By Jamie Franklin
Hi Jetro. You’ve been touring with Whitney now for a while. How is the tour going?
The tour is going great. It’s a chance to revisit all of my favourite cities, London being one of them. I love Australia and because I’m techy, Japan is amazing! England is becoming kind of a home as I’m doing my PHD here with Liverpool University. It’s also great to play some new arrangements that differ from the last tour I did with Whitney.
What factors are involved in making sure you and the band have a great show?
For this particular gig, I have to make sure that the sounds and the patches are correct. My tech Joe and myself go through all the sounds and cables as it can be unpredictable. I also have to make sure I can hear all the sounds ok myself, as we are not all wearing in-ear monitors instead of having floor wedges.
Growing up in Brazil, how hard was it to get the chance to learn and play music?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as there are many layers to it. To get access to good music education in Brazil is very difficult. At the same time we need to define the word education. A poor kid living in the Favelas, has access to a lot of music, especially percussion and stringed instruments given at Sunday schools. In my case I grew up in a church, so I was exposed at an early age to classical music and choirs singing very European church. The radio stations in Brazil are also different to America. They play anything they want on various stations, so we listened to Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, Michael Jackson, then bands from the UK, so I didn’t know it until after but I had a great understanding of Western music. I started playing piano when I was 12, but the professor she couldn’t afford a piano, so she would teach me theory and how to learn chords just using my ear. In Brazil you have the very rich living right next door to the very poor. The very rich have great access to piano training because a lot of Brazilians in the past studied in Europe and some of them were concert pianists. They teach you the right way to play.
You have played with some true legends including Earth Wind and Fire, Chaka Khan, and Stevie Wonder. What did you learn from them, and who was your favourite?
What I learned from them all was very important, and I hope that any young music student takes this seriously. Before meeting them I learned the whole repertoire of the artist. It’s so important to know their music in your head and your heart. If you’re going to play with Earth Wind and Fire, listen to a lot of Earth Wind and Fire! Get used to playing the songs in different keys too; the musician who can play the songs without the aid of music sheets will be the best for the job. If I had to pick one person, it would be Gladys Knight. She was always prepared. She taught me the lesson of ‘the show must go on’. She had just lost her son before a gig we were about to play. The audience never knew and she played one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. She never cancelled a concert, even when she was losing her voice. She would sing the same way, same notes each night, and do it so well that it would make us cry. Sometimes it’s not always about being creative and change notes all the time. True professional.
You have been championing the RD-700GX for a while now. What features do you like most and how do you use it live?
In the live set I use the RD-700GX as a controller, which I love. We changed some of the patches so in-between songs I can change to the sounds I need really quickly with no problems. I am the ‘atmosphere’ guy on the tour. My job is to make sure that the bells, the air sounds, the strings and all the synth sounds are in place and if anything goes wrong, Whitney has a place to fall in my sounds. We also do a combo between the V-Synth GT and the Fantom-G8, but the RD-700GX does the program changes between all the keyboards, so I don’t have to use anything else!
What is you history of using Roland?
The first time I saw the D-50 in Brazil, I was hired to do a session doing all the overdubs. It was lovely sounding and that really drives your playing. I’ve been a Roland fan ever since.
As well as a top session musician, you are also a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston. What are the main sections of your courses?
I’m between two departments. My main one is the ensemble. One class is called This Is Live, where I make the students learn the music of the artists I work with. Sometimes they have to learn twenty songs a week using ear: no charts. Some say it’s not academically wise to do that sort of thing, but I usually get great responses after saying how much the class helped their playing. The other department is the contemporary one. I teach hip hop production there. We talk about production, sound design, and try and make them utilize this in a live setting. The final project is to make the students produce a whole concert. Getting drummers to use click, recognizing keys etc. I remember once a singer from Brazil teaching me signs as to what key she was going to sing in, it took me weeks to work out! So all my experiences I can bring in to the college and they can know these without the stress of learning it the hard way.
Your best onstage memory?
That one has to go to Whitney Houston. 1999, I had my wedding scheduled for November. I was playing one of the gospel pieces she does on stage, and I had my eyes closed but filling with tears. The reason I had tears in my eyes was when I was a teenager my mother took me to a concert in London protesting about Mandela being in prison. Whitney was doing a song there, and I said to my mum, “one day I’m gonna play for her”. So when I was finishing the tour, all that came back in my head. When I opened my eyes, Whitney was in front of my face crying too saying “I love you!”. I was the boy from Brazil who had a dream, and it came true.
Tips or advice for young players?
Continue to work on ear training. Work on your writing craft and don’t believe all you read. Be a team player and be aware of all those around you. Finally, have the best attitude. To get the call is one thing, to get the call back is something else.
What would be your dream band line up. Alive or dead…
I would love to do a project with the Laboriel family with the Da Silver family. My brother on percussion, Abe junior on drums, Abe senior on bass and have Mateo Laboriel produce our record, haha!
Any questions for Roland?!
How do Roland see the combination of visual and audio?