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Krunk Up The Band
Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra Gets it Live

By Lee Valentine Smith

Raised in East St. Louis, Russell Gunn has written, produced, toured and mentored musicians from every genre imaginable. His credits are diverse with an incredible history of tours with artists as varied as Lou Reed to CeeLo and catalog of recordings that blur the lines of traditional jazz genres.

The two-time Grammy nominated composer, arranger, producer, trumpeter's new project is The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra. The Atlanta-based outfit merges the big band sound with R&B and Southern hip-hop. Their debut album Get It How You Live (Ropeadope Records) was released last year with guest vocalists Dionne Farris and Dashill Smith.

INsite spoke with the busy musician before a recent recording session.

This project seems to have its origins in your Bionic album from over a decade ago. How'd it all come together?

Well, I find that as I get stronger as a writer, I tend to write for more people. As a composer, I'm able to hear things in a different way. So musically, I keep hearing bigger and bigger things. The main reason I have a big band now is, which I was writing for smaller ensembles, it was only because I didn't know how to write for one this size. But I kept hearing the larger sound. Now that I know how to write for a big band skillfully, I decided to form this band.

So it's grown organically.

Yeah, it's been in steps. Some of my first records were just small quintet or quartet type records. Then I started writing bigger things and went up to the sextet, septet, the Bionic record we did was rather large, but it still wasn't this big. We'll have 21 or 22 people on stage, with some guests.

Now you're working in the traditional big band format.

Yeah, it's the traditional set-up with five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones and a rhythm section. The only thing different is the actual music that we play.

There's a number of different genres in the RKJO sound. Do you call it fusion?

Some people do call it fusion, but I just call it normal, everyday music. I'm not trying to make it like fusion, that wouldn't work. This is an organic thing. Since it all comes from the same place, everything can work seamlessly. It wouldn't sound natural if we forced it. It just wouldn't sound good.

It would be contrived.

Yeah, it's like that old saying, if you try to be cool, you aren't cool.

Your entire catalog reflects your diverseapproach. It's all over the place. And not many people can work with Lou Reed one day and NeYo the next day.

My style just reflects me. It's all just music at the end of the day. For me, it was never a thing I had to try to do, I just did it. Growing up in St Louis, I was fortunate enough to have a high school band director that basically ran his ensemble the same way I run my ensemble now. We dealt with the whole spectrum of music within a big band setting.

High school is the best time to develop a style and appreciate music history.

Yeah, music history and learning history in general is really a matter of self-learning and it's always an on-going process. You learn about a musician and you go check him out and you see that person in that play used to play with such-and-such so it has a snowball effect on what you can absorb. It really leads to a well-rounded musical education.

You've played every type of venue imaginable. Do you find a difference in the presentation from place to place?

A club is different than an amphitheater and that's different than an open-air festival, but the principles are the same. If you can connect, there's no difference from the stage to the front row - if the people are right in front of you or if they're 100 yards away from you. It just doesn't matter. If you have the tools, and the music connects with the people then that's all that really matters. The soundman can handle the volume, it's the musician that makes the connection.

Before you recorded Get It How You Live, did you test out the songs live?

Yeah, we are finishing a new record but for the first one, it was a new band. When I start an ensemble, I like to work it out like they used to do in the old days. It takes time for musicians to get a feel for each other. It's a relationship. You have to learn each other's tendencies. For me, as a writer, I like to learn the strengths, weaknesses and capabilities of the band. It's like being a point guard. You have to learn the team when you're dealing with different personalities. So we did a weekly gig for a year at a club on the Southside called St. James Live. And we just worked it out. We showed up every week and played music. Some of the charts I put in the trash. But after I got a real feel for the ensemble, I started writing different charts. Then when we went to the studio, we were ready. We finished the record in one day.

The Royal Krunk Orkestra plays Atlanta Jazz Festival's Meadow Stage at 9 p.m. on Sunday, May 26.

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