In Conversation with U-NAM on his latest CD ‘Unanimity’ February 23, 2010 - French Smooth Jazz guitar sensation Emmanuel Abitebol, more known as U-NAM, came to fame with his widely acclaimed somophore album ‘Back from the 80’s’ released in 2007. One year later, he made a guest appearance on guitarist Vernon Neilly’s project G-Fire (Guitars on Fire) and its third album ‘A Tribute to Stevie Wonder’, where accomplished guitar players from various genres teamed up to showcase their talents (U-NAM performed on Wonder’s track ‘I Was Made to Love You’). In 2009, the French musician has again used the same Soul/Funk revival recipe and provides with his latest effort ‘Unanimity.’
So when you taste the fourteen groovy and melodic tracks served by the Paris-born musician, you may think at first you’re listening to George Benson and his famous guitar licks. But it is definitely not the case, because even if the French guitarist acknowledges Benson as one of his main sources of inspiration, he does reinvent the genre with his injection of revamped Funk and Soul. This is the U-NAM’s French touch which again delivers a top class Smooth Jazz guitar act with a line up of very high calibre.
Let us meet with an artist who makes unanimity through his music.
Akbar Nour: Why did you call this album ‘Unanimity?’
U-NAM: Well actually, with this new album I decided to show much more of myself, who I really am, what I really like, which are my musical influences. So I called it ‘Unanimity,’ because I tried to reunite different audiences such as Smooth Jazz new listeners and usual lovers of the genre. I would describe ‘Unanimity’ as a musical manifestation of six key ingredients: 1) Creativity: using everyday life experience to express yourself and communicate to others. 2) Humanity: showing love, peace and respect to the people. 3) Integrity: being true to yourself and your art. 4) Originality: being unique and different. 5) Sensibility: sharing passion, love and emotions through music and playing. 6) Sincerity: playing with all your heart and soul.
Obviously, ‘Unanimity’ is a word game as well with U-Nam. I love word and mind games; I'm into meaning in everything I do in my life.
Akbar: Are you not too tired to be always compared to George Benson?
U-NAM: How could I ever be tired of being compared to George Benson? No way! That's an amazing compliment, even if I think that George Benson is untouchable! He’s my musical hero, my mentor and a good friend! But how could I be tired to be compared to a musical genius and the best Jazz guitar player that ever lived! Anyway, I have a new nickname that a lot of people gave me and I quite like it, (laughing)), it's the White George Benson!
Akbar: During the making of the album, you decided to move from Paris to Los Angeles. So USA is your newly adopted country?
U-NAM: Yes, I have been in the U.S for one year and three months so far. I'm settled in Los Angeles and I really enjoy it. You can't beat Cali weather. Nothing like Paris weather. Here, it’s sunny and warm almost through the whole year. I love it!
Akbar: Not too difficult to be separated from your son Melvin who remains in Paris? Do you intend to bring him along in the States?
U-NAM: Well, obviously by moving from France to the U.S, I had to leave my family and all my friends behind and I'm really just by myself here (even if I got a few great friends here too) and for sure the hardest thing ever is to be separated from my beautiful baby boy and not being able to see him as much as I would like to or as much as I used to. I really can't wait to bring him over here, he's gonna love it, because there's so much fun things to do for children here much more than in Paris, he could be outside all the time and play and there's so many places to go visit and beautiful sceneries, the beaches and the sea so close. But at least for now I see him quite often through Skype and we play and talk together and I'm trying to teach him some things.
Akbar: Can you tell us more on the process of making this album in terms of inspiration, connections with star musicians (such as Najee, Matt Rhode and Mike White) and your Paris friends?
U-NAM: Well, first regarding the US musicians and special guests on the album, Mike White is a long time friend, he's playing on my previous album ‘Back From The 80’s’ and he is one of my favorite drummer’s ever. He's also one of the few people who have helped me here. For example, he called me last year to replace Ray Parker Jr in an All Stars Show in Houston along with Phil Perry and Oleta Adams that was just amazing! Matt Rohde is a good friend of mine too, he did almost all my shows in 2007 and 2008, we’re the same age and he's an amazing keyboard player, one of my favorite here!!
Regarding Najee, I met him on the Dave Koz Cruise that I did last November. We did all the star shows with the cruises’ artists. Including Eric Benet, George Duke, Dave Koz among others and Najee asked me to join him on stage to play on his song then he told he would love to play on my next project and I said, “Yes, sure let's do it.” It was as easy as that.
Also Marva King, who sings on the album a cover of ‘Dancing In The Streets’ is a good friend of mine; we share the stage quite often and actually I wrote and produced a song called ‘If You Say So’ on her last album ‘Grown & Sexy.’ In addition, Marva is just a fabulous and incredible singer. She has sung with star artists such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Prince, with whom she worked for more than fifteen as a part of Prince’s New Power Generation.
