he let me played his legendary L5 Gibson that plays on all those hits etc...etc... and then we were talking and he told me, look I don't have your skills, I can't do those crazy things etc...but watch, and he took the guitar and he's played the most funky groove ever, I was "Wow", so yes in a way some R'n'B players are underrated but you know to me and it's like for everything in life, I judge and appreciate one person at the time cos no ones the same and everyones different.

I know you like heavy metal too. What do you think of instrumental albums from heavy metal guitar players? And do you think you will record a heavy metal record someday?

Actually, I would say I prefer more Rock FM, and Hard Rock, and or Melodic Metal, when I was 15, I had a lot of guitar players' albums, all those virtuoso guys, but I prefer great songs and great singers. Personally, and to me it's the same for all kind of music. Virtuosity without great songwriting, melody and emotions, I don't like. It needs to have a meaning, that why I love George Benson so much, see his instrumentals had great melodies, great grooves and he could play some really amazing guitar and impressive lick but all that in a nice context cos at the end of the day, the most important thing in music is the emotions not just notes.

And that's why for example in the more rock side, I've always loved Van Halen, perfect example great songs, great grooves and burning solos but not just songs build around a burning solos like most guitar players do. and Eddie Van Halen is phenomenal, he's got emotions, virtuoso licks, great sense of rhythm and guess what, he never released an instrumental album.
But I like a lot as well Foreigner, Pat Benatar, Def Leppard, ACDC ...but to conclude I won't forget to mention a guitar player that did a lot of instrumental albums and he did some great ones and that guy is for me the best in the Heavy Metal world, cos he's the only one with probably Van Halen that you can tell when he plays it's natural, his technique is so amazingly natural... I'm talking about Yngwie J. Malsteen. Love him. And to respond to your question, no I will never do any heavy metal albums. I would love to do a more Pop/Rock album more like Foreigner, something with soul and actually that's what I've tried to achieve with NiVO DEUX's first single "Love's No Distance".

When I have listened to your brand new single “C’est le funk” recorded with sax player niVO DEUX, I thought that you definitively managed to digest your musical influences to produce something new that came from you. Did you feel that too?

Well that's funny, cos actually "C'est Le Funk" is something I've always done, meaning that I've played Funk my entire life and that was more like doing something I knew by heart, easy, it's just that for now there was no real opportunity to do it, but that has always been in me. so I won''t say it's new, I will say it's new that I have the opportunity to do it:)...
I always played Funk, since I'm 12...that's the music I grew up with and started listening to then I've studied it, and I remember when everyones was trying to play some Jazz at the music school I was at, I was the only one at 15 trying to play some funky grooves. I've practised hours with Chic's records, James Brown, all the 70's Motown, Michael Jackson, Earth Wind and Fire, Kool and The Gang, you name it. and then I've played in a few Funk band, so it's kind of natural actually.

This new song is really funky. Is it the first song of an upcoming album? A more funk oriented album?

Thank you! Yes, it's the first single of my new forthcoming album called C'est Le Funk. And yes, it will be Funk oriented but still will have some Smooth Jazz influences etc...I would prefer to do a totally Funk oriented album, but I have to please my Smooth Jazz fans too. So I will try to please everyone on this next album and it might not be easy but I hope that everyone will enjoy it. I'm really excited about the new album, most of it is written and half of it recorded. I can't wait to share with everyone.

Do you plan to play live in Europe and in particular in France in the near feature?

Nothing confirmed for now, but it might be possible to do a couple shows in April and also we were actually talking about a big package thing, a Funk tour with several bands and artists such as BT Express, Brass Construction, Sister Sledge and more, and hopefully it will happen next year. and I really hope it will, cos that is going to be super fun and funky, otherwise it is going to be more shows in the US for now. I will keep you posted for sure. Thank Boris for having me on your website and for those great and interesting questions.

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Boris Plantier