RANDY OXFORD BAND
When one thinks of award-winning instrumentalists in the rhythm-and-blues realm, the trombone is definitely not the first instrument that comes to mind. Most of the trophies in this game, at least on the national level, seem to go to electric guitarists, with the occasional harmonica player, keyboardist, or saxophonist picking up an award or two along the way. That makes Randy Oxford the proverbial "big frog" in the very small pond of blues-based trombonists, having chalked up more than twenty awards from the Washington Blues Society and similar Northwest organizations over the course of his career. This year finds the restlessly creative trombonist sporting a new band and a brand-new CD with a title that reflects his current musical orientation: MEMPHIS TO MOTOWN.
Born in 1960 in Seattle's Ballard district, Oxford heard a wide range of music from his parents' record collection during his formative years, and when he moved with his family to Chicago at age eleven, the listening opportunities only increased. "My parents played classical, jazz, pop, and even some Sousa," he recalls. "George Shearing was a big favorite on the record player as was Peggy Lee, Boots Randolph, Henry Mancini, Sinatra, Stan Kenton, Buddy Rich, Woody Herman, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Crosby, and of course, Tommy Dorsey. My parents would go out to the London House in Chicago and see many of these groups perform live, and then they would come home with their albums and play them all day long. They would take me to see the Chicago Symphony one week and then Stan Kenton the next week. I learned early on that there was a whole wide world full of all kinds of music out there, and I felt very lucky to be around it at such an early age."
As a result of one cultural outing in particular, the young Randy Oxford discovered his lifelong instrument and took it up during his sixth-grade school year. "My dad always had a fascination with brass," Oxford explains, "and he took me to see "The Music Man", which had great music in it, including "76 Trombones". That looked like a lot of fun, so I gave it a go. The school really needed someone to step up and take on the trombone, as most kids wanted to play trumpet, sax, and drums."
After high school, Oxford was encouraged by his father to try out for the Army band. "The audition consisted of traveling to the Great Lakes naval Base in Chicago and going into a room full of military musicians who sat there and judged your ability to sight read sheet music," he recalls. "The sheet music covered many different styles, tempos, and dynamics. Luckily for me, I had four solid years in my high school band, where we did lots of sight reading of all kinds of music, so I was well prepared. After the audition, they said that they had an open spot for a trombone player in Europe. Once I was guaranteed a spot in Europe, I was ready to sign the papers."
After a chilly winter's boot camp in Missouri, Oxford was sent to the Armed Forces School of Music in Norfolk, Virginia. The course, which lasted nearly a year, combined musicians from all four branches of the Service for a curriculum that encompassed everything from symphonic music to swing and involved plenty of music theory and sight reading. "One amazing thing to me at the time, coming right out of high school, was that I was getting paid to attend this School of Music instead of paying to go to a dreaded college!" Oxford marvels.
Assigned to Berlin, Oxford gained invaluable experience in many countries and settings, playing to military and civilian audiences alike. "We had an Army group called The Ambassadors of Jazz that played American big-band swing all over Europe," he explains, "and the Europeans just went crazy for it! I found out that many of the old-school Big Band musicians were living in Berlin. I met Al Porcino, the legendary trumpet player from the Woody Herman, Stan Kenton, and Buddy Rich bands, and he asked me to join his big band. This was the ultimate school of music for me."
In 1981 Oxford returned home to the States, transferring to fill a trombone spot in the band stationed at Fort Ord, California, near Monterey. Once there, he lost no time in connecting with the local music scene. He worked with many groups, including the swing-oriented Monterey Peninsula Big Band, but his most influential experience came from a three-year stint with the Broadway Blues Band, a Santa Cruz ensemble whose instrumentation included a Hammond B3 organ and a three-piece horn section. "This is the band that really got me started on the blues," he explains. "All the old blues classics were played with this band, and we played at the 25th annual Monterey Jazz Festival. It was a blast!"
After finishing his military service in 1984, Oxford rteturned to the Seattle area and became a regular at the blues jam at Ballard's Owl Cafe wher he met Seattle keyboard and harmonica legend Dick Powell. Powell told him that guitarist Mark Whitman and his band Duo Glide might be looking for a trombonist. "I sat in with them, and they asked me to join the band," he recalls. "That led to shows and recordings with Jr. Cadillac, Little Bill and The Bluenotes, Fat Cat, Junkyard Jane, Nicole Fournier, and now finally The Randy Oxford Band."
Although he had recorded with Al Porcino, The Ambassadors of Jazz, and even his high school bands, Oxford made his first Northwest album as a result of joining the immensely popular roots-rock band Jr. Cadillac, participating in a 20th anniversary cassette album recorded live in 1988 at the Seattle Sheraton. Early the following year, probably with Cadillac, Oxford played a 50th birthday celebration honoring Northwest rock-and-roll legend Little Bill Engelhart, and Engelhart was so impressed with Oxford's playing that he invited him to join his band. Eighteen years later, Oxford still views the eight years spent with Little Bill and The Bluenotes as his most important learning experience. "Little Bill is my main mentor in the blues," he says. "He really taught me how to play the blues and live the blues. He taught me how to survive the tough times in the music biz and how to keep a band working year after year. He is why I am still going strong in this tough music business today."
