Reuben Rogers puts his stamp on the moment

Boston Globe, May 18, 2007

The new album from bassist Reuben Rogers is an easygoing set that brims with positive energy. On a program of mainly Rogers’s compositions, a roster of high-flying buddies like trumpeter Nicholas Payton and saxmen Joshua Redman and Ron Blake drop in with bright, clean contributions. You feel the warmth even without knowing Rogers’s roots in the Virgin Islands and affection for his Caribbean culture.

Once you do know those things, however, the calypso and reggae influences on some songs make all the more sense, and the album title, “The Things I Am,” takes on its full meaning. It’s a statement of self-expression from an artist who after 14 years as a sideman is finally granting himself a turn in the spotlight.

Rogers visits Scullers on Tuesday to celebrate the new release. He’ll be joined by Blake, a longtime friend and mentor; drummer Gregory Hutchinson, who also appears on the album; and pianist Danny Grissett. It’s a return to old haunts for Rogers, who attended Berklee in the mid-1990s and stayed on in Boston awhile, playing at venues such as Wally’s and Ryles before making the move to the New York area.

On the phone from Jersey City, where he now lives, Rogers says that making his own album was a logical step, even though he fundamentally enjoys being a sideman – as his current membership in working groups led by Charles Lloyd, Dianne Reeves, and Redman testifies.

“I’ve enjoyed consistently working with a lot of great folks,” Rogers says, “so it was never a priority. But I got to the point of always being asked if I had a project coming out. And I had some things in my back pocket. So I said, let me make a statement for 2007. It’s a stamp for this moment in time.”

Specifically, Rogers says, recording his own record allowed him to delve into personal material and memories that, though he’s only 32, might otherwise get buried under his workload of projects for other people.

“It’s a collage of what my life has been like,” he says, “as a child growing up in the Virgin Islands, up to now. Being a sideman I’ve always been portraying someone else’s ideas. This time I’m painting my own picture and others are helping me with my sketch, filling in the colors, and that’s the biggest difference.

“People ask me sometimes to characterize it, because we always look for labels. Is it Caribbean jazz? It’s just music, good music, feel-good music. The art of improvisation is very evident in it, which puts it in the jazz tradition. I’m very proud of it.”

As well he should be. The album isn’t a unified outing by a single, cohesive group: Aside from Rogers, only Hutchinson and pianist-organist Aaron Goldberg are present end to end. But the visitors – who include guitarists David Gilmore and Mark Whitfield and, on the lovely “Phillip” by Japanese composer Toru Dodo, a turn on the steel drum by Adam Cruz – make this a sort of junior all-star collection, in which artists to whose craft Rogers has contributed now return the favor with obvious enthusiasm and grace.

Rogers grew up on the island of St. Thomas; in a little jazz-history wink, he offers a short reprise, on his album, of the calypso-inflected song “St. Thomas” that saxophone Sonny Rollins made famous. Calypso and other local pop forms were what Rogers grew up on, along with gospel, having been raised in a religious family. “My parents still don’t listen to jazz to this day,” he says, laughing, though they make an exception for his recordings.

A musically gifted child, he started playing clarinet and drums and dabbled with other instruments before zooming in on the bass. He played electric bass in church groups, largely teaching himself as he went along, but it was when Blake and drummer Dion Parson came through the Virgin Islands giving clinics that the then-teenage Rogers discovered his vocation.

He began to collect all the recordings he could, and eventually found his way to Berklee. It was only on arrival in Boston, he says, that he finally purchased his first upright bass.

Now Rogers does his part to introduce young Virgin Islanders to the possibilities of jazz in the same way that he benefited from as a high schooler. At least once a year, he travels back to teach in the local schools. “That was how I got my start,” he says. “I try to give back to where I came from.”

Like many musicians on the scene, Rogers works outside of jazz as well; he says he’s been in the studio lately working on tracks with Kanye West and other rap artists, and he recently got back from a trip to Japan working with a Japanese pop star, Tomoyasu Hotei.

The busy workload made it all the more important, and satisfying, for Rogers to take the time to put together his own album. He’s releasing it independently: It’s available on iTunes and through the online store CDBaby. He says he had some interest from labels, especially when it became clear that he could assemble a roster of well-known guests.

But Rogers felt he could afford to take the independent route: “I decided to go ahead and do it on my own. The money part is not a big deal for me.” He says he’s almost recouped his expenses – a key threshold in the unglamorous economics of the jazz industry. And as his schedule testifies, a well-regarded bassist is rarely starved for work: “There’s always a need for a bass player somewhere.”

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