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Saxophonist, flutist

For the Record

Took a New Road

Developed Voice on Flute

Selected discography


Najee has been called one of the finest instrumentalists on the contemporary jazz scene. His smooth pop-jazz style, heavy on rhythm and blues, has gained him a tremendous audience of fans and a series of gold albums. Najee gives the people what they want to hear, and this has been his road to success. Although his aim-to-please attitude has brought criticism from some circles, he told Deni Kasrel of Jazz Times online that when critics come to my concerts, they see the other side. I mix it up. Najee tours extensively, playing at clubs and music festivals worldwide. After five successful albums, he decided to accept the challenge of something different. In 1995, he released Najee Plays Songs from the Key of Life: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder, an all-instrumental interpretation of a Stevie Wonder 1976 classic album.

Born in New York City, Najee grew up in the Jamaica section of Queens. He learned to play the clarinet in elementary school, and by the end of junior high, Najee got his chance to play sax with neighborhood groups. During high school, several instructors introduced him to the big band sound. Frank Foster, Frank Wess, and Jimmy Heath encouraged Najee to listen to the classics and to study jazz. Najee said that prior to participating in the citys Jazzmobile program, I was mainly into Kool and the Gang, and James Brown. His early mentors from high school also inspired him to learn the flute.

Following high school graduation, Najee performed with Ben E. King and The Main Ingredient. He also supported the Miss Black America world tour in 1976. Subsequently, Najee attended the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. At the Conservatory he studied jazz with George Russell and Jaki Byard, as well as playing in the big bands they led.

After finishing at the New England Conservatory of Music, Najee returned to the New York jazz scene in 1982, and his rhythm and blue roots. He performed with The Fatback Band and Chaka Khan. It was during a performance in a New York club with one of Khans backup singers that Najees talent attracted Charles Huggins of Hush Productions. An impressed Huggins introduced Najee to executives at EMI Records, who promptly signed him to the EMI label.

His debut album, entitled Najees Theme, was released in 1987. Following this, he set out on a nationwide tour with singer Freddie Jackson. On the road, playing clubs and concerts, he began to develop what would become a very loyal following to his smooth pop-jazz heavily laced with rhythm and blues. The following year, Day by Day was released, and in 1990, Tokyo Blue. Both albums went gold.

For the Record

Born in New York City; children: one son, Jamal. Education: Attended New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, MA.

Returned to New York in 1982, and performed with the Fatback Band and Chaka Khan; signed with EMI Records, 1987; released debut album, Najees Theme, 1987; recorded with Pete Escovedo on Flying South, Concord Picante, 1996, and Doc Powell on Laid Back, Discovery, 1996; toured with Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, and Billy Cobham, 1993-94; performed at Essence Music Festival, New Orleans, LA, 1996; performed at the JVC Jazz Festival in New York and Air Jamaica Jazz and Blues Festival, Montego Bay, Jamaica, both 1997.

Addresses: Agent Booking Agent Associated Booking Corp., 1995 Broadway, New York, NY 10023-5877.

Remaining loyal to producing the contemporary jazz-pop that earned him his early popularity, Najees fourth album, Just an Illusion, was released in 1992. On the track Deep Inside Your Love, he illustrates his talent for fitting flowing spurts from his saxophone around the vocalists. Patrick Cole of Down Beat magazine remarked that he he adds to the vocals without stealing the show.

Following the release of Just an Illusion, Najee toured extensively during 1993 and 1994 with various artists, including superstar Quincy Jones and jazz greats Stanley Clarke, Larry Carlton, and Billy Cobham. Many, including Clarke, were surprised by Najees ability to hold his own against these musicians because the majority of his work previously had been considered smooth jazz. Najee told Kasrel, It was a different setting than Im used to and it allowed me to open up.

Two years later, in 1994, Najee released Share My World. He continued to remain true to the familiar, comfortable grooves of smooth pop-jazz, with rhythm and blues undertones. Some of the cuts are fanciful and delicately move along the romantic landscape. He has plenty of opportunity to showcase his soprano saxophone throughout the album, and stays within the safety of previous margins. Only at the very end of the album does he allow a peek at his jazz chops. This ending is the most noticeable departure from his usual style.

