The Maestro Speaks: An Interview with Musical Virtuoso Joseph Joubert
In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Joseph Joubert revisits his remarkable career, from working with Diana Ross and Kathleen Battle to orchestrating Tony Award-winning Broadway musicals.
Eighty-eight keys never met a better friend than Joseph Joubert. At least that's what a crowd of Times Square tourists witnessed when Joubert and his protégé Jason Michael Webb played "dueling pianos" on Good Morning America to promote the premiere of Rocketman (2019). Only days later, he performed at Lincoln Center to honor Roland Carter, Jacqueline Hairston, and Lena McLin for "Masters of the Spiritual", a tribute to composers of modern spirituals.
The gulf between those two appearances is the hallmark of Joubert's career — he does it all. As a pianist, arranger, orchestrator, conductor, and musical director, his genius has anchored several hit Broadway productions, including Billy Elliot, Motown: The Musical, and Caroline, Or Change. As a composer, his songs have been recorded by everyone from Sylvester to Nancy Wilson while his two solo albums Total Praise: Classic Hymns for Piano (2009) and A Mighty Fortress is Our God (2017) brought classical flourishes to sacred music, a lifelong endeavor that will soon include a new recording of spirituals.
It's easy to understand why legendary artists like Diana Ross, Kathleen Battle, and Valerie Simpson hold Joubert in high esteem. His talent elevates what's written on the page. "Working on music with Joseph Joubert helped me evolve and grow musically," says Nona Hendryx, who's collaborated with Joubert on several projects including Labelle's Back to Now (2008) album. "His musical knowledge, feel on the piano and organ took my music to another level. His orchestra and vocal arrangements fit the song no matter the genre. For me, he brings out the soul of the music."
In fact, Joubert's ability to telegraph what's between the notes was indispensable to The Color Purple, both the original 2005 Broadway production and 2015 revival. "In my opinion, Joseph Joubert was a saving grace for our production," declares Brenda Russell, who composed The Color Purple with Allee Willis and Stephen Bray. "He was playing piano so soulfully for our rehearsals that we asked him to be our new orchestrator. He saved our music with his soulful adaptation. We loved him to pieces."
Earlier this year, Joubert's work on Carmen Jones (2018) garnered an Outer Critics Circle Award nomination for "Outstanding Orchestrations", priming him for another set of musical ventures behind the piano. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Joubert discusses his illustrious career, from Broadway to the White House and back again.
I'd like to revisit Christmas 2018 for a moment. You were Musical Director for Norm Lewis' Nutcracker Cool concert at Feinstein's/54 Below. Your piano solo on "When I Fall in Love" evoked the language of a dream. What kinds of feelings and thoughts stir within you as you play?
My fingers just go. So many things are going through my brain at that moment that I can't control. I'm not really thinking about it so cerebrally. I'm trying to create a mood. It depends on the sound of the piano. I'm trying to deliver something, to speak at the piano. It just comes out of my life experience with my music.
How much does the audience influence your performance in that moment?
I vibe off of them. If I see someone in the crowd that's in it or smiling, I may do something to grab their attention. If I know there's a revered musician in the crowd, I may do something special just to draw their ear or just because I'm having fun.
You've worked with Norm Lewis for several years now. What makes him an ideal collaborator?
Norm is real. You get what you get with him. There's no pretense. There's no "divo" attitude. Because he's such a great singer and he's a great actor, it's just a pleasure to work with him. It's this fun little musical marriage. I've had other collaborations in my past that may have been not quite as great as that, when you're dealing with different attitudes. With Norm, we're making music and we're enjoying ourselves.
In talking to you now, I actually sense that there's music coursing through you!
Oh wow! [laughs] I was at the piano practicing for three hours before we got here. Music is in me. If there were some background music playing now, I'd be checking it out to see the orchestration.
I wonder about that, actually. Is it possible to turn off your musical antennae?
I can turn it off but it's there. Sometimes I don't even listen to music at home. I'll just turn on the news or television, something mindless, but if I'm watching a movie, ultimately there'll be a score and I'll start listening to the music. I can tune it out when I really need to, but it's the curse of being a musician — you're just hearing music all the time.
