From free jazz to funk: Norman Connors to perform

Jun. 21, 2013 @ 12:29 AM

Before he was cool, Norman Connors was “out there,” musically speaking. The composer who wrote hits like “Valentine Love” and “You Are My Starship” also played drums with free jazz pioneers like Archie Shepp, Sam Rivers and Pharoah Sanders.

Connors and The Starship Orchestra will perform today at Hayti Heritage Center, and Connors promises “a very eclectic set of music. … We might do [John] Coltrane’s ‘Naima,’” along with his hits like ‘Valentine Love,’” he said in a phone interview. He also likes to play Sanders’ composition “The Creator Has a Master Plan,” which he has recorded with Sanders and in several different versions.
Sometimes, he still likes to play solos in a freer context. “If I’m playing that type of music, I can get out there with the best of them … but I can go in too,” Connors said.
Born 1947 in Philadelphia, Pa., Connors has had a career in music that spans more than 40 years. He absorbed the music that came from Philadelphia’s jazz scene, which centered around two clubs, Pep’s and The Showboat. He met trumpeter Miles Davis at age 13, and once sat in for drummer Elvin Jones for a date with Coltrane. (Born in Hamlet, Coltrane’s family moved to High Point, and later Philadelphia.)
“I was a teenager when I met these people,” Connors said. “It couldn’t get no better than that. … You’d have John Coltrane at Pep’s, and at The Showboat you’d have Miles Davis with his different groups.” He met them and many other artists before he went to New York, where, after studying at Temple University in Philadelphia and then Juilliard in New York, he got dates with saxophonist Jackie McLean, pianist and bandleader Sun Ra, Rivers and many others. In 1967, Shepp hired him to play on his recording “The Magic of JuJu.”
The musicians took to him because he was young and enthusiastic, Connors said. “Miles really took to me,” he said. “He would always give me good advice,” such as how to read and handle an audience. If you did not have the attention of the entire audience, Davis told him to focus on a cluster of listeners – and always appeal to the women “and then you’ll get the audience,” Connors recalled.
In Philadelphia, he was getting work with rhythm and blues artists like Billy Paul, but in New York he met Sun Ra, Albert Ayler and other free jazz musicians, and he had to adapt his playing for their style. “For some reason, the way I stretched, they kind of liked my style,” Connors said. On drums, he said Max Roach is his biggest influence, and he also studied Buddy Rich’s style. 
He did his first recording under his name, “Dance of Magic,” in 1972 for the Buddah label (musicians included Stanley Clarke, Herbie Hancock, Gary Bartz and others). Connors also was influenced by Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and other soul and R&B artists, so when he began recording under his name he also wanted those influences reflected “because that was in me too,” he said.
He has been performing with the current lineup of The Starship Orchestra for about a year and a half. The personnel includes Michael Eley on bass, Greg Rich on keyboards, Pheonita Valentin on vocals and Evan Garr on violin. The violin is the most recent addition. “He solos quite a bit. Every time he solos, people stand up and roar,” Connors said.
He is working on a new recording celebrating 40 years of being a musician. Guest artists include many musicians he has worked with before, like vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and bassist Clarke.   
He cites trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan as examples of musicians who can play rhythm and blues and more avant-garde styles. “I look at them as great American composers and musicians who could play anything,” he said. “If you’ve got certain sounds and certain styles that will incorporate soul, beautiful melodies and beautiful love music … and you put it all together, people are going to gravitate to it. That’s always been my key – to do great songs with great musicians and great singers, and you’ll get over [to the audience], no matter what your style may be.”

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Go and Do

WHAT: Norman Connors and The Starship Orchestra
WHEN: Today, 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.
WHERE: Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St.
ADMISSION: Tickets are $15. To purchase, visit www.hayti.org.