Despite his lack of improvisation, Najee has considerable range and flexibility. Besides playing soprano and tenor sax, he also plays the flute and occasionally keyboards. His background in rhythm and blues remains a strong influence in his work. He has remarked that his influences include Grover Washington, Jr., and Ronnie and Hubert Laws.

Took a New Road

After Share My World, Najee was prepared for a challenge. Working with EMI Records president Davitt Sigerson, the two decided upon a change in direction for Najees next release. They decided to produce an all-instrumental version of Stevie Wonders 1976 classic, Songs in the Key of Life. George Duke was chosen to produce it.

In addition to being a vehicle showcasing Najees talents as an instrumentalist, a long list of other distinguished musicians were brought together. Some of these included Stanley Clark and Freddy Washington on bass; Ray Fuller, Phil Upchurch, and Paul Jackson, Jr. on guitar; Herbie Hancock and Ronnie Foster on keyboard; Paulino DaCosta and Sheila E. on percussion; and arrangements by Jorge del Barrio, and others. Producer George Duke felt that the musicians should use the same instruments that were used to produce the original recording in 1976. Najee told Kasrel in an interview, He [Duke] would suggest something and I would say I trust you, period. Duke had established his reputation during the 1970s, so he had a good grasp and understanding of the period instruments and equipment being used.

Because the original release of Songs was a double album set, some of the songs were combined and shortened. Najee wanted to be sure that all of the songs from the original version of Stevie Wonders album were included in his tribute, and that they were in the same order as the original album.

Developed Voice on Flute

Songs from the Key of Life also provided Najee with an opportunity to break from the standard soprano saxophone. Out of the 18 cuts on the album, Najee plays flute on half of them. Grateful to add a new instrument to his repertoire, he said he was glad to have the chance to emphasize his flute chops for a change. The technical challenge came for Najee in learning how to play the flute as if he were Stevie Wonders voice. Najee felt that it was a worthwhile effort, and the project also gave him an opportunity to work with some of the legends in the jazz world.

Another treat for Najee was including his young son, Jamal, in on the recording; Jamals voice can be heard on the special medley combining Isnt She Lovely and Joy Inside My Tears. Creating the tribute to Stevie Wonder also returned Najee to his youth. Najee recalled back in his teens playing in a band called Area Code; the group had played some of the same cuts, including Knocks Me Off My Feet.

From the first cut, Loves In Need of Love Today, to the grand finalethe combination of All Day Sucker and Easy Goin Evening, Najee showcases his talents on the flute, and soprano and alto sax. His nimble fingerings and the talented accompaniment by many of the masters of jazz playing mostly period pieces captures the feel of 1976. From the reggae sound of Pastime Paradise, to the heart wrenching If Its Magic, Najee Plays Songs from the Key of Life is not only a tribute to Stevie Wonder, but also to Najees talent as well as all of the skillful musicians featured. Najee told an interviewer from VIBE magazine, it was an incredible learning experience and Im happy with how it turned out [it was] my opportunity to take us back to this beautiful era.

Selected discography

Najees Theme, EMI, 1987.

Day by Day, EMI, 1988.

Tokyo Blue, EMI, 1990.

Just an Illusion, EMI, 1992.

Share My World, EMI, 1994.

Najee Plays Songs from the Key of Life: A Tribute to Stevie Wonder, EMI, 1995.

With others

(With Pete Escovedo), Flying South, Concord Picante, 1996.

(With Doc Powell), Laid Back, Discover, 1996.



Erlewine, Michael; Bogdanov, Vladmir; Woodstra, Chris; Yanow, Scott, editors, All Music Guide to Jazz, Miller Freeman, 1996.


DownBeat, October 1992, p. 41; January 1995, p. 51.

Vibe, October, 1995.


Debra Reilly