Photo by Joshua Frances

Outside of a few small circles in New York and Boston, most people didn’t even know James Casey’s name this time last year. A year can certainly make a difference.

In the past 12 months, the 30-year-old saxophonist has moved from a sideman in the extended Lettuce/Soulive Royal Family to one of the collective’s breakout stars. He’s also scored a coveted spot in the current Trey Anastasio Band and sat in with some of the jam/groove scene’s biggest stars aboard Jam Cruise. Casey recently sat down with us for his first interview to discuss his roots in the Washington, DC gospel community, his association with Lettuce and how he almost missed a call from Phish’s guitarist.

I first heard your name pop up around Soulive’s Bowlive residency about two years ago and, in the past few months, it seems like you are everywhere I look. You are a member of Trey Anastasio Band, a regular part Lettuce’s horn section and you sat in with almost every funk musician on Jam Cruise. Can you start by giving us some background info on where you are from and how you started playing music?

I was originally born in Washington DC. My parents are both musicians—my mom is a pianist and a singer, and my dad is a singer in the church choir. My mom’s a pastor, so I grew up in church. I started playing drums in church probably when I was about three or four. Drums was my first instrument. And then, I started singing—my mom put together this little kids’ choir, and I guess from age four or five I was singing in that until we left DC for Arizona. In fifth grade I also started playing the saxophone in band, in DC.

Actually, it’s interesting. My brother played the saxophone when he was in fifth grade—I was in second grade at the time—and I couldn’t play it when he finally brought it home because I didn’t have a piece. I really, really wanted to play the saxophone in fifth grade, so I stopped doing drums or anything else, and I started playing saxophone. We didn’t have any money or anything, so my mom told me that if I started the saxophone that I couldn’t quite. She said, “You can’t quit because we’ve saved up all this money to rent you a horn.” So that’s how I started.

When did you first start playing music professionally outside of church?

By that time we’d moved to Arizona, and my first gig was New Year’s Eve 2000. I was sixteen and that was my first gig. And I made $200, and I played for like five hours and I thought it was the best thing ever. I was so happy. I’d never made that much money. I was a waiter at a place called Perkins for about two months and that’s it. So this was the most money I’d made ever at the time, so that was my first professional gig.

What type of music were you playing at this point?

It was a Top 40 band [Laughter.]. I knew none of the songs because it was mostly Top 40 from the ‘70s, and I was big into hip-hop at the time. We played the gig, and the guy who ran the place was about 15. He got super-duper drunk! It was pretty terrible, but it was my first gig. I was pretty happy about it. [Laughter.]

After that I went to college in Boston at Berklee College of Music. There was this club called Wally’s and when I got to school [Lettuce/Soulive saxophonist] Sam Kininger was playing at Wally’s every Tuesday. I started going there all the time to watch him. I got there in 2002—at the time I was obviously eighteen and underage so I had to get people to let me in. Sam literally had to let me in himself so I could watch him play. After I finally met him and stuff, he would bring me up and have me sit by the side of the stage. That’s where I met [Sam Kinninger Band/Beyonce and now Dumpstaphunk drummer] Nikki Glaspie and all these other musicians. I would literally sit there from 9pm to 2am every Tuesday and watch Sam play. That was for about a year or so.

Was that your first introduction to the extended Royal Family records team?

Through Sam, I got an appreciation for that type of [funk/soul/jam] music. I couldn’t play like that back then, but I learned a lot just watching them and watching them play—always trying to fit in, things like that.

I moved to New York in 2007. I wouldn’t say I lost touch with Sam, but I hadn’t seen him in a couple years—he moved away from Boston. Me and one of my best friends Louis Cato moved to New York around the same time, and we had a band called Six Figures. We played together at Wally’s and decided to try New York. Louis started playing with Eric Krasno and Chapter 2 and that’s how I was introduced to the rest of the Royal Family. I started sitting in with them a bit.

You’re a little bit younger than Sam, Eric and some of the founding Lettuce/Soulive members. Did you know their music before you went to Berklee?

No [Laughter.] Before I went to Berklee, I was brought up on straight-up gospel music. That’s all I listened to until probably age eight. Then I went from gospel to gospel and hip-hop, and then I was all about gospel and hip-hop until I got Berklee. At Berklee I was a jazz-head and when I got to New York I was back into hip-hop. All I knew was the Sam Kinninger Band.

Here’s what happened: I got a phone call in December 2009-2010 before New Year’s Eve. Soulive and Lettuce were doing a joint New Year’s gig and [Lettuce saxophonist] Ryan Zoidis couldn’t do the gig on New Year’s Eve, so they called me. I was in Arizona with my family and they were like, “Can you get back here to do this gig?”

They sent me all this music that I had to learn. They were like, “The first night you are going to play with Ryan and the second night is just all you.” That was a bit of a crash course, but that was the first time I played with them. Then I did a couple of gigs with Soulive—I did the whole first Bowlive. After that I didn’t really play with them for a while, until about a
year later when they were going out on a joint Soulive/Letture tour [after Sam had left the band]. I got a phone call—I was actually in the hospital and I was on my way home when I got the call. I had a severe case of bronchitis that turned into a small case of pneumonia. Wasn’t good, and I probably shouldn’t have been playing. [The Soulive/Lettuce crew said], “James, what are you doing for the next two weeks?” And I was like, “Nothing.”

They said, “Yeah, we need you to catch a flight in like five hours, can you do that?” And I was like, “Yeah. What’s going on?” They said, “We’ll just send you the music, just listen to it on the flight.” I had to go back and get all the medicine right before I went to the airport. It was a busy day and by the time I got to L.A. we played the Nokia Theater, about two hours later. That was the first extreme realization of what was going on, and it’s pretty much been going on ever since then. The doctors were like, “Definitely, you’re doing it wrong.” [by going on the road]

*It must have been a challenge to learn all this music in such a short time, especially since you weren’t familiar with this style of music at all before you met Sam. *

About three years ago, I was in a group with some friends of mine—we were called Decipher. We were a hip-hop group and we would do these things for Peter Rosenberg. We would end up getting the music for what we had to do maybe like three days before, and we’d have to play like thirty songs. The way the band was set-up we’d play exactly right, like extremely, exactly right. So I had to learn like thirty songs in two days. It’s just been something I’ve been blessed with to be able to do; that I can learn songs, and I can retain them and memorize them, whatever. That’s what makes playing with Trey’s band so, I won’t say easy, but it’s very nice to read some charts every now and then. It’s a beautiful thing.

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