BRIAN AUGER: OBLIVION AND BEYOND
by Paul Freeman [2009 Interview]
Fusing jazz, rock and R&B doesn’t seem an outrageous concept these days. But that’s only because brave, innovative musicians such as Brian Auger paved the way years ago.
The English-born keyboard wizard rose to prominence in the ‘60s. With his band Trinity and vocalist Julie Driscoll, his genre-bending music achieved surprising commercial success. Hits included “This Wheel’s On Fire” (later used as the “Absolutely Fabulous” sitcom’s theme song).
Auger continues to dazzle global audiences. His old music sounds as fresh and relevant as ever and his new music is equally exciting and inventive.
His Oblivion Express combo has been wowing audiences for years. This summer, he’ll hit Europe with the return of The Brian Auger Trinity, featuring his daughter Savannah Grace on vocals. His other daughter Ali is also a singer. And son Karma is an accomplished drummer.
“I would have probably steered them another way, not into the music business,” Auger chuckles. “But they seem to have found their own way in. It wasn’t something that I insisted that they do. I’m amazed that we’re all in it together and having such a great time. This is the happiest period of my musical career, actually.
“Some people will think, ‘Of course his kids are in the band -- they’re his kids! Actually, they’re in the band, because they’ll get up there every night and kick your ass!,” Auger laughs.
Savannah is a sensational, scorching vocalist. Karma D. Auger has shouldered many of the recording responsibilities. “He’s a great producer, as well as a monster drummer,” declares his proud father. “He just gets better and better. He comes up with ideas which I couldn’t even imagine.”
Auger’s musical imagination was stirred by jazz when he was eight years old. He worked his way into the ‘60s London jazz scene, playing piano at top venues. His discovery of Jimmy Smith’s recordings led to Auger’s fascination with the Hammond organ.
His musical interests knew no boundaries. “Jazz purists said, ‘Oh, the rock thing is rubbish.’ I’d seen people like the Who, Spencer Davis, the Cream start off. This whole British Invasion thing brought in all these tremendous ideas. It was all floating around and by osmosis, I picked up a lot of the rock, R&B and blues elements.
“It was easy for me to assimilate those feels into what we were doing. With the Trinity, I tried to make a bridge between the separate scenes of rock, R&B and jazz, to make that middle ground accessible to the rock side. A lot of people on the jazz scene, when they first heard what I was doing, didn’t want to talk to me anymore. ”
Auger gained a foothold at universities, then the BBC took notice. His band became a sensation in France. Soon they were headlining the Montreux and Berlin jazz festivals, bastions of tradition.
In England they called it jazz-rock; in America, jazz fusion. By the early ‘70s, it had become a movement. Auger and Trinity were sharing stages with Crusaders, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock. “It was a pretty amazing time.”
When Jimi Hendrix first came to London, he regularly sat in with Trinity prior to starting his own group. “They wanted him to front my band,” Auger recalls. “But I said, ‘What do you want me to do? Fire Julie Driscoll and fire my guitar player? I’m certainly not going to do that.’”
Hendrix opened for Auger at the Olympia in Paris. “It’s a raucous, rowdy crowd. If they loved you, you could do no wrong. If they didn’t like you, they were inclined to hurl tomatoes and vegetables.
“I had the pleasure of watching Jimi’s first performance from the wings and people went crazy. It was kind of ‘a star is born.’”
When Hendrix completed his landmark “Are You Experienced” album, he sought Auger’s input. “I was blown away. I had to put the album on twice, because I didn’t get it all the first time. I’d never heard anything like that... and neither had anybody else.”
Auger’s own sense of musical invention, both with Trinity and the subsequent incarnations of Oblivion Express, led to new generations of musicians dubbing him “the godfather of acid jazz.”
He moved to Southern California in 1975. “I’m steeped in American music and when I’d come to the States and play to audiences here, something in the environment made my playing take a quantum leap forward.
“Something in the States stirs my subconscious and releases things I’ve suppressed and need to let go off. I don’t think I’d have evolved the way I have, musically, unless I’d been here and measured myself against the best.”
Auger seeks new musical challenges. “Every night is an adventure. If there is enough open soloing time built time built into the tunes, new ideas spring up from some other sort of universal intelligence. Suddenly I play some phrases and go, ‘Wow! Where the hell did that come from?’ That’s where the music continually grows.”
Auger has always encouraged the musicians in his band to grow. “Everybody gets a chance to develop. I look at the Oblivion Express as a kind of school. I’ll give you your head. You can play what you want. If you interfere with the grooves or there’s something not working, I will tell you. Otherwise, I’m just going to leave you to find yourself.
“If at some point, someone makes you an offer you can’t refuse and you leave the Oblivion Express, then you should be a lot better musician than when you came in. It’s great to see that process with my own kids.”
Auger believes a band leader should lead by example, not by becoming supreme ruler. “Ego tends to separate you from the people in the band. There isn’t this sense of -- the King just walked in. I live in America. I don’t believe in kings.”
He and the band return to the recording studio in March. In the meantime, discover their latest CD, “Looking In The Eye of the World,” as well as a concert DVD, recorded live at North Hollywood’s Baked Potato at www. brianauger.com.
Spontaneity continues to energize his live shows. For Auger, the excitement of performing has never diminished. “It’s why I’m still out there. I just really get off, playing to people. That’s something I’ve never been able to cure myself of... thank goodness.”