What's your earliest memory of music?
I remember being four or five years old and having music around. The piano was a live thing in our house. My grandfather played the piano. He used to play by ear and I remember hearing that. That's where I get my music from.
My dad was a Baptist preacher, so we'd be in church and I'd sing in the children's choir. My mother played piano, too. To be really specific, she would practice the piano in the Drew Hamilton Projects on 143rd St. She would play the March from Aida. There was something about that theme. Maybe it was because it was her playing it, but that song drew me to the piano.
We had one of those old portable record players. I remember we used to listen to — you've never heard of this — something called "Peter, Please, It's Pancakes". If you Google it, it's the funniest thing. It's like a series of children's records with these cute little melodies. There was a classical thing that they had, "Scheherazade" by Rimsky-Korsakov.
How did you begin your formal musical training?
My mother started me at eight years old, playing "Chopsticks" and "Mary Had a Little Lamb". Somehow I learned the treble clef. I knew the lines and the spaces, so I taught myself to read. For five years, I was on my own, playing by ear. It just happens. You can't really explain it. I'd play in church and accompany singers. I'd just go right to the key, not knowing what it really was, theoretically.
When I was thirteen, I would go and take a little informal lesson with my junior high school teacher. He would show me some things, but he wasn't really a piano teacher. He was a vocal teacher. He prepared me for Performing Arts High School. To get into the high school, you had to have a teacher. At that point, I was thirteen going on fourteen. I got my first piano lesson. I had all of those years playing by ear, so when I got the teacher, I had to get really serious … quick! I had to get rid of bad habits and start almost from scratch.
I went to Manhattan School of Music preparatory school as a 15 year old while still at Performing Arts High School. Those classes were on Saturday only. I got my college teacher when I was 15-and-a-half. It all happened quickly.
Joseph Joubert at Chez Josephine. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
Did you foresee yourself pursuing a particular role, e.g. "I want to play in symphonies"?
That's a good question. When I was young, I wanted to be an architect. The New York Times had this real estate section. I would look at the floor plan and try to build a house. That was an interest of mine. Music wasn't the foremost thing.
I would say that by the time I got to high school, I knew I wanted to be a pianist. I didn't really think I would be a concert pianist, but then I remember seeing the great André Watts play when I was fifteen. I thought, This is incredible. I was still playing in church too. I had gospel music and Motown and classical. I had all this music in my ear, but I was gearing towards classical.
At what point did you begin playing outside of church and school?
I won the concerto competition one year at Performing Arts High School so I got to play at Town Hall. That was huge. I was 16. That was right before going to college at Manhattan School of Music. College really started in 1975. In college, I got to play Alice Tully Hall (Lincoln Center) with a singer. I got a good review. I guess I was 20 or 21. I did something at Carnegie Recital Hall, not solo stuff but accompanying a singer. I think I was 22. Those three venues got me known a little bit. It's all word-of-mouth and who you know. I also won the National Association of Negro Musicians piano competition in 1980.
Among your colleagues and classmates at Manhattan School of Music, did you forge relationships that led to other opportunities?
I kept to myself in college. It was always about practicing. You're always competing to see what the other pianists are doing. I remember André Watts doing master classes at school. I wanted to play for him. He didn't choose me for the class. I was devastated because he was my idol, but I used that negative energy to work harder. Then I won the concerto competition in college, beating out the players that had gotten into his class!
I'll never forget going to see him backstage at Carnegie Hall. I said, "Hello, Mr. Watts. By the way, I won the school concerto competition." He pulled me aside and said, "Listen, if there's time, you're welcome to come to the class. Maybe you can get to play for me." I ultimately did get to play for him. I wanted him to mentor me and he didn't, so that was a real turning point in my wanting to go strictly classical.
My first gig away from school was going on the road with Phyllis Hyman. That took me from finishing my Doctorate because I literally left school. I wasn't really a jazz player, but if I heard something I could write it out. I had a cassette with Barry Eastmond playing the gig. I transcribed his solo and I played that same solo at every show. I only lasted two or three weeks with Phyllis Hyman. I realized that just wasn't me.
