As we began conducting interviews for the Organ Issue, it quickly became obvious that Grant Windsor was the kind of musician we were looking to talk to. His resume boasts projects with José James, Richard Spaven, Randy Brecker, Femi Temowo and many others, but it is his feel that separates him from so many other musicians. A master of hitting all the right spots, Windsor brings the heat whether he’s layering in organ to fill a void, delving into a hip-hop feel, or dropping down some funk. Check out Windosr’s brand new organ trio joint “Pusher” with Femi Temowo and Troy Miller that we’re premiering and read on as he breaks down his story for us.
What made you pick up the organ in the first place?
Well, for me I think it comes from where I am from in Australia. There was quite a shortage of bass players. I love playing the bass on keys. So I started doing some things where I was playing Rhodes and bass. So that kind of got me into playing with two hands at first. Then I sat down in a studio in Perth on a DB3 [digital drawbar organ] and that sold it to me. I was like, “What is this?! I need to know more about it.” So I started to get into a variety of different players and also different styles of where it was used. Not just jazz, but also the Nashville kind of thing, the gospel, R&B, and hip-hop feels. I loved what you could do. I started checking out people like Jimmy Smith and all of the historical players, but then also the guys who were really pushing it for me like Larry Goldings and Sam Yahel and Neal Evans. These guys have all the history in them, but they’re also reaching forward with what I loved about playing the organ as in playing with both hands and what sounds could be achieved.
That’s what got me started on organ and then I got my organ setup going and started doing organ gigs around town. It kind of stuck I guess [laughs].
How did you get started in music in general?
Strangely enough my first instrument was flute. I was classically trained on that and then piano came to me a lot later. I had a piano at home and I was kind of messing around on it I suppose, and then as I grew older I fell more in love with playing the keys and writing as opposed to playing classical flute. I had a degree on that and various qualifications, but I decided to switch and really study the piano. From that is how I obviously moved up to the organ. But the way I got into music was picking up a flute around age 10.
Going back to the organ, it is played in so many different settings and within so many different contexts. What’s your favorite setting to play the organ in?
For me, I’m going to say when there is a little hip-hop nod to it I love it. Jazz and gospel can have that hip-hop nod to it, also funk, but that’s what I love because that’s when a lot of things can come through. You can kind of put on a gospel flex and in those voicings it sounds really rich, but then you can solo and act like it’s jazz as well. I mean the other setting, funny enough, that I love is when I get to be in the studio and layer organ so it’s really beautiful and wide and filling in all of the gaps. But yeah, for me, when it’s knocking [laughs].
Which artists allow you to get into that hip-hop space?
Obviously José James. Hopefully you hear that on the new record that’s coming out. It’s sounding amazing. There’s a guy from the UK named Femi Temowo too. He’s a great Nigerian guitarist and when we play with him it can also get into that. He has a lot of different settings, a Nigerian side, a jazz side, a gospel side, and a hip-hop side that all come together in different parts of the music. Within that group there’s also an organ trio with myself, Femi, and Troy Miller on drums. That band has been exploring those facets as well within some new music. We’re hoping to pull a record together sometime this year. There’s another great artist from Australia named Nina Ferro that I get into that type of stuff with. Just the other day too I was sitting in with Gregory Porter. I was playing the late set at Ronnie Scott’s and the band came down after. When the American band is in I don’t play, but they happened to be in town and I was playing Ronnie’s. Bernard Purdie and Reuben Wilson were doing a show there as well so there was an organ sitting around. So we got to hang and I played with Chip Crawford, him on piano, me on organ. So that was pretty fresh.
How did you get involved with José James?
I got involved with that José through his drummer Richard Spaven who I’ve got a long history of working with. We’ve worked on quite a few records together and some other projects. So they needed someone to fill the keys spot for a while so Rich put me in touch. We started working together which led to me working on his current record now.
Did you lay down a lot of organ on the record or is it mostly keys?
It’s a mixture. There’s some organ on it, there’s some Rhodes, some Moog, and a lot of different flavors. I think there’s a bit of clavinet as well. There were a bunch of things that we threw down, a lot of Rhodes though. There was one track they were working it through in the studio and Rich and I were kind of eavesdropping in on I guess you would say. It was just José and the guitarist working it out. Rich and I were like, “Oh man, that sounds good. Let us get in on that.” We were also recording with the great Pino Palladino which was amazing. We thought, “You know what, lets jump in on it.” So I started out playing a bit of Moog bass and that eventually stuck. We got into a really nice vibe. There are some really interesting things that are going to be on that record.
If you couldn’t have your organ at a gig, is there a digital organ that you prefer or are they all bad?
