Jos Knaepen

M5: How did you meet Walter Becker and to what degree are you familiar with the music of Steely Dan?

TR: Steely Dan has been one of my absolute favorites for a long time. The way they blend jazz and pop is so powerful... I still play the 'old' and 'new' Steely Dan albums on a regular basis. My favorites are Royal Scam, Aja, Gaucho, Two Against Nature, Everything Must Go, Kamakiriad and The Nightfly. And I'm quite anxious to hear the new albums of Donald and Walter!

I met Walter Becker in Amsterdam, June 2001, at a gig in jazzclub De Pompoen (Dutch for pumpkin). I was scheduled to perform for five consecutive nights with pianist Ivan Paduart's quartet. We were tuned into each other pretty well, with a repertoire of our own and quite some concerts to back up our experience as an ensemble. The second night of our show in De Pompoen, we started the first set with only little audience present. When playing, I noticed a man sitting on a table left in the room, he looked like Walter Becker. My next thought was it couldn't be, I mean, Walter Becker, here in Amsterdam? Impossible! I focused on the set and let it go, but the bassist of our group, like me a genuine 'Steely Fan', had spotted him as well. When Walter left during intermission, our bassist followed him outside and asked him if he was Walter Becker. Walter said: "That's right. You guys sound great, I'll come back tomorrow night and bring some company." He kept his word. The following night, Walter was in the audience again and listened to the entire concert. Between sets, I decided to approach him and introduce myself, followed by an engaging conversation. First thing he said to me was: "I love your compositions." He then explained: "In New York we have more than plenty of saxophone players who play so many notes, these notes would lose their musical meaning. But your playing is so well balanced that every note has a meaning. That's great."

For a moment there his compliments made me speechless, but I pulled myself together and had a great talk with Walter about a lot of things, especially about Steely Dan. After the concert I asked him if he would give me an autograph. All I had was a box of cigars, so he signed it with the words: "Hey Toon! You're Smokin'! Aloha!"

I also gave him a copy of my CD 'The Human Feel' and where I could be reached. I said that if he really loved my playing and would want to use me for Steely Dan, I'd always be available. "You would have to come to New York though", Walter said. "That's no problem" I answered. "Well, I hope it for you", he said.

It was an inspiring encounter, a beautiful evening I didn't expect to be continued at any point. So I let it go, went on with my life and work. And then, about ten days after meeting Walter Becker in Amsterdam, he sent me an email. "Back in Amsterdam after a week in Belgium which was all pretty enjoyable - and still thinking about how good you guys sounded last week at the Pompoen. We've got a few more days here in town - would love to go get a drink or hear some sounds if you're around and up for it." I contacted him at the hotel he was staying at and invited him for dinner at my place. Two days later, I drove Walter and company to my home and family in the countryside. Quite exciting, I must say. It was a lovely day and we had a great time. We talked about a lot of things, mainly music, naturally. He asked about my CD 'Human Feel' and had already listened to it. "Sounds great. Is it distributed in New York?" he wanted to know. Later that night I took him to a concert of a wonderful trio in jazzclub De Pompoen in Amsterdam: guitarist Leonardo Amuedo, drummer Lucas van Merwijk and bassist Jeroen Vierdag. We both enjoyed the music very much. Walter even wrote some liner notes for their upcoming album at the time. And then we said our goodbyes, exchanged some emails in which he thanked us for our hospitality.

M5: About your own musical upbringing, what music did you grow up with?

TR: Music started to matter to me when I was about 15 or 16 years old. I listened to the Beatles a lot, and Santana. Another major influence was the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar, such incredible music in every aspect of the way it was composed. All of this helped to shape my sense of music and created a fundamental essence I can always return to. Besides solo-parts, I've always had a soft spot for beautiful songs and up until today, I have a strong preference for vocal music. Styles and genres such as funk, soul and fusion soon entered my life, like the Average White Band, Crusaders, Friendship with Lee Ritenour and Ernie Watts, Brecker Brothers, David Sanborn, Yellowjackets, Neil Larsen, George Duke, John Scofield and Steely Dan ofcourse! Earth, Wind & Fire, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau were my favorites as well and every musician or band I mentioned still is. But next to them, musicians like Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Jaco Pastorius and Joe Zawinul with Weather Report weighed in heavy when it came to expanding my taste in music. Yes, the wonderful Seventies and early Eighties. Later on I turned to the melodic acoustic jazz from the Sixties, with Miles Davis as my main influence. Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra from the Fifties are high on my list too as all time favorites. As a musician, I'm an intuitive melodic player with a strong taste for 'breathing' music with not too many notes. Something you find in vocal music rather than in the instrumental bebop tradition. But nonetheless I always played in that acoustic jazz tradition with my own quartet and several big bands, next to my participation in fusion groups. Besides the thrill of playing your own compositions, jazz standards remain attractive and challenging because there's so many directions you can take those standards.

M5: Can you name a few highlights in your career so far?

TR: Since 1984, ever since I started to perform on stage, I've been lucky and able to perform in the Netherlands as well as abroad with my own bands and other ensembles. I've also had the privilege of sharing the stage with quite some established names in the business so far. To only do the things I wanted to or preferred has always been my main drive, which isn't easy but a tremendous kick if you can stick with it. Highlights so far:

* My first jazz award in 1984, the Wessel Ilcken Award and my first foreign tour in Italy the same year.
* Several recordings since 1984 with the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra.
* My study trip to New York in 1989 where I did some great sessions with Toots Thielemans and organist Jack Macduff.
* A gig in Pittsburgh at the Duke Ellington Conference with the Dutch Jazz Orchestra in 1996.
* Winning the prestigious Bird Award 2001.
* My two albums 'The Human Feel' and 'Free At Last'. I'm still proud of those two albums, the music and the musicians.
* Recording my composition Vienna's Touch in 2003, with Toots Thielemans.
* Performing with the Toon Roos Group at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Capetown, South Africa, 2004.
* The North Sea Bird Session 2005, an all-star session with three of my musical heroes: Joe Zawinul, Toots Thielemans and John Scofield. After the performance Joe told me: "Thanks for playing with us, you deserve it. You're a great player."