One of your earliest recordings that I'm aware of is with New York Community Choir (NYCC). I first heard of them through their disco hit "I'll Keep a Light in My Window". When did you begin working with NYCC?
Back in school. A good friend of mine, another pianist named Willard Meeks, had done their first record in 1977. We knew each other from school. He studied with a teacher that studied with my teacher, who had been at the school since 1926. Willard said, "Hey Joe. Do you want to come to a rehearsal with me? We're looking for another keyboard player." I went to the rehearsal and met Benny Diggs.
At the time, it was the early stages of what I do now, where I play a hymn and then play classical stuff around it. I remember playing "I Surrender All" and Benny just went crazy. I started playing for NYCC at that point. Benny and I started to write together, so much so that we wrote for the next album, which was the Make Every Day Count (1978) album. I was all over that one!
Leon Pendarvis arranged those first two albums for NYCC. He is the reason I'm an arranger, other than studying books but never really being taught. I studied his scores and started learning to arrange from that. I was 19. I figured if he knew how to do it, then that's the way to learn. That's sort of what got me into this other world of music. I was still doing classical too, but I was quietly forging that career with gospel music.
Would NYCC's Make Every Day Count have been the first album to feature a song you wrote?
NYCC would have been the second album, but the first one that I heard on the radio. Before NYCC, Benny and I did a record for a gospel group in Hartford, the Hopewell Choir of Hartford. There's a really well-known gospel writer Kurt Carr, who wrote "For Every Mountain". We did a live recording and he was at that session.
Benny also had a vocal group called Revelation. How did you start working with them?
Because I was writing with Benny for NYCC, it was just a natural progression to Revelation. They were an R&B group who used to tour with the Bee Gees. The tricky thing with NYCC was that it was disco. We were singing in clubs but the songs were really religious, so what are you? There was no way to continue that.
On the first Revelation album that you worked on, Get in Touch (1979), there's a song that you arranged called "Children of the Discos". What did disco offer you, creatively, in terms of arranging strings and horns?
I came into disco at the tail end. Disco would always have a string break and then there was always a brass thing. I remember when we had the chance to do this record, I wrote some cute little string lines. That was a great experience — to have a group to write for — but then disco kind of disappeared. [laughs]
Joseph Joubert at Chez Josephine. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
You've brought me so much happiness because of a song that Sylvester recorded on his Sell My Soul (1980) album, "I'll Dance to That".
I can't believe you know that! Benny knew Sylvester. He may have sung in NYCC at one point. We had written that song for Nell Carter and she didn't take it. I was still at college working with Benny and I remember Nell Carter and Debbie Allen were working on either Ain't Misbehavin' or West Side Story, one of those two shows.
Win Wilford was Debbie's husband at the time. Benny and Win knew each other and they were trying to do a recording with Nell. We did a demo of "I'll Dance to That". I think I've got a cassette of that with Nell, but we wound up not getting anywhere so we gave it to Sylvester.
The next Revelation album featured one of the group's signature songs "Feel It" (1980), which you wrote with Benny. In fact, someone left a comment on YouTube about that song, saying it represents "When New York was New York". In what way did "Feel It" reflect that particular era of New York?
It was a combination of CHIC's sound and Ashford & Simpson's influence on me, not having met them yet, but just from listening to them. I was always zeroing in on the horns. There weren't a lot of synths back then, more live instruments.
When we wrote "Feel It", I knew that we couldn't have too many chord changes. The pianist Richard Tee always had these clever licks. I remember copping one of his licks and putting it in the track. I had the chance to do my little disco moment with the strings on that. Rob Mounsey did a horn lick on one of Ashford & Simpson's charts. I think it was [sings] "Love Don't Make It Right". I remember putting that lick in "Feel It".
Shifting to Broadway, it appears that Amen Corner (1983) was your first Broadway show.
