"Performing for the 3rd time in 4 years."
Armand “Hops” Hutton
Napoleon “Polo” Cummings
Interview By: Bridgid Brousseau
Natrually & with special guest Herbie Hancock
If Naturally 7 was a super multi-vitamin we would all live forever. If you missed the opportunity to see one of the greatest a capella groups ever, not to worry because these their momentum has just begun. Naturally 7 brought the 35th Annual Playboy Jazz Festival audience to their feet where they remained until the group’s last note resonated the stadium in what has been called a historical performance with musical icon Herbie Hancock.
Naturally 7 is an American music group with a distinct, acappella style capturing and reflecting various genres including Jazz, R&B, Hip-Hop, Fusion, Classical and Baroque styles.
As the camera panned the crowd, looks of amazement could be seen all over the faces that filled the sold out 18,000 capacity venue. The performance was flawless.
The group sat down with Smooth Jazz Magazine and gave us some insight into what makes Naturally 7 so “natural.”
SJM: Welcome back! How does it feel to be back?
N7: Yeah! It’s great to be back! This is our 3rd appearance in four years. It’s an amazing feeling! Each year they move us into a better position. This year we’re in a prime time position. It’s the perfect evening. So, it feels great! We’re happy to be here! We’re always thrilled to be here!
Although Naturally 7 was often compared to Take 6 and Boys to Men, this group has emerged with an unparalleled distinction and potency that is unique only to Naturally 7.
N7: We call what we do “vocal play,” and that’s using solely your voice to interpret what you think the instrument sounds like. Using “vocal play” to do what we do allows us to mold ourselves into any genre.
N7: We try to tackle all of it. We found that Classical, Baroque and Fusion really work well together too. “Hidden in Plain Sight” is our first United States album to be release this fall and has a medieval theme. One can’t pen us down to any particular theme and we like that.
The group is comprised of Roger Thomas, who sings lead baritone, and serves as the group’s musical director and arranger. Rod Eldridge is the 1st Tenor and trumpeter. Garfield Buckley performs as the 2nd Tenor and replicates the harmonica. Roger’s brother, Warren Thomas is the 3rd Tenor and creates the sounds of percussion, guitar and also sings the clarinet. The group also includes Napoleon “Polo” Cummings playing 4th tenor and electric guitar, Dwight Stewart singing 2nd Baritone, trumpet and delivering smooth vocals, and Armand “Hops” Hutton singing an astonishing bass.
Since their debut album “Non-fiction” in 2000, Naturally 7 has recorded five additional albums including Naturally 7 “Live” in 2012. They have also been touring with Michael Buble on his “Crazy Love Tour.”
SJM: Roger, you are the musical director. What is it like to direct all of these guys?
N7: It’s a lot of fun because we are all on the same page. We are able to stay on the same page and that’s a blessing. We come from a faith background, therefore we all have the same goals, and drive in the same direction. It’s a wonderful thing we’ve been doing for 13 years now. We see that there’s still so much to accomplish and do. That feels good!
SJM: You each have an exceptionally unique gift. How did Naturally 7 meet?
N7: It’s a blessing! Well, Roger and Warren are brothers so they were introduced by their parents. The rest of us were either friends or friends of friends. We met through church. It wasn’t the same church but through the church community. We decided to go sing around and in church, see what we could do with it and how far we could take it.
N7: Early on there were many comparisons to “Take 6” and “Boys to Men.” So we were kind of searching for ourselves and what was going to be “Naturally 7.” It didn’t take us long when we set our minds to it and now (that comparison) it doesn’t happen anymore. We’re recognized as separate entities. We are not the same. Naturally 7 has yet to perform on the same stage as “Take 6” or Boys to Men.
SJM; How does Naturally 7 repeatedly deliver such exhilarating performances while specifically maintaining vocal health and keeping their voices toned?
N7: When we’re on stage we let it all out. The crowd was screaming and shouting so we were screaming and shouting. We travel so much that sometimes it’s hard to get rest. We found that sleep is one of the main ways to recuperate. We exercise discipline, get enough sleep and rejuvenate. None of us drink or smoke either. God gave us these voices, these instruments, so we protect them. We don’t have any other instruments to lean on.
N7: In the last thirteen years that’s how important it is to keep our voices in check. Sometimes it takes a toll. The voice is a muscle and it reacts when you train it. There are times when one of is hoarse. But if you can’t do it, you can’t do it! We’ve given the part to the next person but we don’t like doing that because something is going to suffer.
N7: On the stage everything has to start with the human voice. We don’t mind putting the voice through distortion. What we have found is that when we put our voices through simulation or distortion we are still the founding instrument and that is the key.
SJM : How did the collaboration with Herbie Hancock come to be?
N7: We honored him for BET a couple of years back and that might have been where the idea came from. It was definitely historic for us because we’ve never been on the stage with Herbie Hancock. This was unique in itself because we all felt really honored to have someone of that stature just even willing to join us on stage. It was our first time and everything happened so fast that we just got caught up in enjoying it hopefully as much as he did.
There is only one instrument thus far that Naturally 7 has difficulty conquering.
They talked about the only instrument they have yet to master.
N7: The piano, a regular acoustic piano is hard to duplicate. Because it’s such a unique instrument it’s very hard to duplicate that sound. We can do electronic keys and stuff like that. We haven’t gotten to the acoustic piano yet, but we’re working on it!
Curiously, Naturally 7 is a bit surprised by the many genres that they continue to have the ability to bend stylistically after all of these years.
N7: When we first started we actually mixed three genres together. We did it in Germany and they understood it! They understood perhaps not what we were saying but they understood the vibe and their ability to translate is actually kind of miraculous. There weren’t any Jamaicans in this audience but everyone was on there feet when we started doing “One Love.”
SJM: Each performance is different. How do you keep the mix going?
N7: We change it up. We’ve got to change it up for where we are. In general, people are the same in so many more ways than not. We change it up everywhere we go. We push the boundaries a bit, but we also stay with what people are going to relate to and understand. It depends on the people. The people make the city. What’s the audience? What’s the age group? We consider all of those things. For example, we did a show for a group of six year olds and their teacher said “it was the first time they had ever sat still for 30 minutes.”
N7: As any artist you definitely want the listener to feel something. We feel we’re different and special, not something that has been done before. So we want the new listeners to want to know more. We’re passionate about what we do and we want the listener to feel that as well. In all of our music we have a theme that is “love one another and love God,” and that’s what we want any listener, young and old to take from us.