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Max Beesley’s all-star record ZEUS flies high

English actor and multi-instrumentalist Max Beesley has released his all-star record ZEUS
Courtesy of the artist
English actor and multi-instrumentalist Max Beesley has released his all-star record ZEUS

Actor and multi-instrumentalist Max Beesley is not your ordinary “double threat” artist. Unlike the musicians who act like Jennifer Hudson, or actors who play music like Bruce Willis, Max has a long and storied history away from the spotlight in the music industry – as a session musician. 

The English actor—known for his roles in BBC Productions, Apple TV+’s Hijack, and the legal drama Suits — cut his teeth in the UK acid jazz scene and has played percussion alongside Stevie Wonder, piano with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, and performances with Earth Wind & Fire, George Benson, Jamiroquai and so many more. 

Now, Max Beesley steps out in front for his High Vibes’ project release  – ZEUS – a groovy, beautiful magnum opus of a seasoned multi-instrumentalist. 

“​​I thought I'd like to get some of my favorite players that I've either worked with or that I know on the record for this genre” says Beesley, who put together quite the all-star group behind him which features drummer Steve Gadd, pianist Christian Sands, and percussionist Luis Conte. The chemistry of the group went beyond the musical bond according to Max.

“I've started learning as I've got older is that as important as the chart is the hang. You will create such a different record if you've got people that enjoy each other's company. You know, when you're in that studio for two weeks, three weeks, 12 hours, 14, 15 hours a day.

”The camaraderie is evident from the get go, from the hard-hitting lead off vibraphone feature “ZEUS” to the laidback tune “We’ll Always Have Yesterday” to the horn-focused powerhouse “Fire”.

Track to track, you’ll recognize that it’s a feel good album. With songs Max looks forward to sharing live. “It's such a privilege, isn't it? You know, to be able to get on stage and just give something to someone… It is an hour and a half hopefully where they can forget about the pain, conundrums, everything of life and just enjoy themselves and that is a service. And that's why I love, love, love doing it.” ZEUS, from Max Beesley’s High Vibes, is out now on Légère Recordings.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Trevor Smith: Hey everyone, this is Trevor Smith, producer at WBGO, and I am here with Max Beesley, not only a fantastic instrumentalist and the leader of the group High Vibes, but also the incredible actor that you've seen in Apple TV+ Hijack, personal favorite Suits, and many BBC productions. Max, thank you for taking the time and speaking with me today.

Max Beesley: Thank you so much for having me. I'm very grateful. It's great to speak to you.

Now, James Brown, Godfather of Soul, said that you're one of the most dynamic people he knew. And that's true when you take a look at your resume. Not only are you an accomplished actor, but you have some pretty serious musical chops and, quite the list of collaborators. Before we get into that, I want to hear about your start with music and about your dad who is an accomplished drummer.

My mother actually was a jazz singer and a really accomplished jazz singer, and her career was on a trajectory until I was born, and then she stayed at home a little bit more, but she was very much like Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald and she was phenomenal. She sang with Maynard Ferguson's band.

She was a terrific vocalist. And my father, of course, was a jazz drummer. Max Roach and Roy Haynes were his favorite players. And I think he put a pair of drumsticks in my hand when I was about three years old and there's pictures of me with sets of bongos in front of me when I'm like four, and I think what's great is somehow I managed to get some of my father's rhythmic nuances and also my mother's melodic dynamics and so the two of them married together. They must have given me something which I'm obviously very grateful for. I grew up in Burnage in South Manchester, which is a working class neighborhood.a blue collar neighborhood and the options were like the grammar school there, which was not great, or the Chetham's School of Music in Manchester. And I worked really hard and I eventually got a scholarship there when I was 11, which started off my trajectory as a musician.

And I assume there you learned piano and the melodic lines through there and that married with the drums, makes for a perfect vibraphonist. When was the first time you picked up the vibes as an instrument?