About my Parisian musician’s friends, they are simply the best in France. They play with everybody; the Paris Horns Section is the best horn section I know. I could write whatever crazy things in whatever key, I feel they can do it. And they have a fabulous sound.
Denis Bennarosh, who plays percussions on the album and also on my previous one (he is also a great drummer), is the first call in Paris recording sessions. He's an amazing musician, super fast in studio, has always great ideas and timing, he is also a super guy.
Raymond Gimenes is the most talented Jazz strings and horns arranger that we have in France. He's one of the rare musicians to have studied with legendary French composer, conductor and music professor Nadia Boulanger (such as Quincy Jones) and he has worked with everybody in France since the 60's. He is also a great guitar player who has created a legendary band back in 1965 (I wasn't even born) called the ‘Guitars Unlimited,’ that is one of the few guitar bands playing big band arrangements.
And last but not least, Franck Sitbon, he's simply my best friend and one of the musicians who has mainly influenced me along with George Benson and not just musically but as well in life and as a man. We used to have everlasting conversations about life, love and relationships and he was there for me when I had to go through a lot of drama with my son's mother. And I'm missing those conversations, especially the ones in Franck's kitchen around a good bottle of French red wine, with great French cheese and bread (laughs!). Furthermore, he is an amazing songwriter, singer and the most talented keyboard player for me. With such a big heart and so full of emotions that everything he’s creating, doing or playing is only pure emotion. I miss him a lot now that I'm in the U.S, but I can tell you something, everybody here is asking who is playing keyboards on my albums.
Akbar: You also embarked on creating your own music production structure. Can you tell us more on it?
U-NAM: Well actually, I've always had my own production company and structure especially in France, where most of my work was to produce, write and arrange for big famous French acts as well as international acts such as Barry White and a lot for French TV shows such as American Idol, Pop stars, etc.
Now my music production structure is to provide brand new artists and confirmed ones with the production they need and that fit their budget but with all my expertise and the best of L.A musicians. You will find all the details on my website www.u-nam.com
Akbar: You start your album with the track ’’Viva La Revolucion’ (Un jour nouveau). Is it a metaphor for your moving from Paris to Los Angeles?
U-NAM: Well that track is just an intro for the album. I've always loved Ennio Morricone’s music and all the spaghetti westerns by Sergio Leone as well as their messages. And as the whole concept of that new album is based on this idea, the artwork is in that vibe. However, the message is more about a musical revolution. I didn't want to do ‘Back from the 80's’ part 2. I have included and put ingredients on that new album that have never been done yet in Smooth Jazz like the whole artwork concept that I did, as I'm a graphic designer as well. I love revolutions, but peaceful ones and we really need some! I love rebirth, I'm kind of a rebel too, so I will say a smooth revolution and ‘Viva la Revolucion.’
Akbar: Your second track ‘Funk for Unity’ shows your addiction to old school funk. Is it the only factor of musical unity for you?
U-NAM: Well, I've always loved funk, I grew up listening to that kind of music, I have always been a big fan of James Brown, I practiced so much on his music back in the days like crazy. However I think the message on that song is much more ‘Music For Unity,’ I'm a peaceful guy, I like peace and love and I always try to share it with everybody especially in this world we're leaving right now. We need it.
Akbar: George Benson is your main influence. Do you have any common projects together?
U-NAM: Well, actually for now, unfortunately, no project in common with GB, but I really hope that it will happen one day. I know he loves a lot the way I'm playing and I've been in the studio during the recording sessions of his new album and well anything could happen one day I guess. It’s funny because I just came back from Arizona where I spent a few days at GB’s house being invited by my buddy Robbie (one of GB's son’s) and GB. That was just fabulous! Having a walk in the morning under the hot sun of Arizona with GB, GB taking me everywhere for lunch, dinner whatever. He was listening to some of my songs in his car; he shared with me so many amazing and priceless memories from the Jazz days, etc. He's the nicest artist I have ever met and super generous and so down to earth talking to everybody, even the people he doesn’t know. And I think the highlight of this trip is when the first day I came, he told me, "Hey here's a guitar for you for the weekend, that's the one I did the new album with." Wow! I've already played that guitar in the studio but having GB giving it to me for a few days, a collector piece, that was just unbelievable! Anyway GB and his family are amazing people I love them so much, they are true people.
Akbar: ‘Unanimity’ seems to sound like a musical rodeo for me. Not true?
U-NAM: A musical rodeo? I didn't think about it but I love the idea. Well Franck wrote the chorus melody some years ago for a famous singer in France and I did the arrangements that was a total different song, but we never heard back from the singer and I said to Franck for months, “I wanna do it, I wanna do it” I think the melody is one of the best he ever wrote, just beautiful, so finally we decided to do it on my album. We had to change the verse to make it sound better on the guitar and then I did that funk bridge, so there was that 60's beat vibe, then that disco bridge and then icing on the cake, I gave the song to Raymond to write a strings arrangements but more in a classical influence and the result was just fabulous. I love that song! I will describe it as a musical journey!
