Onaje Allan Gumbs is one of the industry’s most respected and talented musical collaborators. He has worked for more than 27 years with an illustrious list of jazz, R&B; and pop artists. In 1974, he created a special arrangement of “Stella By Starlight” for the New York Jazz Repertory Company as part of a concert honoring Miles Davis at Carnegie Hall. He followed that with live and recorded performances with such artists as Lenny White, Buster Williams, Cecil McBee and Betty Carter. In 1975,Onaje joined forces with trumpeter, Nat Adderley as part of his quintet contributing to the group’s releases on Atlantic and Steeplechase Records. Producer Nils Winter of Steeplechase upon hearing Onaje’s improvisations, invited the young pianist to record a solo piano project entitled Onaje.
In 1976, Onaje provided the arrangement for the song that was to become the signature piece for the late great vocalist Phyllis Hyman, “Betcha By Golly Wow.” In 1978, the Woody Shaw Group, for which Onaje was pianist, won the Down Beat Reader’s Poll for Best Jazz Group and for Best Jazz Album (Rosewood).The album was later nominated for a Grammy. In 1985, Onaje lent his keyboard and arrangement skills to “Lady In My Life” on guitarist Stanley Jordan’s widely acclaimed debut album, Magic Touch on Blue Note Records.This was the 1st jazz album in history to maintain the #1 spot atop Billboard Magazine’s jazz charts for 37 weeks.
In 1986, Onaje received the “Min-on Art Award”…”in recognition of his great contribution to the promotion and development of a new musical movement for people with the aim of the creation of Peace…” Previous recipients of this prestigious honor include Tina Turner, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter,and Buster Williams. Motivated by the goal for World Peace,Onaje uses the practice of Nicherin Daishonin’s Buddhism as a philosophical,spiritual and technical approach to his life and his music. His composition, “Quiet Passion” and his rendition of the Delphonics classic, “(Didn’t I ) Blow your Mind This Time” both from his project, That Special Part Of Me have remained in rotation on the playlists of Smooth Jazz Radio Stations around the country since their initial introduction back in February of 1988. Panasonic chose his song, “Dare To Dream,” with lyrics by Charles Allen, as the theme for their 10th anniversary celebration honoring their project; Kid Witness News.
In addition to the release of That Special Part Of Me and Dare To Dream on MCA Records, he currently has an independently financed solo project; Remember Their Innocence. Onaje has been featured twice on NPR “Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland.” He also composed,arranged and performed the original score for the Showtime film, “Override,” directed by actor/producer Danny Glover. In 1997, Onaje again embraced the music of Miles Davis as conductor/arranger for Grammy Award winning vocalist Cassandra Wilson’s concert, “Travelin’ Miles.”
Onaje Allan Gumbs continues to contribute his talents as a keyboardist,composer, arranger and producer. As he states: “Music has a healing force that is immeasurable and I am committed to being a part of it .”
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Reviews for Return To Form: Live at the Blue Note
Onaje Allan Gumbs is a highly acclaimed pianist among his fellow jazz musicians, though it is surprising that this veteran has not recorded as a leader more often. This 2000 live set taped at the Blue Note finds him in great form, accompanied by Marcus McLaurine (one of Clark Terry’s first call bassists), Payton Crossley drummer, Gary Fritz percussionist, and on some tracks, Rene McLean saxophonist. Gumbs’ innovative approach to John Coltrane’s “Equinox” is marvelous; it’s set to a Latin rhythm, substituting the bass line vamp from “A Love Supreme” while also quoting several other works by Coltrane in a tense chart. His shimmering trio arrangements of the “Daydream” (a gorgeous ballad by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington) and Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville” are also not to be missed. But Gumbs also makes his case as a composer. “First Time We Met” is a post-bop chart full of sudden twists. The lyrical quality of “Palace of the Seven Jewels” comes through even though it’s an instrumental. Rene McLean’s tenor sax comes on strong over Gumbs’ funky piano in “Left Side of Right” while the jaunty “A Breath of Fresh Air” suggests a brisk stroll in the park on a sunny spring afternoon. The intimate sound of this highly recommended CD gives one the feeling of having a front row center table at the club. Ken Dryden, All Music Guide Review/4.5 stars/2004
“Onaje Allan Gumbs Returns to Form–and Some”
When pianist/composer Onaje Allan Gumbs voices his distaste for musical categories, it might be one of many lessons he acquired from his mother, who recently joined the ancestors.
“Throughout her life, she had an appreciation for all kinds of music, and it had nothing at all to do with categories,” he told The Black World Today. “She listened to everything, and the only thing that mattered for her was whether she liked it or not. Like her, I’m not into putting music into compartments.”
Listen to Gumbs latest release Return to Form (Blue Note Records) and you’ll hear sizable portions of his eclecticism, his wide ranging expanse of musical references and preferences. One of my favorites is “A Breath of Fresh Air”, which I first him do live at a club in Brooklyn with bassist Avery Sharpe and drummer Winard Harper. It’s a pleasant and enduring melody that’s easy to the memory and one that begs for lyrics.