Absolutely. That was my first foray into Broadway. I had done some recording with Dunn Pearson, who was a young arranger at the time. I think he used to work with the O'Jays. He heard me play and recommended me to go and play for Garry Sherman (composer) because Dunn was going to be working as an arranger on the project too. I remember going to play for Garry. At the time, they were like, "You're this great gospel player!" They gave me credit as Assistant Musical Director. I wound up being the assistant to Margaret Harris who was the conductor.
We did the Ford Theater for two months and then we came to Broadway. It lasted a month or two. I didn't like the idea of playing the same thing every day. I was young and that wasn't going to be my thing. I didn't think I was going to go that route, but it was a great experience and I enjoyed it.v
Did you have a sense of awe about working on a Broadway show?
It was exciting. For me, I remember wanting to be on the creative end of the spectrum. I didn't like the idea that these other guys were arranging and I was playing the piano. I wanted to be more involved. I knew that that was a goal, even at that age. I just didn't have the wherewithal to do it. I was watching and learning and trying to listen to what they were doing to get to that point.
Shortly before Amen Corner, you played on a song that Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson produced for Stephanie Mills' Tantalizingly Hot (1982) album, "I Can't Give Back the Love I Feel For You". Was that the first time you worked with Ashford & Simpson?
Almost — it was brewing. I had done Revelation and I had worked with Jimmy Simpson. Jimmy had me do two things for G.Q. and he recommended me for Stephanie Mills. Nick and Val were replacing a bass. I don't know how that happened. Either the bass player didn't cut it or they wanted to add another synth. Jimmy said, "Come in Joe. I want you to play this bass part." There was a guy in the studio who helped me with the mini Moog. I learned the song on the spot and played this bass part. Nick and Val never came in when I was there, but I thought, Oh my God! I'm on a Nick and Val track! I felt that I had arrived. [laughs]
How did you finally meet Ashford & Simpson and begin a working relationship with them?
Around that time there was another NYCC album. We mixed it at Sigma Sound Studio. We used the same engineer that they used, a guy named Mike Hutchinson. They were working on Ullanda McCullough's record. Valerie just happened to come by the studio. She stood and listened. I think maybe at that point I let her know that I'd done the Stephanie Mills record.
They were working on Solid (1984). They needed a string chart for "Tonight We Escape (We Make Love)". It was a Friday and they needed it on a Monday or Tuesday, something like that. Jimmy called and said, "Hey Joe, can you do this?" I said, "Absolutely!" I had to go to Nick and Val's house, meet them, hear the track. I listened to it and they gave me ideas of what they wanted, some swells and things — drama! I had to write it and get it to the copyist, Sephra Herman. I did it and they loved it.
I'll never forget that day. They pulled me aside and said they wanted me to score their musical, Pipes. I thought, Well what about Ray Chew? I knew he was their guy. I was always very cautious about that. Just from the chart I wrote for "Tonight We Escape", they wanted me to score their musical!
Soon after that, I began doing demos with them. It was that summer. They were working on Pipes. I did more stuff on the Solid record. I did some synth parts on "Outta the World" and I played on "Babies", but I didn't play on "Solid", which makes me mad! They had already done it.
The next year was '85. They were touring. Pete Cannarozzi told me that he had a kid and he couldn't do the tour. I came in replacing him and that's when I started touring with Ashford & Simpson.
Joseph Joubert at Chez Josephine. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
I wanted to ask you about "Outta the World", actually. What's interesting to me is that it was recorded in 1984. Revelation's "Feel It" came four years before that, yet sonically, those songs are like a world apart from each other. Did "Outta the World" mark new terrain for you?
It was totally new terrain for me. I guess I was just using my ears as a musician and trying to figure out what Nick and Val wanted. They wanted something spacey. I remember I had just gotten some new sounds. At the time it was a DX7. Someone had given me a new cartridge. I was just experimenting. I remember holding the chord and this sound came out of nowhere. It could have been disastrous — "What is he doing?" — but they liked it. I had the karma over me that things worked.
When I think about your arrangement on Ashford & Simpson's production of "There's a Winner in You" for Patti LaBelle, it takes my breath away.
I had done a demo of Val singing that. It was from their Pipes project, which ultimately didn't happen. I'll never forget when they said they were going to produce Patti. I remember doing the track and then I was able to arrange the horns and everything.
