It’s a year shy of three decades ago when saxophonist and flautist Najee arrived on the music scene with his platinum-selling major label debut LP, Najee’s Theme. His fresh sound introduced audiences to an invigorating fusion of smooth instrumental R&B layered under his signature romantic horn melodies.
Critics and listeners have often placed the Grammy-nominated easygoing musician born Jerome Najee Rasheed in the jazz category. The Queens, NY-born artist, however, has his own definition of his music. “The problem with me is that I like a lot of things,” says Najee. “The first few records I did were really R&B records. They weren’t jazz records. They were R&B records with a saxophone.”
Najee is a humble performer who started out in Chaka Khan’s touring band fresh out of the New England Conservatory of Music. As a solo act, he has released 13 full-length studio albums to become one of the most sought after accompanists to a slew of artists spanning multiple genres. Najee doesn’t feel like that much time has passed.
“It seems like yesterday to be honest,” says Najee seated comfortably in the lobby of downtown Atlanta’s Hyatt Regency Hotel. “It sounds like a long time, and it is, but it goes quick. When I started this thing, I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. I was just a guy who was fortunate to do what I love and earn a fairly decent living.”
Najee’s manifesto is to always keep his music fresh. He has been spending time in London lately recording material for his tentatively titled project, You, Me, & Forever, along with Incognito front man, Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunick. The Soul Train award winner glows as he looks back on his time laying down tracks across the pond.
“[Bluey] just made it so inviting to be there,” says Najee as he sips coffee. “I’m always looking for some different angle on every record. I enjoy working with musicians that come with a very thorough sense of whatever it is they engage with. They have a perspective that’s all their own.”
It’s not uncommon for Najee to keep one of his leather-covered Apple mobile devices by his side. He uses either of the devices for release therapy and to get inspiration. He periodically scrolls through playlists on his iPhone one minute. The next minute, he’s either checking his schedule or reading news briefs or excerpts from his virtual library of economic literature (calling it “boring stuff”).
In Atlanta at the time to headline Clark Atlanta University’s annual outdoor “Jazz Under the Stars” concert, Najee taught a master class on-campus the previous day. Having performed all over the world, Najee is up for performing in front of diverse audiences.
“We modify our shows according to where we are,” says Najee. “The smaller environments are easier to connect with the audience in terms of intimacy. You can do some things that are a little more mellow.”
Being in a room full of aspiring young musicians has prompted Najee to figure out how to revamp his virtual teaching and digital workshops. Because of the engaging instrumentalist’s hectic recording and traveling itinerary, his music education programming has taken a backseat.
“My problem is my time,” he says. “I’ve been so busy, it’s hard to really organize a set time for that. I’m going to put time in to make sure we develop it.”
Najee likes to share stories about his time working with other legendary performers, especially Prince. The Purple One originally invited Najee to one of his post-show parties, requested him to bring his flute. Doug E. Fresh, who toured with Prince at the time, told Najee that the multi-talented artist had been studying a video of his flute solo.
Traveling to Minneapolis a few days later, Najee’s initial offer from Prince to tour with him for two weeks turned into a three-year collaboration. Najee jokingly mocks Prince’s voice and posture as he reenacts phone calls and sound checks. He makes it crystal clear how much respect he has for His Royal Badness.
Najee remembers a time when the flamboyant superstar didn’t know how to financially compensate him. The saxophonist remains tight-lipped about what he was paid but has no complaints whatsoever. “[Prince] was a very interesting guy,” says Najee. “It started out just doing jam sessions like two in the morning. We never talked money, but let’s just say he respected my time.”
Fatherhood is the greatest thing Najee says he’s ever done. His six children have each traveled with him at some point in his career. Joined by his daughter and sister in the hotel lobby for breakfast, Najee thinks allowing his kids to see him on the road made them feel important. “When I’m with them, I make them feel like nothing else matters,” he says.
Najee is preparing to go back out on the road with upcoming dates in London. You, Me, & Forever is slated for release later this year. He’s happy to have enjoyed a successful career by not sounding like any other musician. He says his musical resistance motivates him and gives him his unique flavor.
“I decided that I wanted to develop me a whole lot more,” says Najee with his legs crossed. “I never get tired of hearing people like John Coltrane because there’s always something to learn.”
This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for the Burton Wire. He is also contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.