For Eric Essix, the year 2018 marks two inspiring milestones in his multi-faceted career. The Birmingham, Alabama based contemporary jazz guitarist is currently in the studio with his longtime band working on a project under the title, “25-30 Sessions,” indicating that this will be his 25th full length recording since launching his recording career in 1988 (30 years ago) with the release of First Impressions. That album was the start of a creative journey that has made him a genre icon – not only for his keen ability to fashion a continuous flow of infectious melodies and funky grooves, but also because while delving into several sub-genres (pop, R&B and Gospel among them), he has artfully dismantled past ideas of what jazz is and reinvented them.
“I didn’t even think about the reality of 25 albums until I got here,” Essix says. “For me, writing and going into the studio to record these projects has been my process of musical expression and each song has been an important outlet for that. When I entered this business, I knew that the best way to sustain a career was building a loyal fan base by performing live and recording – and once I got started, I saw the impact that the music was having and just kept going.
During his first decade as an artist, Eric recorded four well received albums on Nova Records his own label S6 and Ben Tankard’s Spirit Jazz, and earned a degree from Berklee College of Music. In 1998, he reached an exciting plateau when he was signed by legendary Warner Brothers Vice President Ricky Shultz to his new Warner distributed Zebra Records. Schultz, who helped develop the careers of contemporary jazz greats Pat Metheny, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Larry Carlton, Fourplay, Joshua Redman and The Yellowjackets, took a liking to Essix’s latest self-produced album Small Talk and gave the guitarist his first taste of national promotion and radio exposure. Eric’s single “For Real” was on the airplay charts for 25 weeks, reaching the Top 5. Southbound, the guitarist’s second album on the label, included a re-imagining of the Brook Benton classic “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which likewise became a radio hit in 2001.
Since launching his own indie label Essential Recordings in 2002, Eric has scored numerous further radio hits, starting with “Sweet Tea” from 2004’s Somewhere in Alabama and continuing with “Shuttlesworth Drive,” a musical tribute to the great civil rights pioneer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, which spent 7 consecutive weeks at #1 on Smoothjazz.com and over 20 weeks in the Top 10; “New Focus,” which reached #27 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Songs chart; and “Foot Soldiers,” which hit #1 on the Smoothjazz.com Indie Chart and #9 on the Top Fifty chart among numerous other industry airplay lists. Five years after its release, “Foot Soldiers” remains in regular rotation on SiriusXM Watercolors.
Those celebrated hits are not simply standalone achievements, but powerful invitations to the deeper artistry Eric has offered through a discography that is populated with thematic concept albums. Collectively, these works reveal his life’s many passions and ultimate purpose as a musician and artist. Among Eric’s most renowned and acclaimed works is his “Southern Roots” trilogy, starting with Southbound and including Somewhere in Alabama and Birmingham (2009). When his beloved mother Imogene’s passed away in 2004, Eric drew on the power of his faith and music to create a moving tribute of spirituals and hymns called Abide With Me (2005). The guitarist’s most recent album, This Train: The Gospel Sessions (2016), continues this theme dramatically, with contributions from vocalists Ruben Studdard, Candi Staton, The Birmingham Sunlights, Jason Eskridge and Kaleah Wooten and urban/gospel jazz great, saxophonist Kirk Whalum.
Eric’s 2013 collection Evolution combines the spirit of his Southern and gospel recordings, with songs dedicated to the four young women who lost their lives in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street. Baptist Church. “Evolution was created to share a message of healing, reconciliation and hope,” Eric says. “I feel such a deep connection to this recording and what it stands for…it is definitely the most personal musical statement I have ever made.” The guitarist reached another milestone with the subsequent release of The Isley Sessions (2014), celebrating one of his favorite bands of all time, The Isley Brothers. To date, the album has sold more physical copies and digital downloads than any previous release.
Two other highlights in Eric’s discography are his 2012 self-titled Eric Essix collection (which includes a re-imagining of Tom Petty’s classic “Free Fallin”) and Eric Essix’s MOVE>Trio, which features two members of his longtime band in a unique setting – drummer James “PJ” Spraggins and Grammy nominated producer and multi-instrumentalist Kelvin Wooten on keyboards. This unit toured the U.S. and Europe extensively. Eric’s full band also includes includes saxophonist Kelley O’Neal and bassist Sean Michael Ray, whose performing and recording history with Eric goes back 30 years. While the group’s core annual performance schedule is a combination of clubs, small halls and festival dates throughout the Southeast, they have also performed at such legendary clubs across the U.S. as Catalina Bar & Grill (Los Angeles), Yoshi’s in Oakland and Blues Alley in Washington, DC.
The guitarist’s catalog also includes Blue: The Modern Man Recordings, Retrospective, Vol. 1 (2003), its follow-up Retrospective, Vol 2 Ballads (2012), a project with an 18-piece big band (Eric Essix featuring the Night Flight Band: Superblue) and the a holiday album My Gift To You (2010).
