Still ubiquitous

Boston Globe, July 29, 2005

Roy Ayers is happy. At 64, the vibraphonist, singer, and jazzy soul pioneer is still at the top of his game. His mallets, as they stride across the vibes, conjure openness and possibility, with a dash of insouciance. His voice infuses the uplifting themes of his songs with an undercurrent of sly come-ons.

Ayers, who comes to Scullers on Thursday, exudes enthusiasm in an interview from his Upper West Side apartment, which once belonged to writer James Baldwin. The word “wonderful” is a staple of Ayers’s speech. His career, he says, is a continuing wonderful experience. His trip to South Africa last year was wonderful. Neosoul high priestess Erykah Badu a recent collaborator who shines on Ayers’s 2004 album “Mahogany Vibe” is a wonderful person both onstage and off.

Ayers has ample reason to be cheerful. His sound, elaborated amid the social and cultural ferment of black America in the 1970s, has enjoyed a second heyday since the early ’90s. His work has served as feedstock for samples by a dizzying list of rappers, soul singers, and DJs and as inspiration to the UK-based acid-jazz scene.

“I’ve had more sampled hits by rappers than anyone in the industry,” he says. “James Brown was sampled more, but I’ve had more hits. Mary J. Blige, A Tribe Called Quest, Monie Love, Big Daddy Kane… . All these people I had never heard of. It’s a wonderful thing to have that happen to you.”

Like other sampled artists, Ayers has found interpolations of his work to be a welcome source of revenue. But unlike most, he’s returned the favor with a steady stream of collaborations with young artists who admire him. He’s appeared on albums by Badu and Blige, among others, and on the acclaimed 1997 “Nuyorican Soul” project by house/Latin production duo Masters at Work.

“Ayers is perhaps the best example of an artist from the ’70s who has become vastly more appreciated over time,” says Josh McDermott, who hosts the “Soul Spectrum” show on WMBR-FM (88.1) in Cambridge. “He had some club hits back in the day, and a few songs that got airplay, but he is revered today far beyond his success during his recording prime.”

Ayers was a maverick. His instrument, the vibes, was the choice of just a few musicians, among them a legendary swinger, Lionel Hampton who gave a 5-year-old Ayers his first set of mallets and a jazz classicist, Milt Jackson. In the ’60s Ayers worked in a combo led by flutist Herbie Mann.

But in the ’70s, while fellow Los Angeles native Bobby Hutcherson maintained the flame of straight-ahead jazz vibes, Ayers took a different route.

“I incorporated vocals in order to reach a greater recognition,” Ayers recalls. “After four years with Herbie Mann where I only played the vibes, I found that I had a strong desire to be versatile. I wanted to play jazz, blues, soul, funk, pop, everything.”

That urge led Ayers to form his band Ubiquity, one of the great innovative outfits of the ’70s along with the Miles Davis band or George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic. But what distinguished Ayers’s band was a fierce commitment to the groove, shunning rock influences in favor of African rhythmic patterns and a laid-back feel.

That approach tinged Ayers’s lyrics as well. Classic songs like “Searching” and “Everybody Loves the Sunshine” offer a groovy spiritual message of uplift and self-acceptance. And political anthems like “Red, Black & Green” or “Africa, Center of the World,” reflect Ayers’s immersion in the culture of the black diaspora.

“I became interested in African music, different styles, different regions,” Ayers says. “All of it based on rhythm and excitement. And of course I knew Fela [Kuti]” the legendary Nigerian bandleader, in whom he found political inspiration and a musical soulmate. Ayers believes he is the only black American musician to have played with Fela, who died in 1997. “I really miss him. He taught me a lot about Africa and the African way.”

In 1984, Ayers toured Africa for the US State Department, an official tour of the sort that Hampton or Louis Armstrong once conducted and that Ayers believes should be revived.

“Governments make mistakes,” Ayers argues. “The US is slipping on relations with other countries. One of the greatest things about Hamp, Armstrong, they were our ambassadors of good will. Performers generate good vibrations between people.”

Closer to home, Ayers worries that changes in the music industry are stifling the sort of creative movement he once took part in.

“The major record companies are not recording the [creative] black artists, jazz artists, and R&B artists,” he complains. “The sad thing is that had this happened to Miles, Monk, Roach, we would have missed all of these things. Fortunately the people in charge at that time really cared about the creative arts. Now they seem to be getting phased out.”

Although Ayers was long signed to Polydor (later Polygram), it’s BBE, a small, progressive British label, that has just brought out “Virgin Ubiquity,” two volumes of the band’s unreleased treasures from the late ’70s.

Ayers has made himself part of the solution too, with his relentless commitment to working with emerging artists. And he is not too modest to cite himself as a role model. “Anybody who’s over 60, and they’re vibrating and full of energy, that’s the way you want to be,” he said. “Music is my greatest outlet, man. I would do it all over again.”