Earlier this summer Deep Banana Blackout fans were disheartened to learn that Jen Durkin would be leaving the group to focus on other projects. Speculation initially abounded regarding the future of the band and then as to the identity of a new vocalist. During this time period a number of individuals rehearsed with Deep Banana and a few even took the stage with the group. However, the band members never felt that any of these pairings yielded the requisite ineffable chemistry that is essential to a musical collective that thrives on spontaneity and tours relentlessly. However, Hope literally arrived on July 31 when Charlottesville native Hope Clayburn made her way up to Connecticut toting her saxophone. By the end of that initial audition the band was sufficiently sanguine to announce that Clayburn had been tapped to join the group and contribute vocals, saxophone and flute to the ensemble.
Clayburn is already well known to denizens of the Jam Band scene having spent the past few years as an active contributor to the eclectic world jazz funk of Virginia-based Baaba Seth. She came to that group following a tutelage at the University of Virginia under noted trumpet player John D’earth. Clayburn is passionate about creating music, and earlier this year she released a solo disc, Happy Everywhere, on which she plays all of the instruments, from guitar to keys to percussion to saxophone and flute. Recently, when Baaba Seth decided to disband, Clayburn found herself without a steady gig. However, her free agency proved short, as following her final Baaba Seth performance she will move north and prepare for her first official gig as a Banana, a high-profile date on September 2 at Jazz Aspen. From there the group travels to familiar climes for Clayburn, heading south.
DB- Let’s start off by talking about your background. How long have you been singing and performing on sax and on all the other instruments you play on your album?
HC- Well, I started on saxophone, so it’s been about thirteen years now. All my friends were doing it. I was a tomboy and all my buddies were picking up the sax, so it was kind of a competition to see who could do it the best. Eventually I started singing and playing in church choir. Then to stay awake during services I’d play my horn. Sometimes it would get so boring that I’d just toot in the background kind of quietly. (laughs). That helped me get into the gospel scene and exposed me to some good singers and musicians. From there I did the whole high school marching band thing. That’s when I started playing a lot of other instruments because I was the drum major and I had to arrange songs, so it was a lot easier to try to play on different instruments.
When I came to UVA in 93, I joined the jazz ensemble. That’s where I met John d’Earth who is a trumpet player and jazz guru. He’s responsible for a number of people’s musical careers- you know he helped put together the Dave Matthews Band and a number of other groups. There I met up with Mike Chang and Brandon Rose. They were playing guitar and trumpet for Baaba Seth and they asked me if I wanted to jam. That became my first official rock and roll band, which was pretty cool. Meanwhile, I also played a lot of jazz and I was introduced to new music I hadn’t been exposed to- African music and reggae. I would also just sit with a lot of bands in town. From there I developed friendships with a number of musicians and realized that most musicians are definitely very cool, open people and decided that this would be great career. So here I am.
DB- So far so good. What about the guitar? You play a bit of that on your album.
HC- I really didn’t start playing guitar until maybe two years ago at the most. I just took a couple of lessons from my friend George Turner. He’s a jazz guitarist who plays here in Charlottesville. He taught me a few cool chords and I just started fiddling around writing some simple chord progressions. It’s always fun for me to play on an instrument that I know I’m not trying to be the best on, I’m just trying to have a good time.
DB- Your background and all the music I’ve heard from you both in terms of Baaba Seth and your solo album is rather eclectic. Who would you identify as your pantheon of musical heroes and inspirations?
HC- On sax, the biggest would be John Coltrane. Even though I don’t play tenor, it’s not about the tenor sax or any kind of sax, it’s just his style, approach and his tenacity for working on his craft. He would really get things polished down for himself and not to impress others. My biggest influence on alto sax is Eric Dolphy, who played with Mingus, and I love Mingus. I really love the jazz cats in terms of their style and approach to playing. Oh and Rahsaan Roland Kirk because no one else can play three horns at once (laughs). Although I finally learned how to do the two saxophone thing.
DB- Did you find that were able to express your jazz affinities in Baaba Seth?
HC-Yes, I did. That was what was so great about that band. Each individual member had such autonomy in terms of what they would contribute to the music. That was the beauty of it. We all worked together in our own way to make our own unique sounds. I wrote all of the horn lines and did a lot of the arrangements. Dirk [Lind] our lead singer, wrote most of the songs but he always gave us a free, open opportunity to bring in cool suggestions.
DB- Baaba Seth came to an end because Dirk’s leaving the area, is that correct?
HC- He has three kids and his wife has been very patient over the years. Finally, she had a job opportunity in Arizona so they’re going to move. It was all just a coincidence with Baaba Seth breaking up and Deep Banana needing somebody. Kind of on a whim, I contacted them. I was looking for a gig and I had always dug Deep Banana both musically and the organization they have in terms of getting the message out there. So I decided to give it a shot. I didn’t think I was going to get it though. So right now I kind of feel like I won the lottery (laughs).
DB- You first met Deep Banana when you shared a bill?
HC- Right. The first time we played with those guys we opened up for them at the Wetlands. I think it was us, then Foxtrot Zulu and then Deep Banana. I remember ViperHouse was playing downstairs. It was like my second time in New York City so I was just this country bumpkin saying, “Wow this is great.”
DB- That’s a great night of music.
HC- It was. I thought this was a great exciting scene. I thought it was very cool. I remember Deep Banana playing “Hear My Song,” which has the three part harmonies and I was really impressed with the tightness. I also can remember hanging with them backstage and they were all pretty cool guys and we talked about music in general and all that stuff. I think we played another Wetlands show with them. Then they opened up for us at Charlottesville and I remember we invited Fuzz and Rob and Rob to come on stage to jam with Baaba Seth for a tune. Everyone was just blown away, especially when Fuzz got up there and starting laying down these hardcore African licks on guitar. In Deep Banana you don’t really get to hear that side of him, but he is such a versatile musician, it’s great.
DB- Describe the Deep Banana audition experience. People would love to hear what happened.
HC- They picked four songs off their discs and some cover tunes. It actually was a pretty big list so I was kind nervous. Listening to Jen’s vocals, these great vocals, was definitely intimidating. But I told myself to relax, these guys are musicians, I’m a musician, so I just told myself if it happens it happens. So I went through each CD a number of times just trying to get down each member’s sound, how they all blend in with each other. I wanted to find a way that I could fit into it, and not be out front or in the back but just be part of the unit. So I did that for three days straight. I drove my boy friend crazy playing songs ten times in a row (laughs).
Then I sat down, and started with the horn lines. That interested me, how they put those together and also they wanted to hear what I could do. The rest of the time I worked on the vocals. I actually went hoarse for a couple of days trying to do Jen’s stuff. Then I realized it’s not about being just like her. They had stressed that to me but it took a little while to sink in, to bring my own style to it which made me feel a little more comfortable. She’s definitely got the chops and rightfully so they call her “Pipes” (laughs).
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