It's a good question. So I was a percussionist there, a classical percussionist, played with the symphony orchestras and the chamber orchestras, and piano was my second instrument. There were kids my age playing Ratman and Off, the Piano Concerto, and incredible savants, really good musicians, and I wasn't as strong as a pianist, but I do remember saying to our percussion teacher at the time, who's a great guy I said, the kids in the class, it's like we're sort of the black sheep of the family, they're looking down upon us as the percussion department, like we're not as thorough or, and I said, so my friends play Paganini's violin concerto.

She's 12. Why aren't we playing that on vibes or the marimba or the xylophone? And he was a really great tuned player, this guy. And he said it's a great idea. I'm going to bring you some Bach sonatas in next week, and I want you to start playing them on the vibraphone. Some of the slow movements, and you can do your damping techniques, but then some of the quick and faster movements as well.

And that's what really started the natural transition into the vibraphone, which you're right, drums and piano marry perfectly and that is a great instrument for that.

You've played with some serious musicians. Earth, Wind, and Fire, George Benson, Stevie Wonder. I'd love to hear about your experience with, session work on, the highest of the highest level with those artists.

I think Stevie Wonder's probably the most phenomenal living, breathing musician on the planet right now. And playing for him again, nervous, in a recording session where it was Omar, my friend from school, the soul singer that Stevie really likes. He phoned me at one o'clock in the morning and he said, Stevie's come to the studio. I said, brother, it's 1 a. m. man. He said, well, he's coming. And I'm like, I'm in the middle of the countryside.

I was in Marlowe, like an hour out of London. He said, it's up to you, man. You want to risk it in coming and you're not, and I'm like, Oh, so I put the phone down. I was in my pajamas, literally in bed, and then I drove it to the studio. My friend, Jerry, me in studio, Wendy house studios, got there at 2am, 3am. 4:15 he turned up and it was insane, man. And he just, he said hello to everybody. He sat down and then he just said “Max.”

He just sent me the beat and I'm like, normally, I'd go, okay, I've kind of got it. But because it was him through the glass window and I was quite nervous, so I started while he was singing it. I was mimicking my hand movements and dependency between my hands and feet going, Oh my God. And then I just, you just got to go for it, man.

And we ended up having a great session. It was terrific. That was a phenomenal experience.

The James Brown performance, I watched a high res version on YouTube and it's intimidating playing with somebody like James Brown, who is. you know, leads a band with such precision and, To sit down at the piano, where it's just you and Mr. Brown doing "Georgia On My Mind" must have been terrifying. You knocked it out of the park, but that was quite the intense moment.

Well, I must be honest with you. It was what you've seen edited is fine, I'm sure. But actually what happened, when I got the email from Superfrank, Mr. Brown would like you to play with him in London. I just replied, I went, yeah, sure he would, no problem. I thought it was a joke, I thought it was a friend of mine winding me up.

And then he said, these are the dates. And I'm like, wow, this guy's being thorough with this joke. So I just thought, I'll just check the water. I said, what keys are he singing, “Prisoner of Love,” “It's Magic,” and “Georgia on My Mind” in?

D flat now because he's got older and I'm like, oh my God, and I was so nervous and I've never been nervous on a musical gig ever. I prep and I'm ready before we go on tour, we go in the studio and I kind of have a good idea.

You can prep and then you let the music play you really, that's what you do on these sessions or these gigs. But for this job, it was incredibly intimidating. And I went to the sound check, and Mr. Brown was on stage, and I was looking for Super Frank. And then Super Frank's on stage, and he walks over, and he says, I'll introduce you to Mr. Brown.

I walk over, and he said, “This is Mr. Beesley, he'll be playing with you tonight.” And he just looked at me with a smile, man. A beautiful smile. It's like his teeth were golden and shining. And he was like, he just said, “We're gonna have a little fun ride.” That was it. “We're gonna have a little fun ride here."

And I went, okay. And he said “Georgia.” That's all he said. And I said, okay. So I opened my case. I dressed immaculately. I had a case open. I put my music out. And I started playing it [he said] “drop it down, drop it down.” I'm like, oh my god, so now I'm transposing down to, I think it was D flat. It was horrific.

