Cheikh Ndoye broke on the scene not that long ago with his debut CD A Childs Tale. It featured a pretty amazing lineup including Russell Ferrente from the Yellowjackets and Dave Weckl and Eric Marienthall from the Chick Corea band just to name a few, and Cheikh most certainly held his own along with sporting some great compositional chops.
Fast forward, present day. I’m glad to report that he is just as busy, if not busier then he was after the release of A Childs Tale, and this is what I wanted to focus on in this interview. What does it take these days to stay on top of the scene, progress as a player, and keep your “art” your “vocation”?
I know Cheikh personally, and his dedication to his music and his art are second to none. But these days, that very necessary first step of musicianship is merely part of the equation, and Cheikh gives some great insights on how he’s kept the flame burning with his art, and his career. The development of his voice on his instrument is quickly becoming apparent, and if I’ve heard correctly, he’s on Mike Stern’s short list of bassist’s, others being Victor Wooten, John Patitucci, and Richard Bona…damn good company.
It’s great to see a dedicated “young lion” progress in our industry, and I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot more from this young and very talented musician.
Jake: First off, I know you’ve been doing a lot of touring. Give us some details on that if you would.
Cheikh: This year has been a blessing. Besides doing my own project, I have been very fortunate to work with some outstanding players. I have been having so much fun with amazing pianist Lao Tizer. His group Tizer features players like virtuoso violinist Karen Briggs, Chieli Minucci from Special EFX, great Cuban drummer “Raul Pineda”, Jeff Kollman on guitar, Steve Nieves on percussion and vocals. I have also been featured as a Musical Director a few times in Karen Briggs’s band. These 2 projects kept me quiet busy throughout the year.
Jake: Your work with the Arshak Sirunyan Trio, which I caught on YouTube…
…looks to be a harmonically rich and rhythmically challenging gig. Tell me about your experiences with that trio in particular.
Cheikh: Arshak Sirunyan is an amazing piano player and it was a wonderful opportunity to work with him.
I can’t quite recall how I got recommended for the gig, but I remember getting a phone call and him asking me if I was available to join the trio. He sent me the tunes and to be quite honest I freaked out at first (laugh). I couldn’t help noticing how intricate the music was. I have to admit, I felt a little relief when I got the charts.
I learned a lot while performing with Arshak’s trio. The experience taught me to be more of a supportive musician. Being part of a trio, you need to be a strong and consistent player otherwise everything will fall apart. There are times where you just lay down the pocket and other times you get to stretch. Arshak’s music made me even more humble. I had to work on some elements that I didn’t feel comfortable with to find my place in the music.
Jake: With all this touring, and as a more or less younger player on the scene, what do you feel both the touring and the audience have taught you as far as looking ahead with your career?
Cheikh: There are certain things you can only learn while you are on the road. It is important to be responsible and reliable. The expectation is higher than you might think. The band, the staff, and the audience depend on you to give a “great” performance. As meaningless as it may seem, you determine your place in the band at this stage of the game.
I learned really quickly that to be successful in the road you need to follow a few rules. You are accountable for the gear you request on the rider (Be sure to get the right one). You need to be on time and dress appropriately. You cannot afford to miss your flight for god’s sake, and know when it is lobby call, etc. After doing this for a while it becomes second nature.
I learned to be more observant and read my audience. This allows me to have a better interaction with the crowd and have a lot of fun getting them to react to the music, especially during my solos.
At the end of the day it is up to you to implement the image you want people to remember you as far as being a musician.
Jake: I know you came up listening to all the historical greats on bass, Jaco, Marcus, etc. What younger players have you heard that are spinning your musical wheels as of late, bassist’s, or beyond?
Cheikh: Nowadays there are many incredibly talented players. I have to say Hadrien Ferraud, Esperanza Spaulding, Tal Wilkenfeld just to name a few, are among the ones that I admire a lot.
There are other musicians out there that will totally knock your socks off. Guitarist Tosin Abasi from Nigeria is one of them. Not to go that far, there is Arshak Sirunyan, Eldar djangirov, and Lao Tizer, all incredible pianists to my knowledge.
Jake: Richard Bona has been a good friend as well as a mentor for you over the years. If you could break down to just a couple of insights he’s shared with you (and I’m sure there have been many) that have made a serious difference for you as a musician, what would they be?
Cheikh: Richard is a kind hearted person. He always supports and advises me as a young musician getting in the business. I remember calling him when my record was done and asking him for some advice. He gave me insights on how to expose my work. The best advice he gave me was not to wait on anybody to achieve your dream. One of his ideas was to get my band together and start playing, even small gigs. I also have to say that Jimmy Haslip has always been there for me. I am really grateful to have him as a mentor.
