"Come What May" from the album Rising Sun
"I always felt that imitation was suicide, you know? Things can become cookie-cutter, so it's really important to have one's own voice and to set things apart," says veteran woodwind player Najee, a New York native now based in California. "I come out of jazz, but I've also worked with a whole lot of R&B acts, which brought me through the ranks. The experiences helped shape my personal style. The goal was always to have a different angle from what everyone else was doing."
This year's MOJA Festival presents An Evening of Jazz Under the Stars With Najee on Saturday evening at the elegant Cistern facility on the College of Charleston campus. Born Jerome Najee Rasheed, the 49-year-old musician and two-time Grammy nominee studied music in New York and became a professional sax and flute man in his late teens. His technical proficiency and smooth, expressive style led to collaborations and sideman gigs with a variety of acts, including Chaka Khan and Alisa Morgan, Freddie Jackson, Victor Bailey, Prince, and Stanley Clark.
His 1987 solo debut, Najee's Theme, slid right in with much of the so-called urban and smooth jazz action that was coming out of New York and L.A. during that time. Through his diligent work and collaborations in the 1980s, he gradually built a loyal fan base and became one of the best-selling instrumentalists of the last 20 years.
"Collaborations are always great experiences because you grow from them," says the saxophonist. "But I really enjoy doing solo work."
Najee's brand-new studio album, Rising Sun, released on the Heads Up International label, follows the critically-acclaimed 2005 album My Point of View. The new collection glides from style to style, from the slow-sailing ballad "Can't Wait Another Minute" and the samba-based "Brazilian Affair" to the upbeat funk jams "Come What May" and "Out of a Dream."
"It has been quite some time since I've played in Charleston," says Najee.
"I'm bringing a great group of players this time around. My guys have played with so many people, so it's very versatile.... I can assure you, this show in Charleston will be very exciting. The challenge in that is to always stay true to my own creative identity at the same time. I'm always looking for something that's going to make people say, 'Hey, this is a little different. This is something fresh.'"
Najee and his combo share the stage with Soulfood Jazz and Daniel Davis at 7:30 p.m. on Sat. Sept. 29 at the Cistern. 66 George St. (843) 722-2764. Admission is $20. Check www.mojafestival.com and www.najeeonline.com for more.