The first thing you notice is the disarming smile, even before you hear the man play his saxophone. Will Holton just plain beams. And when he does start to play, you get the sense that he is trying to translate that warm, engaging smile through his music.
That his intent is to spread joy.
That he's not up there to venerate his own ego.
Holton - who brings "Love Cadenza Part III," his celebratory, inclusive, multi-generational celebration of romantic soul-jazz, to the Metropolitan (1670 Main St.) on Feb. 18 – is part of a new generation of Buffalo musicians who are adeptly marrying the influence of gospel music learned in Buffalo Baptist churches to the more secular sounds of contemporary soul, R&B, funk, pop and jazz.
For the past 15 years, Holton has been working as a solo artist, bandleader, sideman, record maker, producer and songwriter. During that time, his name has become synonymous with a particularly breezy and uplifting strain of Buffalo soul-jazz. And Holton has taken quite seriously his role as a musician honor-bound to pay it forward.
[PHOTOS: Will Holton, Buffalo's emissary of soul]
That's where "Love Cadenza" enters the picture. Holton conceived the series in 2014 to encourage younger musicians and singers while simultaneously celebrating their forebears.
Holton took time out during rehearsals to talk about the show, the Buffalo sound and gospel tradition.
Question: This year’s "Love Cadenza" features some great young singers, in addition to the seasoned cats you’ve been playing with for a long time. What is your main goal with these shows?
Answer: To create unity and generate exposure for all involved. Baby Boomers, Generation X-ers, Millennials - all together on one stage. My concert audience is primarily between the ages of 35 and 65 and this is the audience that still purchases CDs and follows you, beyond just social media.
Some of these younger artists are just hip to social media and this is where the disconnect sometimes will happen. So I'm honored to be able to provide this platform.
It's like being reborn musically, you know. I’m a full supporter of artists who take the leap into the original music realm. It takes guts and sometimes for locals, the glory is minimal. The mental and financial investment is immense. It takes hundreds of hours trying to write the next hit, thousands of dollars invested into recording, marketing, school, equipment, booking your own shows, all in the hope to live your life's dream. True determination is needed, as the goal is to have a successful career and not just one successful album.
Q: You started out playing gospel in Buffalo. How did playing in church affect your approach to your own music?
A: Well, I think it made my songwriting different than the average saxophonist, simply because I write lyrics to the majority of my songs and then play them on my horn. So it's like singing Psalms.
Two musicians in particular supported me when I was playing in church – bassist RiShon Odel Northington, who played my first public concert at my 1998 graduation ceremony and introduced me to the recording studio. And first musical mentor, organist and singer Chris Putman, who taught me the importance of learning my keys, how to accompany other musicians and how to pick my spots to play.
If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn't be who I am.
Q: Tell me about your connection to contemporary jazz/soul artist Najee.
A: I met Najee in 2000 when I volunteered to promote a show for Tony Marfione, booking manager at the time for Bobby Millitello’s Tralfamadore Café. (Now under new management as the Tralf Music Hall.) I wasn’t aware of Najee’s accomplishments and he didn't act like a multi-platinum recording artist who had performed for heads of state like President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandella.
When Najee got out of the car at the club, he said "I heard about all the work you did for our show, thank you so much." After a very chill conversation, he invited me to join him on stage for the encore portion of the show. He and I stayed in touch and in 2006, I began to freelance graphic design for him, building his brand, designing his website. I did that for almost 10 years. Our relationship was based on consistency, earned trust, and the true family values that we share.
He eventually met my band of musical brothers. In 2009, while I was writing for one of Najee’s albums, he met my younger brother, the producer and keyboardist Rod Bonner, who was just 17 then. He loved his sound, and he asked, "Is he 18?" I said, "Not yet." Sure enough, once Rod turned 18, he started going out on the road with Najee.
The next year, I played the last Thursday at the Square, before it moved to Canalside, and Najee came up to Buffalo to support my show. That day, he said to me “DP’s got it, he reminds me of (legendary jazz/funk/pop drummer) Omar Hakim." In May of 2011, DP did his first date with Najee at the Capital Jazz Fest (in Maryland). He's been with him ever since.
Through the years, I have been honored to be a vehicle for musicians to live their dream. You can't stop the talent. God would never honor that.
Q: I understand that you were in an ROTC program in high school, and that you were planning on joining the service. Was it music that made you decide otherwise?
A: Yeah, I was hardcore JROTC, going to summer camp in Fort Dix, N.J. That was my plan - to attend R.I.T. for SROTC, majoring as a Chaplin. I would have been a 2nd Lieutenant in the Army upon graduating. But music came into my life as a beautiful whirlwind, a true God-send. God told me I was going to play. That was it. I don’t regret it.
Q: It seems to me that there is a Buffalo R&B and soul-jazz sound that is a bit different from what you hear in other cities. How would you describe that sound?
A: Yes, Absolutely. The Buffalo soul sound is one of a kind. This goes all the way back to the late '70s, with Grover Washington Jr., and then to Soulive, and now the Buffalo Neo-Soul movement with Michael DiSanto & Verse and Toney Rhodes' Buffalo Spell.
Anywhere we go in our travels as musicians, if you say Buffalo, they think "Snow, small city, the Buffalo Bills - we’ll see what you can do." And then they hear us demand immediate respect, and they give us that respect.
Buffalo is a funk and soul town – aggressively so. I love our sound.
What: Will Holton's "Love Cadenza III"
Who: Will Holton with Erinn Benning, Joey Diggs, Mia Riot, Brian Freeman, Lindsay Niccs, Nikki C. Hicks, Maya Satterwhite and Tifani.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 18
Where: The Metropolitan (1670 Main St.)
Tickets: $35 includes appetizers, open bar and after party. For tickets, call 704-5400 or visit Doris Records, 286 E. Ferry St.