I choose to be a musician as my career. I quickly learned that it doesn’t matter how much you love playing music, you need to know how take care of business as well in order to survive.
A Child’s Tale was an opportunity to learn the business side of music, and I am still learning. You will play different roles at times. You will need to wear different hats…a musician, a business manager, an accountant, etc, etc.
Jake: Fundamentally, if I recall, you are self taught. Have the musical opportunities that have opened up for you as of late got you thinking about any kind of potentially new educational pursuits…said another way, what has your practice time evolved into?
Cheikh: I have been self taught mostly, but in recent years I decided to take lessons. I needed to have somebody to truly observe and openly tell me what I needed to work on.
Reading was one of them, as I was so terrible at it (laughs). I spent some painful hours practicing with books and transcriptions to get my reading going.
However, on my own practice time, harmonic development is where I incline to be some of the time. Other times I find myself on subdivision stuff, improvisation, etc.
Jake: Whenever the next opportunity arises, where do you see yourself going compositionally as a solo-artist…or…who have you been listening to “compositionally”, that has been moving you to start thinking about that?
Cheikh: I have been listening to a variety of amazing artists such as the great Ivo Papasov (clarinet player) who I think is underrated. I got introduced to his music by a friend of mine, “Pape Diop”. I was totally lost and in awe at the same time (laughs). I could not understand Ivo’s music at first, but I had a deep connection with his composition. His interpretation of subdivision is very unique. These are some things that are very inspiring to me. It pushes the boundaries when it comes to composition.
Jake: Your first CD, A Childs Tale, helped put you on the map with the aid of such stellar players as Russell Ferrente, Randy Brecker, Dave Weckl, and Eric Marienthall, along with some great composing and playing on your part. I also know there were a lot of lessons to be learned after releasing it as far as the “business” is concerned. Care to give me some of your thoughts on that?
Cheikh: I was very grateful to have the opportunity to work with these amazing players. I remember when Russell was saying in the studio, “Now we are done with the easy part, recording the music…good luck with the business”. At that time I really didn’t know what he was referring to as I was a freshman. I learned really quickly that the music business is not as glamorous as it seems. I made my mistakes and part of being successful is to learn from your failure and fight for your dream.
Jake: As far as your progress in the music “business” these days is concerned, what kind of marriage of your musicality and your business chops have you had to develop?
Cheikh: If you’re seriously considering making a living in the music industry then you will need to gear up and grow some business senses. It can get frustrating sometimes to be the “do it all guy” but definitely worth it in the end. I have not only experienced a lot of turn downs but also enjoyed great moments of success. Persistence and believing in yourself is the solution. Never give up your dreams.
Jake: If you’re able to narrow this down, what do you feel in your opinion needs the most attention as far as enhancing your “career” is concerned?
Cheikh: I am planning to dedicate more time to composing in the near future. I have some great ideas that I would like to see take shape. I have a few collaborations in mind. Last, but not least, to keep on playing and being on the road.
It is great to create material, but you need a greater marketing plan to reach your future fans. I have some exciting upcoming shows at Blues Alley in January 2012. I will be joined on stage by legendary drummer Steve Gadd. We will be accompanied by the “Lady in Red”, violinist Karen Briggs, world-class guitarist Chieli Minucci the leader of the Grammy-nominated contemporary jazz group Special EFX, and rising Star piano player Lao Tizer. Blues Alley is expecting to have six sold out week-end shows on Friday January 13, Saturday January 14, and Sunday January 15, 2012. I can’t wait.
Jake: For as many “inquiring” questions I’ve asked towards your survival as a 21st century player, let me end with a question from the other side. What have been some of your best musical moments?
Cheikh: The making of my debut album, “A Child’s Tale”, was probably one of the best musical moments that I could ever recall. I grew up listening to these players. I couldn’t believe in my wildest dreams that one day I would be in my own session with some of these very specific musicians that I have always admired. Sitting in the studio with Russell Ferrante, Eric Marienthal, Mike Miller, Kevin Jones, Karen Briggs just to name a few was very exciting, yet a moment filled with emotion. I can’t yet imagine what the next session this coming October 2011 that Kevin Jones has put together is going to be like. Just to give you an idea about the line-up, there will be Bob Mintzer, Mark Russo, Russ Ferrante, and Mike Miller in the studio. I am thrilled to be part of the session.