* The concert with Joe Zawinul in Vienna at his club Birdland. Joe invited me as a result of our North Sea session, to come to Vienna and play a benefit concert for New Orleans in his own club. That was awesome, because along with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis, Joe Zawinul is absolutely one of my heroes. Being in Vienna and playing with Joe was a great experience, both on a musical as well as on a personal level.
* Last year I was asked by the Yellowjackets to fill in for Bob Mintzer during some part of their European tour. They then decided to go with an American saxophonist who toured with them before, but hopefully there'll be a second chance some time.
* Winning the Second Prize in 2005 for my composition Reach For The Rose in the American 'International Songwriting Competition 2004'.

M5: To simplify it: there's Jazz in the States and Jazz in Europe. Are there differences and if so, how would you describe them?

TR: The biggest difference seems to be that in most American jazz, next to melody and harmony, the groove and soul of the music is emphasized. It's the blues, the 'black' interpretation. European jazz, perhaps even the 'white' interpretation, appears to be more intellectual, more focused on melody and harmony than the groove itself. Which is an atmospheric wide approach with its own appeal. My heart belongs to a blend of both, the American 'black' groove mixed with European impressionism. That's why I love the music of Miles, Herbie and Weather Report so much. They represent the perfect combination of mind, heart and gut feeling.

M5: As a performing musician, you work with other musicians. What's important to you, what qualities do you appreciate in your colleagues?

TR: Great love for music, personality, a feel for the right groove, fine taste, a positive open-minded attitude and the aptitude to communicate in a different more intuitive way when on stage. That's a level you can only reach when you're a very good musician, capable of letting go all the things you know and learned in order to create room for new experiences to happen. It's a process you go through as a band, a group, you surrender to the group and are able to reach musical heights you'd rarely find when on your own. I've always been very fortunate to play with great musicians. Because they're what you need to bring out the best you got.

M5: Are there people or musicians you admire?

TR: People who in this era of artistic poverty dare to stay true to their own essence and manage to create beautiful music. Not designed for the impact, or as a result of a calculated move, but genuine music, music straight from the heart. Although we've already lost many legends in pop and jazz, there are still some geniuses around who create meaningful music, against the odds of commercial gain and coldhearted calculation. If Stevie Wonder sings about love, you can feel it. I love his new album 'A Time To Love'. I also admire Sting for his original mind, and his audacity to carry pop to a higher level by using elements of jazz in his songs. Steely Dan is just as timeless to me, a 'hip' format of jazz music actually. Herbie Hancock's recent album 'Possibilities' is a CD I can enjoy thoroughly, another example of someone I admire.

M5: So here's our cue to go back to Walter Becker and Steely Dan. What SD songs do you like the most?

TR: Some of my favorites are Kid Charlemagne, Green Earrings, The Fez, all songs on the album Aja, Babylon Sisters, Gaucho, Time Out Of Mind, The Green Book.

M5: Are you still in touch with Walter Becker? And wouldn't you like to join them on stage some time, they will be back on the road in the States after Donald Fagen concluded his theatre tour, along with Michael McDonald, so...

TR: Since we met back then in 2001, I haven't really been in touch with him, which is a pity I guess. But we're all busy people, an ocean apart and major stuff like 9/11 happened... Still, I would consider it an honor to share a stage with Walter Becker or/and Donald Fagen, or even record in a studio with them. Who knows our paths might cross again, right?

M5: You're on tour with your own Toon Roos Group and singer-songwriter Andrea van Otterloo. What else can we expect in the future, will you record a third album?

TR: We haven't really considered another tour yet, but I am in the process of preparing a new CD, with the Toon Roos Group. This is the funkiest band I've worked with so far and the audience is very responsive in theatres and at festivals. Because we play the acoustic piano, a Fender Rhodes, synthesizers, electrical guitar, bass, drums and percussion (and saxophone!), we can dip into a wide spectrum of musical colors. The trick is to keep the music, bearing authentic jazz principles in mind, as transparent as possible. We manage pretty well with this group of musicians. 'Free At Last' is the title of our CD, most of it is a live registration. I named it 'Free At Last' due to the fact I recorded an album with music closest to my heart, the so called 'fusion jazz'. We combine jazz with Latin, funk, rock and bossa nova but then my way, lyrical and groovy. With this band I can go all directions, from expressive and lush sexual energy to sensible, restrained and romantic.

There are also plans to release a new album, featuring myself as guest soloist for the Netherlands Metropole Orchestra. They're real stellar recordings of jazz standards and my own work, performed with a grand orchestra, strings and big band. We've finished the recordings, now it's only a matter of finding the right label to release it.

And I'm working on a Latin oriented album with someone. We're thinking of going to Brazil to promote the CD and I think it would be great to work with Latin musicians. It's such a wonderful country with beautiful music. And yes, I'm also drawn to the States, I'd love to go back and play with my own band or other musicians there. I hope I'll be able to continue traveling, making music for everyone willing to listen. Music is my life, my passion. I want to play for the people, play the music I love. It keeps on floating, taking you to places unknown, not yet discovered. That's what makes it so exciting to be a musician...

If you're interested in the music of Toon Roos, you can visit his website, listen to samples of his music and order the CD's. They can be shipped worldwide.

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