Well, it’s always a compromise. There are so many components in a B3 that make that sound. If you remove even one, say the Leslie, and it’s not going to sound like it. Or you remove the Hammond and keep the Leslie, it’s still not going to sound right. You need all of those components. With live gigs though, my back says no to Leslies [laughs]. We’ve had a discussion about it and we’re not cool with the Leslies. So there’s a new pedal called the Ventilator that kind of makes do. I actually gig on an old, like one of the first models called a BX3 that came out in the ‘70s. It sounds warm and doesn’t have the digital sampling sound. It’s not quite right, but through a Ventilator you can get a good sound. And I’ve used that on a few tracks for quite a few artists. For me it sounds better than the other models.
Tell me about the experience of getting your first organ and how that felt.
I had been working in studios for such a long time, so it was relatively late. I’d say I got mine about six years ago. It’s amazing though, you know. You get to have it to yourself all the time. It’s like having a Rhodes though. Each Rhodes is like meeting someone for the first time. They’re all so very different. And I do like that about organs as well. So I like my setup, but at the same time, I love going and playing on other organs because sometimes you get there and there is a tone wheel that’s not quite speaking, but you put it in a voicing and it does something that no other organ can do. Or the Leslie is a bit different or smaller or bigger. It’s cleaner or dirtier. They all respond in such a different way. You always have to sit down at a new organ for at least 20 or 30 minutes just to get to know it.
Do you have preferences for recording the organ as far as mic placement and selection or going direct?
For me it really depends on the room and what I’m recording too. If I’m recording something where I’m doing rhythm and left-hand bass and I want it to sound really dubby and really thick, I’ll use something like a D 112 on the bottom and not high fidelity, but some people like to put like a U47 or something like that on the bottom. I like the D 112 because you can get it real thick and then turn it up so it sounds really brutal, but it gets more towards like you’re playing Dilla or something. You get that really thick bass. I like that.
As a producer, every time I record the organ it’s different because it has to fit into the track in a different way. If I’m recording it for my sound I might make different choices. But I’ve had great experiences using very simply the SM57 on the top boards. Stuck in the right way, you don’t get much room, really just what’s happening depending on where you place it. Or using something like some nice ribbons on the top end, like some 4038s or something like that sounds cool. But then again I’ve used KM84s on the top end as well and that’s been great. Spacing them out a little more and letting the organ hear the room a little more is cool sometimes. Again I like it a little tighter though. It feels really good to me.
Do you have a favorite studio to work in?
Mine [laughs]. I really like the B3 and room at Sphere Studios. There are a lot of options there. They’ve got a really big space there and when it’s partitioned off it can sound really great. They can get a lot of different colors out of the organ. Their Leslie there, if you want it to sound really dirty, you can go very dirty and I quite like that. So yeah, I like Sphere. It’s in London.
Do you have any favorite organ recordings?
There’s the early George Benson that has B3s on that. That obviously gets you in the ballpark, but for me an album that really started making me think differently was the Joshua Redman album with Sam Yahel. When I was younger I actually went and spent a bit of time with him because of this album. It’s the first elastic album with Brian Blade. The way that Sam and Brian in particular hooked up when they played organ together as well as the way Sam added in synth bass and Rhodes, really allowed me to expand on my setup and thinking. The way that they would hook up on things like some beautiful ballad moments with a lot of different colors. It’s interesting, when I went and saw Sam some years later in New York, he was doing a gig down at Small’s with his trio and he flipped between piano and organ seamlessly. The colors and the settings he was reaching for with his drawbars was some of the most advanced stuff I had heard. I had never really heard an organ be played like that before and it made me want to reach further. I knew where I stood with my sound. I knew I could get a great jazz sound by doing this, or a gospel sound like this, but adding it all together into improvisation and seeing what colors you can get is amazing. It made me want to reach further and see what we could do with it.
What’s next for you? Do you have any projects in the works?
Well, I’ve been working with Richard Spaven on a trio release which I’m really looking forward to releasing hopefully in the next month or two. It’s myself, Richard, and Neville Malcolm who plays some upright bass. There’s a few variations, because there are some where I go in and play Moog bass. We’re putting that together with the Jazz Re:freshed crew as a part of their Jazz Re:freshed 5 Series. So I’m really excited about that.
I’m also working on a big band project with Clare Teal and the BBC Two, which I’m putting the music together for. It’s been a really interesting process. We basically brought a community together in Yorkshire and auditioned a whole bunch of people all the way from 8-years old right up to 75. It’s been a really deep experience because the people that you bring together for this all have their own stories of why they wanted to be a part of this project. It’s a great band, but the stories have been really moving. So we’re putting on a really interesting show with some great talent who I’m not allowed to say yet. It’s going to be a really special concert though.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)