GroovExpress – Amsterdaam
Papakura, Pukekohe, Drury, Waiuku, Patumahoe. Karaka
GroovExpress is a contemporary instrumental ensemble conceived in 2010 and led by New Zealand-born guitarist/composer/arranger/producer Mykeljon Winckel. The 8-piece band exists as a vibrant continuum of the pop, rock and soul-inflected contemporary jazz bands that laid down the pioneering train tracks - from the stellar American West Coast based L.A. Express to London’s soulful organ-based Oblivion Express. Chuggin’ on down the line with a strong head of feel-good steam, GroovExpress hits the switcher to take the essence of this beloved sound into modern times with all the freshness of a Kittyhawk expedition from the `70s crossed up with the verve of kindred souls such as Japan’s Native Son from the `80s. GroovExpress boasts an international appeal with very good reason. Their leader, Mykeljon (“MJ” for short), has called New Zealand, Australia and America home at different junctures of his life and career, retaining connections and friendships everywhere he goes. Thus, the universal, people-pleasing vibration of the GroovExpress sound and brand, all of which is in sunny evidence on its third and latest 11-song collection, Amsterdaam (Big Noise/Sound of L.A. Records).
In the land down under where the human population is far outnumbered by the density of sheep per square foot, MJ and his cohorts were as influenced by annual jazz festivals as they were Casey Kasem’s weekly radio show “American Top 40.” A fusion of the two was an inevitable reality – where Steely Dan and Chicago meet the CTI crossover jazz productions of Creed Taylor. GroovExpress’ first two projects, the inaugural studio session Ukrainian Girl (2014) and the harmonica-laced Live at GVR [Glenbrook Vintage Railway] (2016) paved the way for the more personal and autobiographical Amsterdaam - the spelling meant to reflect the word as both a geographical touchstone as well as an emphatic exclamation!
Detailing the shuffle funk of the title track, “Amsterdaam,” Mykeljon states, “My parents were born in the colonies of the Dutch in Indonesia – then Java - ultimately defeated by the Japanese in WWII. My mom was thrown into a POW camp and my dad was a pilot for the Dutch forces. Both were excommunicated and ended up in New Zealand in 1951. I was born late. My dad used to say, ‘You’re the best mistake I ever made!’ After my father (Gus Winckel) passed a few years ago, I went to Netherlands where they had created a monument to him as a war hero. They asked me to attend the ceremony. When I touched the ground, it felt like coming home. It left such an impression on me…I finally understood who I was. I was sitting in a café next to the canals when this tune popped into my head – a gift from the ancestors. All I had to do was write it down.”
The lead single from Amsterdaam is the winding driving impeccably radio-friendly “Geraldine” followed by the irresistible McCartney-esque ballad “In My Heart.” MJ shares, “I was going to make this song a vocal but it just felt too good as an instrumental. The melody really speaks to the heart.” Then there is the evocative “Oriental Journey” which MJ describes as possessing a nice balance of light and shade (ditto for “Stepping Stones”) followed by “Just Before the Light” which musically speaks to the vibe of dawn, a new day coming…and destiny. “All Night Long” is a taste of late night lovin’ persuasion and the sole vocal selection of Amsterdaam. “Thin Blue Line” is the jazziest cut of the project, reflecting MJ’s appreciation of Steely Dan’s use of chordal substitutions. “Blues on the Outside” is a clever mashup of Robben Ford meets Eric Clapton. “Watch it Work” is a dance tune that detours into samba. And then there is “By My Side.” “I started with the bass line on that one, doubling it with sax in the baritone range,” MJ schools. “At the top of the lead sheet, I denoted ‘Reggae, Broadway, Shuffle, Ska.’ My band brothers looked up from their charts like, ‘Man, what have you been smokin’?!”
GroovExpress is Mykeljon Winckel, guitars and vocals; Ernest Semu, Rhodes, Wurlitzer and piano; Anthony Hunt, organ and clavinet; Trinidad Sanchez III, electric bass; Isaac Sanchez, drums and percussion; “The Angel City Horns” (leader Chris Tedesco, trumpet and Flugelhorn; Robert Kyle; saxophones and flute; Jim McMillen, trombone) with additional percussion by Larry Salzman.
“Everything I do is organic…nothing beats organic expression,” MJ continues. “When I finished the album, sequenced it and was having a playback, I thought, ‘This music is a real throwback to well-constructed melodies and arrangements using real instruments.’ My biggest influence as a guitarist coming up was Wes Montgomery. I remember when he was taken to Hollywood to cut all those great yet controversial albums for Verve and CTI/A&M with producer Creed Taylor, arrangers like Deodato, Claus Ogerman and Don Sebesky, and some very fine session musicians. Jazz critics were hard on those records…and, yet, they were all best sellers! Amsterdaam is a look back to that period. Most of what is called smooth jazz today is just a groove and a lick. There’s a real consistency to our album. I’m very clear about what I expect from every musician in each section of the chart but I also want that musician to then make it theirs by responding with what’s on their heart for the music. We all trust each other…with love and a bond. I’m just so happy to still be making music and enjoying it.”
Auckland-born GroovExpress founder Mykeljon Winckel began his journeys in music and guitar at age 4, his rapid proficiency ushering him to the honor of performing before Queen Elizabeth II at 11. When a demo tape he made while a student at university received a sizable amount of radio airplay, Mykeljon (“MJ”) was inspired to pursue music fulltime with his godmother, Elizabeth Maas – an accomplished music conservatorium lecturer - becoming his first mentor. One year later, he was accepted into the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Brisbane, graduating from a 5-year program as a Music Technologist in guitar and jazz – thoroughly educated in how to produce, engineer, compose and arrange music. MJ next proactively opened his own production studio during the day (recording jingles for radio and television, producing songs for other musicians, and arranging classical music from string quartets to 50-piece orchestras) while performing in local bands at night. Once he started his own bands as a leader, his songwriting began to blossom. It was then that he decided to test his mettle in the crowded Los Angeles, California music scene.
“In conservatory, I did a double major with jazz. I had to write a studio piece for 52 musicians every week between 3 and 5 minutes. I had my special calligraphy pen. The coffee pot was a never empty well. Often, I didn’t sleep, handwriting all those parts out on time to be critiqued. It was hard work but well worth it.”
Though he initially struggled - many a night spent sleeping inside a “combi” van parked behind the bar of last night’s gig was played – inevitable acclaim led to an opportunity to record at David Benoit’s 29th St. Studios where he cut a single, “You Are My Fantasy,” with drummer John Ferraro (Linda Ronstadt, Aaron Neville,) guitarist Pat Kelley (Jose Feliciano, Al Jarreau) and sax man Andy Suzuki (Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck). Record producer Rickey Grundy, impressed, stated, "When it comes to substance Mykeljon excels - a natural when it comes to his craft as a songwriter, lyricist and performer. Mykeljon's material takes the listener on a passionate journey.” After 7 years in L.A., MJ returned to Auckland, recording his first solo CD, World Stood Still (2012).
Now thoroughly entrenched in the music scene down under, including winning Australian BASF Awards for Producer of the Year and Song of the Year, and runner up in the world song writing competition, Mykeljon divides his time between singer/songwriter CDs and GroovExpress. “Music is in my blood,” Mykeljon concludes. “It gives me balance every moment of the day and always has. Today I produce my albums using Skype, recording in my state of the art home studio. Part of the mission statement for Amsterdaam by GroovExpress is even though it was recorded layered across countries, the sound hits you like all the musicians in the room at the same time.”