S.F. Trumpeter Bill Ortiz on Playing with Souls of Mischief, Covering Gil Scott-Heron, and Touring with Sheila E.
"Souls of Mischief brought me in initially to replace a sample that was going to cost them too much to clear!" So says San Francisco-born trumpeter Bill Ortiz with a laugh as he recalls his contribution to the Bay Area rap quartet's cherished debut album '93 'Til Infinity. Ortiz's playing can be heard on the chorus and outro to the song "Live And Let Live." Now Ortiz has brought his commingling with the rap world up to date by featuring The Grouch and Zion I's Zumbi on his latest EP, which begins with a titular cover of Gil Scott-Heron's "Winter In America" and is out now digitally.
Ortiz's formative years also included stints playing with R&B acts TLC, Sheila E., and Tony Toni Tone. We recently spoke with him about those experiences plus the new record, his time on the road with Janet Jackson, and the mythology of Prince's post-show basketball games.
When did you decide to cover Gil Scott-Heron's "Winter In America"?
The idea of the Gil Scott-Heron cover came up about two years ago. I've always been a huge fan of Gil Scott-Heron and had a chance to see him a few times in the mid-'70s. His words have always been very important to me. What I wanted to do with my presentation of the tune is convey my feelings of the message he was capturing in the song but bring it up to date musically. I feel his words are as relevant today as when he first recorded the song; I wanted to make that message relevant to today's people.
Why did you pick The Grouch to rap on the track?
I've always been into hip-hop; I started out playing R&B before playing jazz and to me hip-hop is just the latest development of R&B's progression. I've always gravitated towards hip-hop artists with some insight and depth to their lyrics, and The Grouch is someone I consider like that. I knew about him and Zumbi [from Zion I] through my promotional team, who also knew about him.
Did you give The Grouch much direction about what you wanted him to rap about?
Well with bringing someone like The Grouch in, he has his musical vision and lyrical thing that he likes to present, so I didn't want to put any blinders on him. I just told him the general idea of the tune -- the concept of the song was something that I really didn't need to say too much to him about. He listened to the track and came up with his own verse.
When did you first see Gil Scott-Heron yourself?
I saw him play at a festival in like 1977, on a double bill with the Tony Williams band. It was the first time I saw Gil and I was so excited to see him live. I had all his records at the time; I was pretty young in high school. You have this expectation of what the artist is gonna be like and you just hope that they don't disappoint you. But he was a great performer, a humble person, and the performance of the band was really high.
Do you think he'd have been pleased with your cover of his song?
I wish he was still around to give his impression, and I would hope that he would feel like we did the song justice. He said that the spoken word was very important and I think he would have appreciated what The Grouch did.
So how did you end up playing on Souls of Mischief's debut album?
Well at the time I was working with the group Tony Toni Tone, and also doing a lot of work with the production team Foster and McElroy, who produced for En Vogue. So there were a lot of people in the Bay Area who were aware of what I was doing in the R&B scene. I got a call from Domino, who was one of the producers for Souls of Mischief, and I think they brought me in initially to replace a sample that was going to cost them too much to clear! Being a live musician I came up with something that was going to fit the sample, but when I was there they decided to they wanted me to solo through the outro.
What do you remember most about the studio session with them?
Domino must have been in his late teens, but I remember he was totally in control of the session -- he was like the man. He really had good studio chops; he was running everything really well. Then I ran into him a couple of weeks later at a shopping mall with his family and it was such a contrast to see the different side of him, like just a nice family guy.
You mentioned it was cheaper to use you than pay for a sample. Did Souls of Mischief pay you well?
It was paid well! They weren't like trying to low-ball me or anything. I ended up being the only live musician on the record, which was based around so many loops and chopped-up samples. It's just a different art form, like painting to sculpting, and you're using different materials, but it's all about what you're trying to express musically. How you get from point A to point B is irrelevant.
How did your relationship with Tony Toni Tone begin?
Before them I was working with Sheila E.'s dad, Pete Escovedo, who had a Latin jazz group. At that time Raphael Saadiq, Dwayne Wiggins, and Timothy Riley were the core of Sheila E.'s backup group, so that's how I got to know them. Then ... they went off on their own, had their first hit with "Little Walter," and on the second album started to add horns to songs, so they asked me to get on board. I toured with them; we played The Apollo in Harlem, which was incredible because of the music history there from Duke Ellington to Miles Davis and James Brown. Then we were also on the road with Janet Jackson for a while, as her opening act, and one of the gigs was New Year's Eve at Madison Square Garden -- we finished playing then had time to go down to Times Square and watch the ball drop.
You also recorded with TLC for a spell, right?
Yeah, I did some recording stuff down in Atlanta at Dallas Austin's studio [D.A.R.P., the Dallas Austin Recording Projects]. It was for some remix stuff they were doing. At that time Austin was very, very active. I remember there were multiple rooms and different projects going on in each one and he was very in control of that situation. You'd work on your track, then you'd go to the next room and work on what they're playing on there. I met Chili [from TLC]. She was sweet. She hung out for a while while we played. Sheila E. was involved in that too -- she was producing that one for TLC.
Did Sheila E. tell you any anecdotes about Prince?
Yeah, Prince is famous for having his basketball games with all his musicians. I haven't played in one but I heard from her that he's quite the basketball player! But the thing with Prince is, when they're on the road, they're always playing or rehearsing; they'll play a show then do another at some small after-hours club at 2 a.m. Talk to people who play with Prince and it's just a whirlwind of musical activity!