In the late 2000s, Eric expanded his reach in the contemporary urban jazz realm, touring and performing with some of the top names in the genre, including Jeff Lorber, Gerald Albright, Ronnie Laws, Phil Perry, Boney James, Everette Harp, Peabo Bryson, Marcus Miller, Eric Darius, Alex Bugnon, Marcus Johnson, Peter White, Mindi Abair and others. His love for the genre and his deep connections therein inspired him to launch the Preserve Jazz Festival, the only festival in Birmingham exclusively devoted to jazz performers. As Founder and Executive Producer for ten years, Eric invited headliners like Brian Culbertson, Kirk Whalum, Boney James and Jeff Lorber to perform.
In 2010, Eric was offered a position at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s prestigious Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, a premier 1,300 seat venue that hosts performances by top musical artists in a multitude of genres and from other creative disciplines. He began booking artists and is now the Director of Programming for the center. Over the years, he has booked everyone from Herbie Hancock, Branford and Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny to Diana Krall, Yo-Yo Ma, Emmylou Harris and a speaking engagement by Oscar winning actor Al Pacino. Booking talent has given Eric a whole new perspective on creative arts and the entertainment industry. In 2013, he was concurrently appointed Artist in Residence at UAB and continues to serve the University in this capacity, performing, teaching and conducting workshops for college students as well as children.
Both in childhood and throughout his career, Gospel music and jazz have each played influential roles in shaping Eric’s musical sensibilities. Growing up in Birmingham, he played for years in quartet gospel groups at the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist church, and admits that he didn’t begin to play outside the worship environment until he was 24 years old. While as his gospel driven recordings attest, he will always have an affinity for the sacred place where God and music join hands and hearts, he can trace his passion for the contemporary jazz that drove his career ambitions back to his late teens, when he saw Jaco Pastorius and Weather Report perform. “This was the kind of music I wanted to play,” Eric says. “My style has evolved since then but I just loved the freedom of that style of music and the way those guys expressed themselves.”
Though Eric admits his style is very different from that of Wes Montgomery, the legendary guitarist is another major influence. Ten years before the Jaco experience, Eric’s dad played Montgomery’s 1966 album California Dreaming for him. “I had never heard anyone play jazz interpretations of pop melodies until then,” Eric says. “In my naïve mind of a child, I believed the guitar was actually singing the melody. I soon realized that jazz was the natural style of music for an instrument to achieve the same emotions that a vocal could. I started playing guitar two years later.”
Eric began his musical life on electric guitar and played it into his 20s. Enamored by the style of Earl Klugh, he later bought an acoustic guitar and began incorporating it into his developing sound. For the last 24 years, his primary melodic voice and trademark sound have emerged from his red Gibson Howard Roberts Fusion model. The “25/30” Project will feature music that he describes as “rough around the edges,” with Eric playing a Stratocaster for the first time in a while to complement his established hollow body vibe.
“The most fulfilling part of my musical journey has been experiencing real time this unique evolution as an artist,” Eric says. “My mindset has shifted dramatically and is light years away from when I was a young guitarist first making records, focusing on being flashy and showing people how fast I could play. In those days, it was all about speed and lots of notes, being a gunslinger – but as I have grown as a musician and especially as a person, I like to think I have developed as a composer and songwriter of maturity and depth as well as a guitar player.”
Written by Jonathan Widran
Kelley O’Neal is an American saxophonist and studio musician, and former member of two Grammy Award winning musical groups. A native of Huntsville, Alabama, he now resides in Atlanta, Georgia.
According to the journal of the Alabama Bandmasters Association, Kelley earned a remarkable total of 50 solo and ensemble performance awards during his high school years, including the highly coveted John Phillip Sousa Award. He attended the University of Alabama on music scholarship, where he participated in the noted jazz program under Steve Sample, Sr and Ray Reach.
Kelley has toured with notable performers such as the Four Tops, the Temptations and Be Be and Ce Ce Winans. In addition, he is a member of the nationally known horn section, the Tuscaloosa Horns. Kelley worked with the multiple Grammy award winning jazz vocal group, Take 6, touring Japan with them. He has also been a member of the band led by Grammy award-winning Rhythm and Blues artist Brian McKnight, appearing on McKnight’s multi-platinum debut album. In 1992, Kelley donated his services on a recording titled “Mr President,” produced by Ray Reach to benefit the homeless in the Birmingham, Alabama area.
Kelley is a regular featured performer at the W. C. Handy Music Festival, appearing there each year, both as a part of the band led by guitarist Eric Essix, and fronting his own group, the Kelley O’Neal Band. He is a member of the W. C. Handy Jazz All-Stars, and is renowned among his peers as one of the finest contemporary jazz saxophonists in the United States