Heritage Blues Orchestra sits on the cusp of the future
The Heritage Blues Orchestra played a blues festival in Mumbai, India, last week and the experience blew guitarist Junior Mack’s mind.
"Never in a million years would I have ever thought we would be playing the blues in India," Mack told The Park Record during a telephone call from New Jersey. "To see these people appreciate what you are doing, that, as a musician, takes it way beyond playing in a dark place where people aren’t paying attention and are drinking beer and doing shots. It was a special treat and one of the highlights of my travels with the Heritage Blues Orchestra."
Mack and his cohorts — guitarist/vocalist Bill Sims, Jr., vocalist Chaney Sims, tenor saxophonist Bruno Wilhelm, trumpeters Michel Feugére and Jean Gobinet, trombonist Didier Havet, drummer Kenny "Beedy Eyes" Smith and harmonica player Vincent Bucher — will get a chance to play another venue they’ve never visited when the Heritage Blues Orchestra performs at the Eccles Center on Saturday, Feb. 27.
"We hope people will come out for the Heritage Blues Orchestra experience," Mack said.
The Heritage Blues Orchestra came together when manager Larry Skoller, a Chicago native who was living in France, wanted to put together a vocal blues group.
"He had been in New York and saw a couple of groups he wanted to work with, and that didn’t work out," Mack said. "But Larry saw me and he knew Bill."
Skoller’s brother Matthew also saw Sims and his daughter Chaney perform and they came up with the idea to form a band around the Sims’ and Mack.
"At the same time, Larry knew Bruno Wilhelm, so, Bill, Chaney and myself went into the studio and put together a demo recording of songs that we liked to play and sent off the demo to Bruno," Mack said. "His task was to listen to the demo and create some horn arrangements."
After completing the demo, the group played a festival in Paris and the ball started rolling.
The Heritage Blues Orchestra’s debut album "And Still I Rise" was nominated for the 2013 Best Blues Album Grammy and the group has been touring behind that success since, Mack said.
The road has taken Mack a long way since he first decided he wanted to play the guitar when he was a kid.
"Ever since I was five, I realized that I loved music, especially the sound of the guitar," he said.
The love of the guitar brought Mack to the blues.
"It’s just that type of genre where the solos are it," he said with a laugh. "But it’s also because blues is the father of many types of music. Willie Dixon said ‘Blues is the roots and everything else is the fruits.’"
The biggest challenge of playing the blues these days is moving the tradition into the future.
"It is difficult because there are many blues bands out there and we all try to come off a little different than those other bands that play the same shuffle," Mack said with another laugh. "I think what helps us there is that we have the African-American sensibility on one side and the European sensibility on the other side.
"When you put those two together, each one of us comes at them from a different angle and the sound is different," he said. "There are a lot of songs that we’re looking at now to reform and reshape, but to do that, things have to make sense to us as well."
Throughout their careers, Mack and the Sims’ have had the opportunity to perform with other musicians including the Allman Brothers Band, Guy Davis, Phylicia Rashad and Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers.
Those collaborations have helped add new elements to the Heritage Blues Orchestra, according to Mack.
"As musicians and singers, we’re all a product of what we have heard to a great degree," he said. "I could be influenced by 10 different guitar players, but the goal is to roll all of them up into one and to have what comes out only sound like Junior Mack.
"So, every time you are put into different situations, like the first time I sat in with the Allman Brothers, you learn how to work your craft," Mack said. "In the process, you learn what works and what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. Then when you come back to the Heritage Blues Orchestra, you’ve got this new thing you can inject into the sound."
In addition to taking blues to India and other parts of the world, Mack and his bandmates bring music to students through Lincoln Center Education in New York City.
"We teach children about the blues," Mack said. "It’s one thing to listen to a record but it’s another to have someone in front of you playing. We hope to inspire these kids to look further into the genre or even pick up an instrument and start playing."
When the band isn’t touring or educating, it’s always looking for the next project, Mack said.
"[We are] working on a new album that will hopefully be out in the Fall," he said. "We are continually on the search for new songs."
The Park City Institute will present the Heritage Blues Orchestra at the Eccles
Center for the Performing Arts, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Saturday, Feb. 27, at 7:30 p.m. The band plays a mix of country and urban blues with a heavy dose of New Orleans jazz-infused horn arrangements. Tickets range from $25 to $75 and can be purchased by calling 435-655-3114 or by visiting http://www.ecclescenter.org .
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In the closing scenes of the about-to-be released documentary “Public Trust,” environmental journalist Hal Herring says this of the battle over public lands: “You only have a right to what you are willing to fight for.”