There's one thing about it that bothers me. During the session, Nick liked something that I had done. He said, "Can you add this in the chorus? I want a quarter-note feel." We did it but I wasn't listening to the chord changes and there's a chord that rubs. Only I know it! When I hear it, it drives me crazy. If I was really thinking I would have fixed that, but Nick was trying to get something fast. He wanted the feeling. I gave him the feeling but there's a wrong note in there that bothers me. Other than that, it was another one of those great moments. It was literally just us and Patti in the studio.
As a pianist yourself, how would you describe Valerie's style on the piano?
She's just got this natural feel and goes right to it. I've had to transcribe what she played in order to work around it so I feel like I know her style. It's a combination of classical, R&B, gospel, blues … She just goes anywhere. It was quite amazing to watch her play and sing, and accompany Nick. Those things were really special moments. It's like this otherworldly thing.
What did you learn from working with Nick and Val?
I feel like my prep for them was being in the gospel world, going to church, and listening to their stuff. I was sort of being prepared to be involved with them. I wish I could say I learned about songwriting. I am a songwriter but I got discouraged because I could never get the "big song", so at a certain point I just kind of gave that up. I do write with Michael McElroy, but we do more gospel.
I think I learned quite a bit about how to arrange from them just by working with them on the Maya Angelou record (Been Found), studying their previous charts and the ones I did with them, working live, and watching how they do vocals. I assimilated a chunk from working with them in the '80s, having to be able to make quick decisions and design things around what they're singing.
Nancy Wilson recently passed away, but it's wonderful that she recorded two of your songs, "Forbidden Lover" with Carl Anderson and "It's That Time Again" back in the '80s. That's a tall feather in your cap.
I think Benny and I wrote "It's That Time Again" back in the Nell Carter time and she didn't take it. We just kept trying to shop it. We couldn't get that to happen. I think Benny knew George Butler (Wilson's producer). I was there when she did "It's That Time Again". That was another amazing experience.
"Forbidden Lover" was a song that we had written for another buddy of ours named Darryl Tookes. He demoed it for us. I remember meeting Carl Anderson at … it might have been a concert at Carnegie Hall. I went up to him and said I'm the co-writer of "Forbidden Lover". I never got to work with him, which I would have loved to do. Now the reason I was mad at Nancy Wilson was because she had a chance to sing "Forbidden Lover" at the Grammy's and she turned it down. I was a little annoyed but it was a thrill to have her record it.
Joseph Joubert and Christian John Wikane. Photo by Sekou Luke Studio.
What was your reaction when you got a call to work with Diana Ross?
[laughs] That was 1986. I knew Sephra Herman (contractor) from Nick and Val. She was looking for a pianist to find keys for this Harold Arlen project. We met at Clinton Studios, which isn't there anymore, on 46th Street and 10th Avenue. Just me, Diana, and this concert grand piano.
I was reading the songs with Diana. I really hadn't done my homework. I had to read it in the key and then find her key. I was fudging it a bit, but she liked me and we got it done. I went home and made a cassette of the songs in the right key so she could practice. Fast forward — we finally got the keys. During the recording, I was just the piano player who would go to the sessions to make sure that things were okay with the keys and the melodies. One day Frank Owens (pianist) had to be out. Diana said, "Well Joe, you can do it." I played on one or two tracks.
Paul Riser (arranger) was backed up. He had done ten or eleven tracks and they needed one more done for "Over the Rainbow". Again, Diana said, "Joe you can do it." This is in the afternoon for the next day. She said just do what you did on the track, but that was all synth. I had to make a score of it with all of the instruments!
I was in the studio with Nick and Val that night working on a song that was on The Golden Child (1986) soundtrack, "Love Goes On". I had to go home and write this score for Diana Ross. Here I am at home, two or three in the morning, to start writing this manuscript and get it to her for that afternoon. I didn't sleep. I did this [holds score] in a couple of hours.
"Over the Rainbow" sounded great, but the Harold Arlen project never came out! They gave me a cassette of it. That's all I have. It's some beautiful stuff. I don't know what happened. I keep thinking the producer was Jay Landers, but I'm not sure. There's no record of it.