In his liner notes, Gumbs, who was born in Harlem and raised in Queens, New York, says the melody first came to him when he was 13. “I was getting into Horace Silver and Wynton Kelly and that kind of stuff. The way I play it conceptually is pretty much consistent with how I wrote it back in 1963.”
On Return to Form, recorded live at the Blue Note, Gumbs and his quintet–Marcus McLaurine on bass, Payton Crossley on drums, percussionist Gary Fritz and special guest, tenor and soprano saxophonist Rene McLean–are an extremely tight unit with an expressive edge that has earned them lots of air time on local radio shows. The repertory is a delightful mix of originals and some standards that haven’t been worked to death, particularly Mancini’s “Dreamsville”, Strayhorn and Ellington’s “Daydream” and Coltrane’s “Equinox.”
Gumbs told writer Ted Panken of Downbeat that he still has a lot of growing to do as an artist. But in my estimation the only remaining pinnacle is somewhere in the stratosphere of accomplishment, which is well within his considerable reach.
Herb Boyd (Managing Editor), The Black World Today ( www.tbwt.org )/Jan. 12, 2004
The weeks from Thanksgiving until the end of the year often mark a time for homecomings. In Return to Form (Half Note), pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs makes his way back to straight-ahead jazz from the land of R&B; and smooth jazz, where he had spent much of the 1980s and 1990s. During the nine-song set, he plays with a comfort and joy that had the crowd at the Blue Note murmuring and applauding in appreciation. Coltrane’s “Equinox” and “Daydream,” the Ellington/Strayhorn chestnut, are among the highlights on the disc. Rene McLean is in fine voice on tenor and soprano saxophones. Bassist Marcus McLaurine, drummer Payton Crossley and percussionist Gary Fritz offer some delicious accents, as they keep time and pace with Gumbs. But it’s Gumbs’ sterling work on piano that carries the day.
Jeff Rivers, ctnow.com ( Connecticut )/Dec. 4, 2003
Gumbs, renowned as an ultra sensitive musician’s musician, releases his first album as a leader in over a decade. The pleasant surprise is that after a couple of well received contemporary jazz albums, he delivers a straight ahead jazz album, recorded live at the Blue Note in New York. The nine songs are primarily in the classic trio format with guest saxophonist Rene McLean sitting in on several numbers.
Though every song here is given Gumbs’ attentive touch, the highlights include lovely revisions of his Quiet Storm classics: “First Time We Met” and “Quiet Passion”, a cool driving piece inspired by Les McCann and Eddie Harris titled “Left Side of Right”. Onaje’s muse Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville”, and a 12 minute exploration on John Coltrane’s “Equinox”.
Scott Galloway (Music Editor), The Urban Network Magazine (Los Angeles)/Nov. 2003
*(This review is amongst 9 CDs picked by Mr Scott as year end favorites)
“Return To Form reunites Gumbs with the music that inspired him as a child – straight-ahead jazz. This is his first recording leading a hardcore jazz ensemble. He has a versatile vocabulary that flows like an exciting composition of bold, swinging rhythms, impressive phrasing and rich, melodic lines. Six of the nine tunes are Gumbs’ compositions. On this live, riveting affair, special guest Rene McLean accompanies him on soprano and tenor saxophones, plus bassist Marcus McLaurine, drummer Payton Crossley and percussionist Gary Fritz. Gumbs is a talented composer and an exciting pianist who is consistently taking his music to greater horizons. Take a listen.”
Ron Scott, Amsterdam News (New York)/Dec 11-17 2003
* * * “From the opening bars of the funk, highly energetic No Question, pianist Gumbs makes it clear he’s not interested in peddling corn…Gumbs delivers instrument R&B; with a bite. Funk-driven bass lines pound under throbbing drum beats and Gumbs’ two-fisted solos. He’s equally comfortable in be-bop jazz.”
“This extraordinarily gifted musician’s song First Time We Met has been in heavy nighttime rotation around my apartment. As a supreme keyboardist and composer, Onaje’s touch amazingly soothes and invigorates the listener all at once.”
A. Scott Galloway, Urban Network Magazine
Related artists: Charlie Elgart
“Sprightly “No Question” (from Dare to Dream) with its interweaving sax lines goes down smooth…Onaje turns in a relaxed vital set”
“Onaje – meaning the “sensitive one” – demonstrates again why this ubiquitous sideman-turned-leader chose to add the Nigerian word to his given Afro-American name. This is truly an album for life’s romantic interludes, be they every night or few and far between. Lush, relaxing tracks, mainly in slow and medium tempos, show the twin influences of Urban Pop and mainstream jazz in the keyboardist’s background. Whether on acoustic piano or synthesizers, Gumbs’ devotion to lyricism and attention to the d details of composition, arrangement and performance mark his work with a feeling of quiet passion across all tracks.” Bill Quinn, Black Radio Exclusive
“There is something elegant in his style, a confident, yet subdued air.”
Richard Thorpe, The Boston Globe
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