Daptone's Neal Sugarman On The Sweet Return Of The Sugarman 3

Nick Gordon
In an industry that rewards greed and egocentrism, tenor saxophonist Neal Sugarman has made a career out of selflessness. On record and onstage, Sugarman plays only what is needed: a big, percussive horn blast here, a raw R&B riff there. And career-wise, he has done much the same: in 2001, when both he and singer Sharon Jones were at a loss for a label, he co-founded Daptone Records, now a leading light of contemporary soul. When Sharon and the Dap-Kings found themselves down a horn man shortly afterward, Sugarman shelved a promising career as a bandleader to become what he calls an "ultra-sideman." But last summer, after a decade spent backing up Jones and other assorted blues people, Sugarman started getting the itch to call the shots again, and he reconvened the Sugarman 3, an instrumental soul group that released three well-received albums between 1998 and 2002. What the World Needs Now, the 3's first album since 2002's Pure Cane Sugar, is out this month on Daptone. Its title, borrowed from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David composition of the same name, is a perfect reflection of Sugarman's ethos: the people of Earth didn't want more from the Sugarman 3—they needed it.

But Sugarman wasn't always serving up music on a global scale. In the early '80s, Sugarman's high school punk band Boys Life was a big hit around Boston, and the young saxophonist—then on alto—found himself working with Cars drummer David Robinson, and opening for the Jam. Though Boys Life never broke, Sugarman's first taste of musical honey left a lasting impression.

"When I talk even now about a scene, and being involved in a record label that works around a profile or a scene, that was what that whole thing was about," says Sugarman of his time in Boys Life. "That whole punk, DIY thing, which is still a big part of what I do and who I am. I don't think a lot of kids, especially jazz musicians, have that opportunity. You know, we were out playing gigs—in front of girls. That was fun. And I did that for a long time."

After high school, Sugarman enrolled at Boston's Berklee College of Music on a scholarship, an opportunity that allowed him time to practice without the impediment of having to hold down a job. While his fellow students traveled the spaceways of concept and abstraction, Sugarman stayed down-home.

"I knew that I wanted to continue doing music," explains Sugarman of his decision to attend Berklee. "That's why I started practicing a whole bunch. And developing more technique and learning how to play jazz music. At that point, a lot of my peers were getting real deep into John Coltrane and more contemporary jazz. I always kinda stuck with Stanley Turrentine, Gene Ammons, and bluesy organ players, even back then. I've always had an aptitude for more soulful players."

Massachusetts had its perks—summer jazz gigs on Cape Cod weren't too shabby—but Sugarman was bound for New York. An initial stint in the Big Apple proved frustrating, though, and Sugarman retreated to New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz. Ironically, it was during his year in the Big Easy that he realized he wasn't meant for the bebop business.

"I was in New York kinda struggling," admits Sugarman. "Trying to play jazz gigs. Going to jam sessions, gettin' real depressed about how good everyone else sounded. How I couldn't really play bebop as good as everyone else. But I still was practicing and digging it. I went down [to New Orleans] because a friend of mine, this great piano player, Victor Atkins, said, 'I'm going on the road. You can come live in my house. You'd love it down here.' And I did. But a lot of the gigs that I was getting down there, which I wasn't getting in New York, were R&B gigs. Like, playing with singers. I was doing a lot of stuff like... just covers, you know? You go down to Bourbon Street and you get paid by the set. Like, twelve bucks a set. And you just play a bunch of Otis Redding songs and Wilson Pickett songs and Aretha Franklin songs. And it's kinda like, each singer has their own niche singer that they copy. 'Oh that guy, you gotta know the Otis Redding shit, 'cause this guy does Otis Redding.' Or, 'If you're gonna go and play with that band, they're doing more Wilson Pickett kinda stuff.' Although I've always loved that music, I hadn't really played it in that context before. And I've always liked playing blues more than anything else. I was heading in that direction anyway, but it kinda solidified it for me. I came back to New York with this new confidence. I learned a lot down there in the short time [I was there]. It's a very rhythmic place, and super-soulful. I started getting a little reputation down there. It's smaller, so you can kind of meet more people easier. So I had a little reputation as being the bluesy, soulful-sounding tenor player instead of, like, the modern jazz player. So when I came back [to New York], I had a slightly different self-image of myself. Which was good, you know? I had a little more confidence."

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