Wow! What an amazing story, Joe. How were you contracted for her Red Hot Rhythm & Blues (1987) album?
Diana really liked what I did on "Over the Rainbow" so Sephra asked me to put together a rhythm section when Diana was getting ready to do Red Hot Rhythm & Blues. It was me, Francisco Centeno, Ivan Hampden, maybe Jeff Mironov, all the cats we knew from Ashford & Simpson. It was another great experience. I did rhythm arrangements for five songs. Diana was just recording stuff until she decided what she would pick. Maybe two or three songs made it.
It's Diana's 75th birthday year. What do you think makes her exceptional?
She has a unique sound. When I heard "The Boss", it killed me. It's just amazing. I knew that there was no pitch-bending or tuning back in those days so that was her singing it. She's a good study. She delivered those songs.
I remember trying to shop a song to Diana. Me and Benny always had songs! She was looking for material. I said, "Could you take a listen to this?" I was real coy about it. She listened to a few bars. She said, "You should give this to Aretha." Diana was right. In hindsight, I should have given it to Aretha.
I had so much one-on-one time with her. One day, Stevie Wonder came in the studio. She said Stevie's going to come and play me some songs. I had my equipment there with all of my synths in the room. It was the three of us at the Power Station. He came in and sang some songs. She didn't use any of them, but it was this moment in time that I remember.
They'd asked me to tour with Diana. At the time, it was either that or doing Five Guys Named Moe on Broadway. I was trying to decide, Do I go on tour with Diana Ross or stay in town?
Was Five Guys Named Moe (1992) your re-entry to Broadway?
Amen Corner was in '83, then I disappeared from Broadway. One of my mentors Linda Twine had me come back and help her as a conductor sub on Big River from '86-'87. Somewhere in those two years I would just pop in to sub but it wasn't steady work. Then in 1990 I was supervisor for a show called Truly Blessed (1990), which was about Mahalia Jackson. I was a supervisor so I didn't have to play it.
What was so cool about Five Guys Named Moe was that it was a time when they had a thing called walkers. If the house needed 15 players in the band, and you didn't have that many players in the band — if the orchestration called for nine, for example — then you had to pay six people a base salary for free. It was minimum. This particular show only needed six players, if I remember. I was a walker and I was the Associate Conductor, so it was a higher pay scale and I never had to be there unless I was subbing for the conductor. It was this great gig and I didn't have to play everyday in order to make this money. I was working with Judy Collins at the same time!
How would you describe your experience with the 2005 production of The Color Purple as well as the 2015 revival? I don't know how common it is for someone to be involved with both the original and the revival of a Broadway production.
I was still avoiding Broadway when Linda Twine called me and said, "Joe they're doing a workshop of this show. Could you come in and play it?" It was a two or three-week thing. I said Sure. Then I had to make a decision because it was going to happen. I was the Associate Conductor, which means I would have to do rehearsals and conduct when Linda's not there.
The writers did not like what the great orchestrator Jonathan Tunick had done. I forget how it happened, but somehow they found out that I was an orchestrator and that I had done Caroline, or Change (2004). They said, "Can Joe help with some of the scoring?" There was this whole big meeting with Jonathan Tunick and the musical supervisor Kevin Stites. He allowed me to redo four songs. I did the "Opening", "Push the Button", "The Color Purple", and "I'm Here". They loved it. I was being paid as an arranger and I would get a weekly royalty. I was the pianist and the Associate Conductor.
For me, because I was in the show, somehow they couldn't give me the proper credit. It just said "Additional Arrangements" in the Playbill. You couldn't say "Orchestrations", even though I had done them. It was a technical term. I think I Music Supervised the touring company. Then it came back around to Broadway in 2015 and that's when they asked me if I would orchestrate it myself. I redid it. The show got the Tony Award for "Best Revival" and then a Grammy for "Best Musical Theater Album" … so I feel like I won a Grammy!
What kind of show did The Color Purple become for the revival?
