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Hong Kong gigs

Roy Ayers, the most sampled man in pop, back in Hong Kong

The high priest of neo-soul, now 74, returns for the first time since 2012

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 February, 2015, 6:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 16 March, 2015, 9:05am

You know Roy Ayers' music, even if you don't know you know it. A genre-hopping musical polymath with more than half a century in the business and more than 90 albums to his name, he is most famous for his numerous timeless jazz, funk and soul compositions, particularly from the mid-1970s, including his best-known, 1976's Everybody Loves the Sunshine.

But the 74-year-old, originally from Los Angeles, who plays at Ovolo Southside on Wong Chuk Hang Road on February 28, has also personally spawned several important genres of music and influenced every generation of musicians that has followed him; hip hop producers have been particularly keen to mine his work and Ayers claims to be the most sampled artist in history.

Ayers last visited Hong Kong when he played at Dragon-i in November 2012. In line with the mantra of endless positivity that has always guided both his music and his life, he describes the place as "really wonderful, such a great crowd", displaying the same generous enthusiasm he also extends to each of the people he talks about.

But if he has a single favourite place to visit, he says, it's probably London. "The Jazz Cafe and Ronnie Scott's are both just such great rooms. It's always dynamite there - the audience knows everything about you, and new people just keep on coming."

With his signature funky, soulful sound, heavy on the horns, bass and blasting diva vocals, Ayers has been responsible for countless classic compositions: in addition to Everybody Loves the Sunshine, they include Searching (1976), Running Away (1977) and Don't Stop the Feeling (1979).

But his real genius has been his ability to move between genres, combining elements from numerous sources to create his uniquely warm, soulful and atmospheric sound. The soundtrack to blaxploitation film Coffy in 1973 was a turning point in his career, and you could do worse than think of his music as the '70s film soundtrack of your dreams.

While he might have made it really big in the mid-70s under the highly appropriate name Roy Ayers' Ubiquity, his career as a musician started long before that. He began in the early '60s as a post-bop jazz sideman, getting his first big break in the mid-60s courtesy of flute player Herbie Mann. But as the decades have progressed, his biggest strength has been his willingness to move with the times.

Ayers' long journey of musical discovery has seen him, over the decades, move from jazz to funk to R&B to disco to afrobeat to hip hop and even house (he has, for example, worked extensively with house heroes Kenny "Dope" Gonzales and Little Louie Vega, aka Masters at Work, a collaboration that began in 1996 with the Nuyorican Soul project).

Creating music has always come easily to him, he says, and it shows in his prolific output. Over his five decades in the business, Ayers has released 91 albums, but he says that he finds it impossible to identify a single favourite. "They are so many. I find it hard to separate them," he says. He has also launched a couple of record labels, Gold Mink and the more successful Uno Melodic, in the '80s.

Ayers' musical shadow is so long that a number of genres formed after his career began owe their existence to him. He can claim to be the progenitor of jazz-funk, and more lately of acid jazz and neo-soul. He is sometimes referred to as the godfather of neo-soul and artists from Erykah Badu to The Roots have acknowledged his importance.

As well as being a prolific composer, Ayers is also a consummate performer. While he might be most famous as a singer, he sees himself primarily as a player of that most distinctive of instruments, the vibraphone. In the history of the xylophone-like instrument, he's perhaps second only to his personal idol, jazz great Lionel Hampton, a friend of his musician parents, who had an important influence on the young Ayers' musical development.

"I've had a lot of favourite musicians, but he was favourite of all favourites," says Ayers. "He gave me my first [vibraphone] mallets when I was five - my mother and father knew him, and they introduced me to him. He was a real showman, a bandleader, a drummer and also the greatest vibraphone player. So many people became famous because they played with him."

Among the other musical royalty Ayers has played alongside, his favourites are all likewise legendary figures. "Miles Davis was one of my favourites, and Herbie Hancock - to have him perform on my albums was a wonderful thing." He also worked with Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti, travelling to Nigeria to record 1980's Music of Many Colours. "I went to Africa to work with him, and he was such a great host. I asked him why he had 27 wives and he said [puts on a basso profundo Kuti voice]: 'It's the African way.' He had to keep asking them to stop arguing with each other when I was there."

The relative rarity of the vibraphone as an instrument has contributed to Ayers' popularity as an artist to sample: if you want that distinctive floating, resonant, retro-futuristic sound on a song, Ayers is the go-to guy.

And sample Ayers people certainly have, particularly as jazz samples became an increasingly common feature of hip hop from the late '80s onwards. The only person who can challenge Ayers for the "most sampled artist" crown is James Brown.

Unlike a lot of heavily sampled artists, Ayers very much approves - and not just because of the royalties. He's even worked with several artists who've sampled him, and has recorded albums for hip hop labels. But after the sampling started, it was several years before Ayers realised it was happening.

"It's great that all these young people are inspired by my music," he says. "The interesting thing is, early on, I had no idea about it. The record company told me I was being sampled, and then my son and daughter asked me: 'Do you know people are using your records?'"

His favourite use of his work in another song remains Mary J. Blige's 1994 hit My Life, which samples Everybody Loves the Sunshine.

Ayers' gigantic cultural footprint has also been celebrated in recent years by the Roy Ayers Project. The project was originally planned as a documentary about his influence, told by the many people who have sampled him, and after several delays, it is due to be released in the summer. But it has also evolved into a wider internet-based project to preserve his music and celebrate its influence.

With the imprint of Ayers' music so widely felt to this day, though, his legacy mostly takes care of itself.

Roy Ayers, February 28, 8pm, Ovolo Southside, 64 Wong Chuk Hang Road, Aberdeen, HK$580. Inquiries: ticketflap.com