By Jonathan Widran

Since being named Smooth Jazz News’ 2004 Debut Artist of the year, the Tampa, Florida, saxman has been dividing some 80 gigs a year between his own shows and touring with Brian Culbertson.  To the delight of smooth jazz fans everywhere, he’s Just Getting Started!

Eric Darius’ life and career have been spinning in a state of happy overdrive since he was on the cover of Smooth Jazz News as Debut Artist of the Year in 2004.  But as the title of the 23-year-old saxman’s new Narada Jazz CD reminds us, in many ways, he’s Just Getting Started.

His touring schedule is joyfully crazy, up to 80 gigs a year throughout the country––about half on his own, and half as a featured sideman with Brian Culbertson.  Fueled by Darius’ charismatic, energetic performance style and the popular first single “Steppin’ Up,” Just Getting Started debuted in the Top 10 on Billboard’s Contemporary Jazz chart and remained there for more than eight weeks.

The momentum is carrying him through an amazing array of gigs this summer.  The middle weekend of this month, Darius and Culbertson are storming Southern California with gigs at three top smooth jazz series and festivals: the WAVE’s Hyatt Regency Newport Beach Summer Jazz Series (June 16); Thornton Winery (June 17) and the 2nd Annual Big Bear Lake JazzTrax Summer Festival (June 18).  In July, Darius is doing his own show at the Old Pasadena JazzFest.

“Since becoming Smooth Jazz News’ Debut Artist of the Year, I’ve definitely gotten a lot more opportunities than I had the year my first album, Night on the Town, was released,” says the saxman.  “More fans knew who I was and I started getting a lot of respect from the veteran musicians who were previously wondering, ‘Who’s this little kid?’ because of my age.  I think the album exceeded the expectations of my label at the time, Higher Octave Music, and it helped me get my foot in the door.  But the cover, along with gaining new fans by just playing my heart out at so many important venues like the Catalina Island JazzTrax Festival, really helped me get to what I consider the next level.”

The Debut Artist of the Year designation also gave him the confidence to approach Culbertson, one of his all-time favorite genre artists, at the NAMM show (National Association of Music Merchants) in Anaheim in January 2005.  “Culby” was doing a special showcase with another piano player, and Darius approached him on a break.  Little did the saxman realize that within a few months, the keyboardist would ask him to become a member of his touring band.     

“I had made arrangements to go see him perform, and I didn’t want to bother him for too long,” he says.  “I just wanted to speak to him very briefly.  We talked for a few minutes, and much to my surprise, when I told him I had this CD on Higher Octave, he said he knew about it.  I gave him a copy and was kind of bold, telling him maybe we could work together sometime.  It turns out that he was looking for a new sax player, and within a few days, his manager called and they flew me from my home in Tampa back to L.A. for a meeting.  I started playing with him in March 2005, and we vibed very naturally.  The chemistry was right immediately, and I have loved every minute.”

Darius wanted Just Getting Started to reflect his ongoing growth as an artist, as well as a more funky R&B type of edge that he felt Night on the Town lacked slightly.  Wanting to combine the R&B and pop he grew up listening to with a fresh, jazzy energy, he tapped Culbertson to write and produce two key tracks on the new collection: “Secret Soul” and “Slick.”  His emergence into the smooth jazz elite also gave him the clout to get Euge Groove and producer/guitarist Paul Brown to work on a track each.  The majority of the cuts were helmed by Darren Rahn, who first caught Darius’ attention via his incredible production on Wayman Tisdale’s hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
“I had fun working with a lot of different producers on this album, who each brought his own distinct style and approach to the music,” says Darius, whose debut was produced by guitarist Ken Navarro.  “I thought it would be interesting to capture different flavors, and I felt it was important that each track sound special and different.  The key to a younger artist making a great smooth jazz record is incorporating the insight of the best artists and behind-the-scenes talent around, and who better than this lineup to make that happen?  It’s a very collaborative genre.”

Ask any true smooth jazz fan and he or she will tell you: No matter how good an artist’s album is, the real excitement comes from a great live performance.  Not only does this translate to big on-the-spot sales, but it helps create a buzz that prompts listeners to become more proactive in purchasing the music.  Darius has developed a reputation for long autograph lines and literally running out of CDs at the venues he performs at.  He knows that no matter how much airplay he gets, the real measure of his success is how well his fiery energy connects with his audience.

His wild exuberance––which includes spirited treks through the crowd––may seem overwhelming to some, but the saxman has known the value of showmanship ever since he performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland at age 11 as part of The World’s Youngest Jazz Band, with other kids from South Florida.  Long before he was a presence on the national smooth jazz scene, he was doing countless gigs in the Tampa region and beyond.  He even released an independent debut album, Cruisin’, when he was just 17.

“Ever since I was a kid, I had that performer mentality and knew that it was all about the audience,” says Darius.  “Every time I step on stage, I give it my all and play to the best of my ability.  The natural excitement I get from being up there comes through and in turn the audience can feel the energy.  I feed off their energy as well.  They’re paying good money to see a show, and it’s our job to give them their money’s worth and show them a good time.  I think putting on a good show has really made a huge difference for me.  I haven’t had millions of dollars in promotion behind me but every time I play a gig in a new market, I’m connecting with a whole new realm of fans.

“Playing with Brian has increased my exposure in a lot of places where I’m not well known enough to do my own gigs, so that’s been great too,” he adds.  “I have a different mind set when I’m there to support him.  When I get the opportunity to shine or play my own songs, I go all out, but I don’t get in his way.  At my own show, it’s all up to me to make the connection.  I’m starting to play less cover tunes at my own gigs, but I did that for a long time to make an easier, more immediate connection with people, like breaking the ice.  Now that it’s broken, I have the confidence to do more of my own material.  It’s kind of an interesting balance, having the opportunity to play with one of the genre’s best artists and then doing my own gigs.  Everything is such an amazing opportunity.”
Darius has accomplished so much in such a short time and matured to such a powerful level that it’s hard to fathom that he’s still only 23 and a college student at the University of South Florida.  He’s had to drop out for a while to keep his career momentum going; he has a semester and a half to go to complete his marketing degree.  “Graduating college has always been a goal of mine, and I intend to do it,” he says.

The saxophonist, who still finds time to play in the worship band at Northside Assembly of God––where he has centered his faith in God since he was 4 years old––also recently got engaged to Alyssa, his high school sweetheart and girlfriend of six years.  Developing his career is currently taking precedence over setting a specific wedding date.

When he’s home, Darius is either playing basketball (a lifelong hobby) or busy decorating the new house he bought in the Tampa area.  “My mom and Alyssa always offer to help, but I’m doing it all myself actually,” he laughs.  “I kind of go for this contemporary but traditional kind of thing.  It’s very reflective of the old and new elements that are in my music and which define me as a person.  Everything about me has an old-school feel, but I put a new contemporary twist on things.  Musically, I draw from older influences like Grover Washington and Cannonball Adderley, but put that in the context of a completely new style.”

For more information on Darius, including his complete touring schedule, visit his website at www.ericdarius.com.

DISCOGRAPHY 
2000 Cruisin' Smooth Breeze Productions
2004 Night On The Town Higher Octave Music
2006 Just Getting Started Narada Jazz

 

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