Like his idol, Buster Keaton, Dino Soldo makes everything physical seem effortless. The Keatonesque hat he dons is a trademark part of the image he cuts every time he hits the stage, and he’s keenly aware of the value of keeping the audience amazed and involved. Yet when the band starts up, the Los Angeles based saxophonist and harmonica whiz is all about the music--and seeking a Balance, the name of his first all-instrumental solo CD, between his prime soul-jazz influences (Lester Young, Ben Webster, Eddie Harris), pop, contemporary jazz/funk and a lifelong love affair with the blues.
A consummate sideman who’s long been an electrifying presence blowing tenor sax and harmonica with top icons from the world of pop/R&B (Lionel Richie, Ray Charles) and contemporary funk/jazz (Peter White, Down To The Bone, Chris Standring), Soldo these past few years has also been seeking the perfect balance between ensembling with superstars and sharing his own solo artistry with the world.
Helping him achieve that on Balance is an incredible array of L.A.’s top musicians, including Mindi Abair, Chuckii Booker, Lenny Castro, Sheila E., Bryan Head (Soldo’s regular drummer), Reggie Hamilton, Rodney Lee and Standring. Balance, which also features the presence of two of Soldo’s personal heroes, Hammond B-3 master Art Neville and sax great Ernie Watts, is more than simply an incredible jam session led by a versatile musical talent whose time has come; both in title and spirit, the 12-track collection reflects Soldo’s personal, heartfelt philosophy of music and life.
“Considering my years of experience playing with top smooth jazz artists, the easiest thing for me to do on my first non vocal disc would have been to create an album in that vein,” he says. “But if I did that, I’d have to do it over and over again, so it made more sense for me to do something completely different, and create a rich soil to grow things out of in the future.
“The music on Balance is the dance between honoring our Jazz heritage and looking forward at the same time,” adds Soldo, whose previous releases included the acclaimed vocal-oriented albums Strange And Beautiful (2000) and Thread (2003). “I may be best known as a sax player, but I also do a lot more, and I wanted jazz listeners to get an equal dose of horns and my harmonica playing. It’s like a perfect teetering. Part of the reason I did pop albums to this point is because I love lyrics, but incorporating more of my jazz influences, and the opportunity to play more winds on Thread inspired me to try this new approach. My favorite artists like Tom Waits, Randy Newman and Eddie Harris had a sense of history, and that’s the kind of music I like…music that helps you feel the heritage behind it. Also, I think a lot of today’s sax players owe a debt to the style of Eddie Harris, and for me, it was also the things he said about the importance of being an entertainer that had the most impact. No matter which horn he played, his personality shone through.”
Balance’s opening track, “Eddie-ism,” is a soulful and brassy, percussive blues-funk party which celebrates the powerful influence of Harris, from whom Soldo happily admits, “I’ve stolen a lot of great stuff from him over the years! The way he sang through his horn was amazing.” The second track “Balancing” was actually the cut that got the whole project started. Abair’s writing partner and producer Matthew Hager originally approached Soldo with the idea of doing a smooth jazz album, and the song they wrote together—which features beautiful soaring sax-harmonica harmonies—was the nugget which gave Soldo the inspiration to launch the rest of the recording. On ‘Stand Alone’ and ‘Eternal Love,’ he magnificently intertwines his two primary instruments to create a rich and distinctive masculine/feminine musical conversation.
“The mix of sax and harmonica is what makes this a unique project for me,” he says. “The harmonica is magic, a no tension instrument that forces you to breathe both in and out. Sonically, the sax and harmonica create the same kind of great sound as the sax and muted trumpet. I always quote (harmonica great) Toots Thielemans, who once said, ‘it’s halfway between a smile and a tear.’”
The emotional and spiritual essence of Balance emerges through the interactions Soldo has with Neville and Watts. Soldo wanted a Neville styled, Funky Meters sound throughout, and went to Neville Neville Land Studios in New Orleans (which was been vacant since Hurricane Katrina) to set the primary tone for the album. Neville’s inimitable B-3 is prominently featured on “Eddie-ism,” the Tower of Power meets trip-hop funk flavored “Jitterbuggin’,” the hip-hop crunch meets old school blues/soul jam “Under the Brim” and the 60’s soul-jazz/gospel flavored “Hey Man” (which, along with “Eddie-ism,” features the irrepressible Sheila E. on Congas).
“Under The Brim” also features Watts, whose emotional work alongside Soldo brings to mind the sacred lineage of Coleman Hawkins vs. Lester Young, the fire of Watts’ alto playing against the ice of Soldo’s tenor. Another shot of “heritage” emerges on the torchy, ambient cool of the standard, “Without Your Love,” which includes the effortless sensuality of vocalist Holly Palmer; that song and the dreamy front porch blues tune “Wild Magnolia” are dedicated to Billie Holiday and Young’s musical love affair.
Growing up in La Verne, California with sons of local orange growers, Dino Soldo was encouraged by his parents to start guitar lessons at age five—which were followed shortly thereafter by years on clarinet. “My high school band director saw I was a spaz right away, and could do more things, and so he pushed me to piano, guitar and sax, whatever the orchestra needed,” he says. “My dad was a harmonica player, and I had already toured with Tower of Power as a saxman before I picked it up and started playing it for him when I was 23!"
Although Soldo’s resume boasts superstars like Lionel Richie, Beyonce, Elton John, Cyndi Lauper, Barry Manilow, LeAnn Rimes and Sam Moore—and includes a load of “unrepeatable stories” from several mid-90s bus tours with the great Ray Charles—he learned the most about performing for an audience from blues great Johnny “Guitar” Watson. “I started doing weird things ...jumping around onstage, and he just joined me,” Soldo laughs. “I learned a lot about connecting with people from the stage from him.”
Even as a sideman, Soldo has developed into one of contemporary music’s biggest onstage hams. “When I performed with Down To the Bone,” he laughs, “they let me perfect the art of stage diving and one handed pushups. What I really feel is missing in live entertainment and music these days is the old tradition of vaudeville that gave the audience a job as well…a place to feel they can have as much fun as we have. I always want to include them in the act.
“Thinking about future side gigs and solo recordings,” Soldo continues, “I hope I can always surprise myself. I like being a sideman and a leader as long as the musicians I am working with have the same goal, entertaining people. Musically, the thing that will define me is my big warm tone on the horn, which I adapted from other players but is definitely different in today’s world. Everyone has the image of a smoky sax in their mind, and I want to bring the smoky tenor back to the music.”