It was smaller instrumentation. It wasn't big. John Doyle (director) was known for scaling down projects. The first show had like a gazillion people in it. There was lots of dancing. He stripped it down to the bare bones. Cynthia Erivo's singing and acting really delivered the goods. LaChanze (as Celie) was great. Fantasia was also good, but Cynthia took it to another level. Even with the smaller orchestra, I think people kept saying they felt like it was a different score. For me, it wasn't, but it was just done with my own slight variants. It was the same piano stuff but the surrounding sweetness was different enough to give it the flavor where people thought it was another show.
Broadway Inspirational Voices (BIV) is receiving a special Tony Award this year. It seems like you've worked with BIV founder Michael McElroy almost from the very beginning of that choir.
Michael McElroy was Flick in the Playwrights Horizon production of Violet (1997). I joke with him. I say we never even spoke the whole time of the production, but after it was over, he reached out to me because they'd already done the first Broadway Inspirational Voices concert in 1996. They'd do a concert once a year. All of them were stars in the choir. He wanted me to be the pianist and help him with the arrangements. That's when I started working with him. At a certain point, my mentor Buryl Red got involved. Then we did Great Joy: A Gospel Christmas (2003), which got the Grammy nomination ("Best Orchestration with Vocal").
If I say the name Kathleen Battle, what comes to mind?
I used to see Kathleen at Ashford & Simpson's fourth of July cookouts back in the day. I knew her as a great singer. A friend of ours passed and there was a memorial at Riverside Church. I did a piano solo. After it was over, a friend of mine that was with Kathleen summoned me. She asked me a couple of questions. She was very formal about it. Soon after that, there was another memorial at the church. She wanted me to come and play "Amazing Grace" for her. We rehearsed and we rehearsed … and we rehearsed! [laughs] She wanted me to maybe tour with her.
Then I got a call from her management about a private function. This was 1994. They didn't say what it was for. I got the call on a Friday. "Could you be prepared to do a concert with Ms. Battle on Monday, if we need you?" I said, "Sure let me know." Sunday night I get a call that it's on. "We're doing a State dinner for Bill Clinton at the White House" — on Tuesday. They're faxing me the music to rehearse with Ms. Battle on Monday. It was crazy. It was going to be a half hour set after this dinner. Can you imagine the nerves?
I had to learn this music. I had no preparation. She did some crazy difficult stuff. We rehearsed and then we did this State dinner for Boris Yeltsin. It was a who's who at the dinner — Barbara Walters, Steven Spielberg, all of the state senators. She had me play a solo at some point in the concert. I did my arrangement of "Amazing Grace".
After it was over, President Clinton pulled me aside and said, "Yeltsin would like the sheet music." I said, "I was improvising. If you send me a tape, I'll transcribe it." They sent me a video so I have a video of me playing it. I got it published and sent it back to them. The last thing I did with Kathleen was in 2009, the spirituals recital at Carnegie Hall.
I actually attended that recital at Carnegie Hall! Around the same time, I also remember seeing your name as an arranger on Labelle's reunion album Back to Now (2008), specifically on the songs "Without You in My Life", "Truth Will Set You Free", and "Dear Rosa".
I knew Nona Hendryx from an album I did that didn't come out until later, Rhythm & Spirit (2001). We took pop songs and made them gospel. Nona was one of the artists on it. After that, I started doing other projects with Nona. She talked about getting together a reunion with Labelle.
We would go and rehearse at Patti's house. I would take the train and meet them in Philadelphia — me, Nona, Sarah Dash, and Ronny Drayton the guitar player. I've got video footage of it. We'd sit in Patti's living room working on songs, trying to find material. I remember arranging the rhythm stuff, but I know Gamble & Huff came in and did their thing. I was there helping them put it together.
What was the genesis behind your first album Total Praise (2009)?
As you know, I've been playing classical all my life. At a certain point I knew I wanted to make it specific by doing sacred music in the classical style. For years, I've been working on these things. I knew I needed to do this CD, which was a good 20-something years in the making. I finally just decided to do it because I'm always my worst critic. It's just piano and me — no way to disguise it.