In 1998, Oxford started jamming with a new, eclectically styled Tacoma band called Junkyard Jane whose "swampabilly blues" repertoire relied heavily on original material. During Oxford's three-year tenure the band made three CD's, achieved great local popularity, and placed as one of the top eight entries in a Memphis-based national Battle of the Bands competition.
After leaving Junkyard Jane in 2001, Oxford decided to take what he had learned about the music business and turn it into an enterprise that would help to build and strengthen the local blues community. Beginning at the now-defunct Jake's Alehouse in Federal Way, he started hosting weekly jam sessions at appropriate venues in the Puget Sound area. "I wanted to help musicians hook up and find bands and gigs," he explains, "so I started hosting blues jam sessions and started my own booking agency, Oxford Entertainment. Now I can help bands form and find new players from the blues jams that I host. Then I can help them find gigs through my booking agency."
One of the happiest results of Oxford's jam sessions was the discovery of the personnel that comprised the first Randy Oxford Band. Bassist Jack Kinney, originally from southern California, had toured with such legendary rockers as the Ventures, the Coasters, and the Isley Brothers before settling in the Northwest and joining Oxford. Singer/guitarist Jerry Lee Davidson had left his native Seattle as a musically restless teenager in the early 1970's to try his luck in Chicago's thriving folk and blues circles, eventually working with a pantheon of artists ranging from Willie Dixon to Willie Nelson to Chuck Berry. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Virginia Klemens had also made her mark on the Chicago music scene at a young age, fronting her own bands as well as working with artists like Doc Watson, Maria Muldaur, and bluesman Homesick James.
With the discovery of drummer/vocalist Riky Hudson, a Little Rock, Arkansas native with a diverse musical background, the band was complete. Its debut CD ALL THE BUZZ, released in late 2004, was a masterful integration of tradition and creativity, spanning an uncommonly wide range of eras and sources. It earned Oxford a 2005 award for Best Blues Recording from the Washington Blues Society.
The following year, however, Randy Oxford surprised the local blues community with a decision to break up his highly successful band and start over, explaining to the Tacoma NEWS TRIBUNE last November that he felt the band had "hit a plateau" and needed a more diverse repertoire and more showmanship to attract a larger audience. Drawing on the vast resource pool of musicians discovered at his popular weekly jam sessions, he put together a new Randy Oxford Band, keeping only guitarist Steve Blood and drummer Riky Hudson. The title of his recently released CD, MEMPHIS TO MOTOWN, reflects the change. "To be a modern day 21st century Blues band," he explains in his liner notes, "you have to branch out and embrace a style called "Americana", which includes R&B, Funk, Motown, Jazz, and all kinds of sounds wrapped around a Blues core."
Although this disc certainly displays a new sound, it's a far cry from the banal, commercialistic sellout that this hard-core traditionalist critic might have feared. Steve Blood and guest guitarist Dean Reichert contribute wonderfully complementary solos to such straight-ahead blues as Keb Mo's "Dirty low Down and Bad", Denise LaSalle's "Someone Else Is Steppin' In", and Delbert McClinton's "Go On". "Honey", a slow, minor-key blues co-written and sung by new bassist Dominique Stone, gets an expressive guitar solo from Steve Blood that calls B.B. King to mind. Heather Rayburn, a native Texan who serves as primary lead vocalist, delivers most of her songs in a muscular, up-front contralto, but on Mildred Anderson's Forties-era blues "Cool Kind of Poppa", she employs what Oxford calls a "Betty Boop" style that evokes Maria Muldaur'supper range.
Since the Randy Oxford Band had already included the James Brown hit "Think" on its first release, the Memphis-to-Motown soul-music connection that defines its latest album constitutes more of an emphasis shift than a new direction. Consequently, the material here that doesn't strictly qualify as blues encompasses Elvin Bishop's gospelesque "I'll Be Glad", the fun-loving funk of Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Bow Wow", and a couple of Motor City hits from the early Seventies led by Dominique Stone. The best of these latter tracks is Marvin Gaye's protest anthem "What's Going On", backed by tight, refreshing vocal harmony from the band. The closest thing to contemporary pop on this album is Joan Osborne's haunting "Safety In Numbers", which Heather Rayburn delivers in a sensitive, country-influenced style that further showcases her versatility.
Throughout the program, Randy Oxford utilizes the trombone's full range of tonal possibilities, riffing convincingly with the guitarists and taking solos that reflect the heat and spice of New Orleans or the cool of the Tommy Dorsey era as the situation demands. "I think that you will enjoy the "Americana" style of Blues that my band is exploring these days," he says in his new CD's liner notes. Like his previous release, MEMPHIS TO MOTOWN can be purchased at live shows and on his website, randyoxford.com