Akbar: ‘This is just for you’ and ‘The Day I met you’ are the first slow tempo romantic tracks of the album. Are you a romantic guitar player?
U-NAM: Well, funny that you mention that because I'm more known as a "Machine Gun”,” Shredder" Guitar Player (which is pretty rare in the Smooth Jazz genre) and known to play a million notes per minute (laughing). But I guess that now that I've proved how fast and crazy I could play, I think that I'm trying more to reach beautiful notes and express more of my emotions and deep feelings that are really big inside of me, also I'm trying to reach people's soul and that's much more important to me. George Benson (GB) told me once that Wes Montgomery was saying about him that the day he would start to play slower he would be the best guitar player of all time and that's what GB is now! So I guess it was great advice that I'm trying to apply it to myself and we've got that thing in common with GB, we've discussed about it, we are pretty nervous people (laughing), so we play a lot of notes.
Akbar: This album entails two soul tracks ‘Soul Boy Reincarnation’ and ‘Soulism.’ Are you this soul boy reincarnation or a new redefine of soul?
U-NAM: Wow! Always great and interesting questions. Akbar. Well, my main thing is soul, whatever kind of music I'm playing. It's got to have soul, spirit and heart and actually I wrote the song ‘My Heart & Soul’ just because of that, this song is all about me in music and life. It’s all about soul!
Akbar: ‘Hang on U’ comes next on the album. A fantastic track reminding me of Isaac Hayes and famous action movie John Shaft. Don’t you think so?
U-NAM: Really? I never thought about it this way. Thanks a lot though, it's a great compliment. Well, I'm obviously a big fan of Soul/Jazz from the 70's, so I guess that's why. I also like up-tempo, I miss that these days, I like dance tempo like back in the old days (70's and 80's), really fast tempo (between 130 and 140 bpm). It's really challenging to play when you want to play that fast.
Akbar: And this never-ending tribute to Tamla Motown sound with the cover of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Dancing in the Street’ and famous vocalist Marva King?
U-NAM: Yes, same thing, it's a dance track and I had some much fun playing on that track. Furthermore, Marva did an incredible job and you can tell that the chemistry between her powerful and soulful voice matches perfectly my energetic and fast guitar playing.
Akbar: Your music is totally Afro-American inspired and you are a white guy coming from Paris to the US. How do you feel about it?
U-NAM: Well, I have to say that I'm Jewish (from North Africa) and that Afro-American people or African people got so much in common with Jewish people, even history wise; so, I guess because all what we've been through we have developed the kind of same feelings and emotions and obviously SOUL and I got a strong connection spiritually speaking and same values in common too with them. I was number one on those radios and they really loved me much and they're really supportive. Like in Chicago, DC, New York, Atlanta etc. Unfortunately, those radios stations don't exist anymore. That's really a shame. And I remember once (and I've heard a few times now), Marva King told me that nobody in her entourage (musicians, etc.) believed her that that was a "Lil white Boy from Paris” who wrote the song I did for her, as they were telling her "This is so you, Marva, funky, soulful, etc." and Marva gave me the best compliment ever, she said "You got soul".
Akbar: The layout of the album is very inspired by the genre of western movies. So are you a kind of musical cowboy coming to the US to conquer a new musical territory?
U-NAM: I am only trying to make some changes and some evolution to that genre and bring my eclectic tastes and my European and French point of view. But I love challenges, that's where I'm the best.
Akbar: What are your next projects? U-NAM: Well, I've just finished two Christmas songs for my label "Trippin'N'Rhythm" ,that's the really first time I'm doing this ; that was interesting and by the way one song is a Trippin' All Stars featuring Gregg Karukas, Oli Silk, Jaared and me, that was really fun to do.
Also right new my main project is a vocals Soul/R&B project that I was working on and off for some years and that I'm finally gonna release with Trippin'N'Rhythm probably early 2010. And this project features some of the best soul singers of today's scene like Rahsaan Patterson, Myron, Maysa Leak, Marva King and more. I'm so excited about that project. I got great songs that we wrote and I'm back doing what I was doing in France, producing songs. The project is called «The One Soul Experiment» and features some amazing musicians such as Mike White, Paulinho Da Costa, Andy Narell, Franck Sitbon, etc.
And also there's another project that I'm working on at the same time and this one is my baby. I'm so excited about it. We will be going back to Smooth Jazz or Pop/Jazz. Unfortunately, I can't say anything about it for now, but I can tell you that it is going to be a very exciting Smooth Jazz project. For more information : u-nam.com - By Akbar Nour
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