Eric Essix

Over a period of more than 34 years and now 28 full length album releases, Eric Essix has maintained a steady flow of new music that continues to push the boundaries of contemporary jazz. Following the success of his Songs From The Deep project, Eric recently released his 28th album entitled STRiDE on his Essential Recordings label, again distributed by Lightyear Entertainment/Virgin Music/UMG.

During his first decade as an artist, Eric recorded four well received albums on Nova Records, his own label (S6 Jazz Records) and Ben Tankard’s Spirit Jazz, and earned a degree from Berklee College of Music. In 1998, he reached an exciting plateau when he was signed by legendary Warner Brothers Vice President Ricky Shultz to his new Warner distributed label, Zebra Records. Schultz, who helped develop the careers of contemporary jazz greats Pat Metheny, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn, Larry Carlton, Fourplay, Joshua Redman and The Yellowjackets, took a liking to Essix’s latest self-produced album Small Talk and gave the guitarist his first taste of national promotion and radio exposure. Eric’s single “For Real” was on the airplay charts for 25 weeks, reaching the Top 5 on several. Southbound, the guitarist’s second album on the label, included a re-imagining of the Brook Benton classic “Rainy Night in Georgia,” which likewise became a radio hit in 2001.

Since launching his own indie label Essential Recordings in 2002, Eric has scored numerous  radio hits, starting with “Sweet Tea” from 2004’s Somewhere in Alabama and continuing with “Shuttlesworth Drive,” a musical tribute to the great civil rights pioneer, Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, which spent 7 consecutive weeks at #1 on and over 20 weeks in the Top 10; “New Focus,” which reached #27 on the Billboard Smooth Jazz Songs chart; and “Foot Soldiers,” which hit #1 on the Indie Chart and #9 on the Top Fifty chart among numerous other industry airplay lists. Five years after its release, “Foot Soldiers” remains in regular rotation on SiriusXM Watercolors.

Those celebrated hits are not simply standalone achievements, but powerful invitations to the deeper artistry Eric has offered through a discography that is populated with thematic concept albums. Collectively, these works reveal his life’s many passions and ultimate purpose as a musician and artist. Among Eric’s most renowned and acclaimed works is his “Southern Roots” trilogy, starting with Southbound (2001) and including Somewhere in Alabama (2004) and Birmingham (2009). When his beloved mother Imogene’s passed away in 2004, Eric drew on the power of his faith and music to create a moving tribute of spirituals and hymns called Abide With Me (2005). The guitarist’s album, This Train: The Gospel Sessions (2016), continues this theme dramatically, with contributions from vocalists Ruben Studdard, Candi Staton, The Birmingham Sunlights, Jason Eskridge and Kaleah Wooten and urban/gospel jazz great, saxophonist Kirk Whalum.

Eric’s 2013 collection Evolution combines the spirit of his Southern and gospel recordings, with songs dedicated to the four young women who lost their lives in the 1963 bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street. Baptist Church. “Evolution was created to share a message of healing, reconciliation and hope,” Eric says. “I feel such a deep connection to this recording and what it stands for…it is definitely the most personal musical statement I have ever made.” The guitarist reached another milestone with the subsequent release of The Isley Sessions (2014), celebrating one of his favorite bands of all time, The Isley Brothers. To date, the album has sold more physical copies and digital downloads than any previous release.

Two other highlights in Eric’s discography are his 2012 self-titled Eric Essix collection (which includes a re-imagining of Tom Petty’s classic “Free Fallin”) and Eric Essix’s MOVE>Trio, which features two members of his longtime band in a unique setting – drummer James “PJ” Spraggins and Grammy nominated producer and multi-instrumentalist Kelvin Wooten on keyboards. This unit toured the U.S. and Europe extensively. Eric’s full band also includes includes saxophonist Kelley O’Neal and bassist Sean Michael Ray, whose performing and recording history with Eric goes back 30 years. While the group’s core annual performance schedule is a combination of clubs, small halls and festival dates throughout the Southeast, they have also performed at such legendary clubs across the U.S. as Catalina Bar & Grill (Los Angeles), Yoshi’s in Oakland and Blues Alley in Washington, DC.

The guitarist’s catalog also includes Blue: The Modern Man Recordings, Retrospective, Vol. 1 (2003), its follow-up Retrospective, Vol 2 Ballads (2012), a project with an 18-piece big band (Eric Essix featuring the Night Flight Band: Superblue) and the a holiday album My Gift To You (2010).

In the late 2000s, Eric expanded his reach in the contemporary urban jazz realm, touring and performing with some of the top names in the genre, including Jeff Lorber, Gerald Albright, Ronnie Laws, Phil Perry, Boney James, Everette Harp, Peabo Bryson, Marcus Miller, Eric Darius, Alex Bugnon, Marcus Johnson, Peter White, Mindi Abair and others. His love for the genre and his deep connections therein inspired him to launch the Preserve Jazz Festival, the only festival in Birmingham exclusively devoted to jazz performers. As Founder and Executive Producer for ten years, Eric invited headliners like Brian Culbertson, Kirk Whalum, Boney James and Jeff Lorber to perform.

In 2010, Eric was offered a position at the University of Alabama Birmingham’s prestigious Alys Stephens Performing Arts Center, a premier 1,300 seat venue that hosts performances by top musical artists in a multitude of genres and from other creative disciplines. He began booking artists and is now the Director of Programming for the center. Over the years, he has booked everyone from Herbie Hancock, Branford and Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny to Diana Krall, Yo-Yo Ma, Emmylou Harris and a speaking engagement by Oscar winning actor Al Pacino. Booking talent has given Eric a whole new perspective on creative arts and the entertainment industry. In 2013, he was concurrently appointed Artist in Residence at UAB and continues to serve the University in this capacity, performing, teaching and conducting workshops for college students as well as children.

Both in childhood and throughout his career, Gospel music and jazz have each played influential roles in shaping Eric’s musical sensibilities. Growing up in Birmingham, he played for years in quartet gospel groups at the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist church, and admits that he didn’t begin to play outside the worship environment until he was 24 years old. While as his gospel driven recordings attest, he will always have an affinity for the sacred place where God and music join hands and hearts, he can trace his passion for the contemporary jazz that drove his career ambitions back to his late teens, when he saw Jaco Pastorius and Weather Report perform. “This was the kind of music I wanted to play,” Eric says. “My style has evolved since then but I just loved the freedom of that style of music and the way those guys expressed themselves.”

Though Eric admits his style is very different from that of Wes Montgomery, the legendary guitarist is another major influence. Ten years before the Jaco experience, Eric’s dad played Montgomery’s 1966 album California Dreaming for him. “I had never heard anyone play jazz interpretations of pop melodies until then,” Eric says. “I could hear that the guitar was actually “singing” the melody. That’s when I realized jazz was the natural style of music for an instrument to achieve the same emotions that a vocal could. I started playing guitar two years later and right from the start tried to make the guitar sing.”

“The most interesting part of this musical journey has been observing my own growth as an artist,” Eric says. “My mindset has shifted dramatically and is light years away from when I was a young guitarist first making records, focusing on being flashy and showing people how fast I could play. In those days, it was all about speed and lots of notes. As I have matured as a musician and as a person, I’d like to think I have found my niche as a composer and songwriter as well as becoming a better guitar player.”

-Jonathan Widran

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