“Drop it down again, drop it down again” him giving me the instructions and I am roasting. He just smiled at me and Frank said to me that's you can you can relax now go backstage before the gig. So I was in the bathroom furiously writing out the changes like oh god, right? And then when we got to the gig, he pulled me into his dressing room before we went on didn't say anything. Just sat smiling and he was having his feet massaged by his then wife.

He had this beautiful petrol blue silk suit on and I was there with a tie and respectful because I knew from Carleen Anderson, who was a friend of mine, her and Bobby Byrd and and Vicki Anderson were her auntie and uncle I think and she said it's Mr. Brown. There's no baseball caps. You can't hit bomb notes, man. It's serious. And I'm like, Oh, I knew how heavy it was to work with it. And like 20 minutes and he's relaxing. And then he went, let's go. And I got up, the door opened and there in the corridor were his whole band, like soldiers, bang, bang, bang. Clocked every single one of them. Then he gave it the nod, they went off and then we walked on and when we got on stage, introduced me, I start playing the introduction to "Georgia" and he starts singing "Prisoner of Love," and I'm like, oh, it's a live television broadcast Now, normally, you can sort of get your head around it and throw a few changes in open music off and escape and get around it.

But I think the pressure of playing with him was so high that I actually froze for the first time in my whole musical career and just stopped playing. It was horrendous. And then Mr. Brown looked down and he's like “When a man plays with one of his idols, sometimes you get a little confused.” So then I start playing “Prisoner of Love."

I'm like, okay, I'll work toward the artist support what he's just been singing. And he opens with “Georgia" and he starts singing “Georgia.” But this time I was like, no, I can't mess up again. And then [vocalizes] "Georgia." He sat and we were in. But it was one of the best and most experiences in my musical career.

You're such an accomplished actor. And oftentimes you see musicians who act or actors who dabble, but you're, you're truly a multidisciplinary artist. Do they converge? Are there other roles where you bring the mind of a musician into it?

The two disciplines are very entwined and both inform each other. I studied in New York with Sheila Gray, who is a phenomenal acting coach, method acting, We use sense memory, we personalize, make choices that are personal to the work and you're very, very focused on the set and you turn on the choices, you turn them off and go home.

That really is the art, I think, of method acting. It's being able to jump in and get out depending, if you're working on something that's very heavily laden with emotional beach, you don't want to be in that 24 hours a day. And that listening, the relaxation and listening are the two most important things, I think, as an actor.

They're absolutely perfect for what you do as a musician on stage or in the studio. I don't know whether it's the actual discipline of acting, which has informed how I work with music, or whether it's getting older and getting more experienced. But we know less is more on the screen, we know less is more in the studio, we know less is more live, we know it's about...quality, hopefully and being very pinpointed in your choices with the work. So they're great. They're both great disciplines that lend themselves to each other quite beautifully. I like them both, unfortunately, because I'm so focused on whatever I'm doing at that particular time, I can't really do both at the same time.

It has to be, okay, if I'm lucky enough to be filming, for instance, next year when I do take this band out live, I'll not be able to do any acting jobs. I have to commit to that and rehearsal period. And then let's get out on the road and let's do it.

Max Beesley's all-star record ZEUS
Courtesy of the artist
Max Beesley's all-star record ZEUS

ZEUS on Légère Recordings is out now, Max Beesley's High Vibes. It is an incredible record. It sort of harks to some Earth, Wind & Fire, the Brecker Brothers, little bit of Headhunters. Tell me about the incredible band that you assembled for this. 

Thank you, first of all. That's very kind of you to say that. I really appreciate that you like the music. I'm very grateful. I wrote demos and I polished the demos. Because in my mind, I thought I'd like to get some of my favorite players that I've either worked with or that I know on the record for this genre. And for the groove stuff, Steve [Gadd] was unquestionably the drummer that I wanted to use on the record. He's a masterful player. He's a masterful musician. He's an orchestrator of music behind the drums with subtlety and groove. I don't think there's anyone like him to be honest with you.

