Ask Raul Midon about his musical inspirations, and he will point to the Argentine folk styles introduced to him by his father. Review his touring itinerary and you will find him on the road with an all-star legion of jazz celebrities this winter as part of the Monterey Jazz Festival Tour. Consider the genres his songs readily lean to and you will discover abundant accents of R&B and pop. Finally, sift through the tunes making up his most recent album, 2014’s Don’t Hesitate, and you will find a Latin-leaning work co-penned by soul impresario Bill Withers and a cover of I Can See for Miles, a 1967 hit for The Who.
Which sound dominates enough to define Midon’s truest musical identity? Try all of them.
“I have a very wide palette so I never really thought of myself as part of a musical genre,” Midon says. “That’s very difficult from a business standpoint, but that’s just the way it is for me. That’s what I do. If a song is going in an R&B direction, I just let it go there. If it’s going in a jazz direction, I go there. Sometimes I purposely write something in a certain genre or that inclines toward a certain genre. But, I don’t know. I’ve never really stuck to just one genre, for whatever that’s worth. Maybe I should have from a career standpoint, but that’s not the way I’ve done things. I’ve always been into bridging things — bringing things together that are not normally brought together.”
The New Mexico-turned-New York guitarist, vocalist and composer has, over the past decade, established a sound with a folkish accessibility bolstered by strong phrasings of jazz. There was quick support from two of his idols, Stevie Wonder (who was a guest on Midon’s 2005 album State of Mind) and Herbie Hancock (whose Possibilities album featured Midon singing Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You). But click onto Midon’s website and you will be greeted by a video of him interpreting the John Coltrane standard Giant Steps, not as what he calls a “rite of passage” instrumental but as a springboard for vocal improvisation.
“It’s interesting that it’s getting so much attention because nobody improvises as a singer over those changes,” Midon says. “People just don’t do it. I know people — saxophone players, trumpet and even guitar players — that play it. But singing it is another matter.”
Okay then? How do you go from Coltrane to The Who? What made Midon, who filled Don’t Hesitate with a wealth of stylistically far-reaching original material (including the Withers co-write Mi Amigo Cubano) to cover a Who hit?
“I Can See For Miles is a very difficult song, but that’s always part of what I look for — something challenging. The song is amazing. Keith Moon’s drumming on it is just spectacular. The harmony in the song is spectacular. I also like the whole metaphor of ‘I can see for miles’ from my standpoint,” Midon says. “The thing just really spoke to me so I decided to tackle it.”
That resonance becomes more understandable when you consider Midon has been blind since infancy. But he has continually brushed aside any obstacles brought on by the condition. For Don’t Hesitate, that extended to the album’s recording process. He cut it in his home studio with a technology called cake-talking.
“What cake-talking has done has made the technology transparent enough to be able to convert what you hear into recorded music,” Midon says. “It was created by someone who really understands what a blind person needs, namely to be able to use the keyboard and not the mouse for doing everything. As a sighted person, you just scan and find what you want. But if you don’t see, the screen has to be configured like, ‘Okay, how do I get this information and not a billion others things that I don’t want.’ Achieving that is really the genius of it.”
Midon is already at work on a follow-up to Don’t Hesitate, even though it likely won’t see a release date until 2017. Among his goals is a renewed emphasis on jazz songwriting — not instrumental compositions, but actual songs that deviate from conventional pop strategies.
“Trying to write a song, a new song, using the modern jazz musical language is not something that’s being done a lot,” Midon says. “Is that something that is ultimately going to get played on the radio? I don’t know. But for me, that’s what’s exciting. I don’t need to sing another Sinatra tune. There are a lot of people doing that and doing it very well. It just doesn’t really hold a lot of interest to me.”
Read Walter Tunis' blog, The Musical Box, at LexGo.com
If You Go
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 28
Where: EKU Center for the Arts, 1 Hall Drive in Richmond
Call: (859) 622-7469