All of the arrangements were done but I needed one more and I wanted to do a specific Richard Smallwood piece. That became the title cut of that CD. Out of all of the things I do — my arranging, my accompanying — the piano solo spiritual thing really defines me in a certain way. I'm hoping that will be my legacy.
I saw this performance of you playing at the Ministers Conference. It's breathtaking. Hearing you play is one thing but then to actually see your fingers move …
… it's so important to see.
It's like magic to those of us outside of that world.
And it's all written out. I'm not improvising. It's all notated, so I'm leaving something behind. It's not just playing. That's the other side of me, the serious side — not that anything I else I do isn't serious — but when I'm not working on a show, I'm at the piano.
How did your second album A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (2017) represent a progression in your style?
For me, it just was a continuation of the same thing. It was still hard music. It got me out there again for what I do that no one else really does. It's a specific thing … and it's not a big moneymaking thing! I do need to get out and play more so people can see it.
Where would you like to play that material?
At one point, I thought it would be a church circuit, but because it's such a classical thing, I don't know how many of the current churches would really get it. It's probably more of a concert hall setting. It's not really a songbook series. Because it's sacred music, you'd think that a church setting would be it but it's a little high-brow in a sense.
The things that I'm working on now are specifically spirituals as opposed to hymns. It's even more historic in the sense that it's the music of the slaves. 2019 is the 400th anniversary of slavery in the U.S. so I've got to get it out sometime this year. Maybe I'd play it at the Schomburg. It would be some kind of concert hall setting but I have to set it up right in terms of how I describe it.
You mentioned earlier that the music of Motown was a huge part of your musical foundation. What did being conductor of Motown: The Musical (2013) give you in terms of a full-circle experience?
Every night, from start to finish, it was all music that I grew up with. I feel like I lived that music, especially after playing for Nick and Val all those years and then working with Diana Ross. Motown was in my life, the music of the '60s and '70s. It was second nature. I didn't have to research or think about it. It was in my DNA.
Of the shows you've done on Broadway, which one represents the biggest leap for you as a musician?
Of all the shows, Caroline, Or Change was the most challenging. Even though I didn't conduct Caroline, or Change, the score was very eclectic. It was very different, so that stretched me for sure. It was classical, it was R&B, it was Broadway. Jeanine Tesori's writing was amazing. Carmen Jones (2018) was classical, which, for me, was easy. Bizet's music was just a matter of me condensing a full orchestra to this little six-piece band.
Do you feel that theater audiences underestimate all of the work that goes into the different positions you've held on Broadway?
Arrangers, conductors, orchestrators, and supervisors are the unsung heroes. It's what we do, but we still need a star or a good singer to bring our things to life. People recognize the star and see the people up front but they don't generally understand what goes on behind the scenes. That's the most important stuff. There's a few people who get that kind of notoriety who have done what we do. David Foster, Quincy Jones … I can't name too many that would be household names.
What's the forecast for 2019?
There's a show Hercules that Public Works (the Public Theater) is doing outdoors in Central Park. As far as I know I'll be orchestrating with Danny Troob. That will be this summer. I'm also in negotiations to be the orchestrator for the Winans musical, Born For This.
There's two other workshops, a piece called The Trial and a Frederick Douglass work, American Prophet, that's in the works with a composer in Nashville, Marcus Hummon. Charles Randolph-Wright is involved with that too. I'm working with Deborah Cox on a show. We did a little round in Miami that went really well. It was like a teaser. We have to finish that. The question is whether it will be with a big orchestra or a smaller band.
Do you think five-year-old Joseph who heard his grandfather play the piano could have predicted the way life has turned out for him?
Not a clue! Who would have thought that, from the projects of Harlem, I would have achieved the things that I've achieved? I didn't think like that. You can't predict your life. Things just evolve and happen. You just have to be prepared when you get your shot. You've got to be ready.
Even when it comes down to "Can you do this tomorrow?"
Or in a few hours! [laughs] It's like this spiritual hand has been guiding me. I've had success with what I've done. The few times something didn't go well, I learned from that and came back stronger. The glass is always half-full for me.