What’s On Your Playlist: Samir Zarif

November 7, 2017

Originally from Houston, Texas, tenor and soprano saxophonist Samir Zarif first began catching the attention of many when he moved to New Orleans, where he performed often with the likes of Ellis Marsalis, Nicholas Payton, and the Jason Marsalis Quintet.

A move to NYC in the early aughts saw Zarif attending the Manhattan School of Music and performing with The Paislies and, later, The Story. With 2011 came his first album as a leader, Starting Point, a disc that showcased his talents as a songwriter and passion for alternative and electronic music genres.

With the release of his newest album, Stereotype Threat, Zarif unveiled his new artistic identity, FKAjazz (FKA = formerly known as), moving jazz forward even further into new and exciting territories, incorporating elements of hip hop, traditional jazz, R&B, and other musical forms.

“The phrase ‘Stereotype Threat’ literally means the fear of being reduced to a negative stereotype,” Zarif explains. “It was the perfect title because of my influences. As I was developing this sound, my worst fear was being labeled as, ‘The next saxophonist [who] plays like every other saxophonist.’”

1. Ornette Coleman – The Shape of Jazz to Come

Even from the title, I fell in love with this record, from its forward thinking [attitude] to the brevity of emotion used to convey multiple feelings of the times. There’s something really spiritual about this record that I’m not sure I understood when I first listened to it, but definitely felt right away. “Lonely Woman” and “Peace” bring a feeling of struggle and angst that just draw you in so deeply. But there’s a sense of serenity to the album as a whole that gives it a depth and balance that makes it even more genius. Beautiful history in this album and one of the discs that set me on the path to broadening my musical perspective!

2. Donny HathawayExtension of a Man

This is one of the most beautiful albums on the planet! Donny Hathaway is, in my opinion, the best R&B singer of all time – a true G.O.A.T. “Someday We’ll All Be Free” just hits your heart and makes it rumble. And the cool thing was he was a great keyboardist, too, which is illustrated awesomely on “Valdez In The Country.” I have Jason Marsalis to thank for introducing me to this album. When I was living in New Orleans for a brief minute, we would hang out and/or play a lot and he introduced me to some awesome music. Thank you, thank you!

3. Herbie Hancock – Thrust

By far my favorite Herbie album! The compositions, the production, and the performances on this album are masterful. Even more so, I love that he named one of the tracks “Actual Proof.” At this point everyone knows Herbie Hancock is Buddhist and I also practice the same Buddhism as him. And at one point I got to hang and chant with the OG, Mike Clark. He told me the whole story of how the name came about, which I thought was such a beautiful moment in music. I still can’t play that tune, but at least I understand the spirit. One day!

4. A Tribe Called Quest – Midnight Marauders

I absolutely love hip-hop. In my opinion if you call yourself a “jazz musician” and don’t, it’s like saying you don’t like your grandkids! Midnight Marauders is a great example of how “jazz” is the foundation of hip hop music, with samples from cats like Woody ShawMilt Jackson, George Duke, and even The Meters. Tribe always had such a respect and knowledge about music that was so deeply defined in the culture that it elevated their music to mastery.

5. James Brown – The Payback

Earlier this year in February, the great Clyde Stubblefield (The Funky Drummer) ascended the earth. I had the fortune of performing in the official tribute concert, which featured an awesome bunch including Daru Jones (Jack White), Marcus Machado (Jamie Lidell), and the legendary Fred Thomas, one of James Brown’s original bassists. It was an incredible experience and, since then, I’ve been performing with Fred Thomas and he appears as a guest artist on my album, Stereotype Threat. It still blows my mind that I get to make music with Fred Thomas – a legend! “Hit ‘em, Fred!”

6. Mint Condition – From The Mint Factory

I am definitely a product of the ‘90s and a guy like Jeffery Allen, the saxophonist/keyboardist in Mint Condition, was definitely one of my heroes. I remember as a kid seeing them perform on BET back in the day and daydreaming, “One day that will be me!” Every time I get to do a show with sax ad keys, I think about that moment. And big ups to Stokley Williams, one of my favorite producers. “U Send Me Swingin’” is the ultimate jam!

7. Kurt Rosenwinkel – Heartcore

I’m sorry Kurt, I have to call you out on this man! I love this album! Please do another collaboration with Q-Tip. I know I’m not alone in this sentiment, but even if I were, I’d be sticking to my guns on this. This album is such an inspiration to me. And not just because of the songs themselves, but also how it was produced, with Kurt playing multiple instruments and singing. This is by far one of my favorite collaborative works and ,almost without knowing, I believe this inspired me to have the courage to finally put in the work towards being a music producer, myself.

8. Joe Hisashi – ‘Spirited Away’ Soundtrack

Anybody who knows me, knows I love Japanese animation. And my favorite creator of the sound of the animation world is Joe Hisaishi. The adventure, the innocence, and sometimes heart-rumbling spirit behind his music is so captivating. I could literally listen to this soundtrack and visualize the full movie in my head. This is a skill I hope to learn someday.

9. Donald Harrison/Terrance Blanchard – Black Pearl

When you’ve lived in New Orleans you learn about these hidden gems that would normally pass you by otherwise. Unbeknownst to me at the time, simultaneous to the raise of Wynton and Branford MarsalisDonald Harrison and Terrance Blanchard were creating music that was both innovative and imaginative and, in my opinion, deserved way more acclaim than was given. I’ve loved Blanchard’s composition style for a long time now, mainly because of the cinematic style and approach to his music, which he had since day one. This album proved that for me.

10. Wayne Shorter – Footprints Live!

There are certain albums that felt like an important event in my life. When “Footprints Live!” came out, I remember rushing to Tower Records (remember those!) ,getting a copy of this record, and literally sitting in my car for hours listening to it. I felt like Wayne – and the whole band for that matter – was celebrating the “idea of being yourself,” enjoying every moment of life. You can feel a deep breakthrough coming from the music, but not necessarily a musical breakthrough – a breakthrough in life itself. Wayne has always been at the pinnacle of imagination and creativity. My goal is to create the same exploratory experience in the music that I create, as well, but in a way truly my own. He’d want it that way, I’m sure.

Samir Zarif’s latest release, Stereotype Threat, dropped on September 14, 2017. www.fkajazz.com

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