So I sent Steve demos and he said, the tracks are great. When do you want to do it? So that was terrific. Then I went to see Steve's band at Catalina's in Los Angeles with Larry Goldings, Jimmy Johnson and Walt Fowler on flugelhorn. And I was blown away by Walt's playing. I knew about his history. He's just a phenomenal musician. Luis [Conte], I've known on and off for years through the grapevine as a percussionist and as an incredible artist in his own right. And I thought, yeah, Luis would be terrific for the record. Also, Luis, Walt, Steve, all taught a tour together on numerous occasions. Most of their work together has been with James Taylor. 

Christian Sands played on another album that I've done that's going to come out next year. And I went to see Christian at a gig at Vibrato in Los Angeles. And I'm like, who is this guy? He's got some heat on him, I know, but I'll go and check him out. I was due to record two weeks later and I was going to play all the roles and so on and so forth. And then...I went in to listen to this band and my mouth just dropped to the floor for an hour and a half. I've never heard anything like it. A phenomenal musician. 

And you know, what I've started learning as I've gotten older is that as important as the chart is the hang. You will create such a different record if you've got people that enjoy each other's company. When you're in that studio for two weeks, three weeks, 12 hours, 14, 15 hours a day, and I know that that's important and that's something that I will take over into when we go out live because there are multiple musicians who do the job great, but it's about the hang. 

I was talking to friends of mine. I'm like, yeah, this lends itself to a Wah Wah Watson vibe, it's Headhunters, it's got that dirty groove thing, but there's also a bit of blowing on it, so we need a player that can do a bit of both, and it was Steve's manager, Michelle, that said Dean Parks is your man, and I said, well, I know Dean, I mean, it's not a recording, I don't think he's not on. And again, Dean had been playing with the James Taylor band, with those guys, and going back to that hang thing, and the nucleus, The band was coming from war members and a nice spiritual connection, if that makes sense and I emailed Dean and then he came on board and I was delighted.

And then finally, the horn guys that I use on the record, a British horn section, Nicole Thompson, trombone, and Tom Walsh, trumpet. That's the main core, and they bring in a guy called Mike Davis, as well. And I've worked with these boys over the years for years, and they've progressed, their sounds progressed, and they've really fine tuned their art history over the years.

They're very much like a very tight horn section, akin to the horn sections that I love, like Seawind Horns, like Jerry Hayes' horn arrangements, those arrangements from the early Al Jarreau records and Michael Jackson. I just really like that punchy horn sound. I love it. And they're so tight that sometimes I had to tweak the sound a little bit because it sounds like it's programmed horns.

They're so tight, these boys. That was the nucleus of the band and my producing partner and one of my best friends, Jerry Meehan on bass, who's a terrific producer, songwriter. We've done film scores together, Jerry and I. I was really blessed with a terrific band.

I was going to say that horn section was incredible. Like on the track "Fire," it kind of harks to the JBs in terms of you can't even distinguish the notes, the cluster of the arrangement, it's just so smooth. There are a bunch of standout tracks on this album. First of which being the title track “Zeus."

I think that is actually the first demo that I wrote, and that encompasses the sound of the whole record. I mean we do branch off, that's the bark of the tree, there's no doubt about it. And the branches come off here with "Sergio's Bag" leaning towards more of a Sergio Mendes vibe, or "We'll Always Have Yesterday" with just that little respite where you can take a breath in the middle of the album, but the core elements of this album, which, and you very rightly noted, the big influences for this record are absolutely Herbie's Headhunters group, without a doubt, some of the Brecker Brothers stuff with the horn arrangements, some of the Roy Ayers stuff, there are other things that I have quite a huge sphere of musical influences ranging through Gustav Holst to Herbie, Bill Evans voicings and all these beautiful different things.

The core element of the record for me was that it was hard hitting groove again with good heads in there. Melodies that you can remember. That track in particular is a nod to the Headhunters, no doubt about it. You can hear it in the bassline when the groove kicks in and I thought, yeah, I should blow on this as well. So I blow on it because it's the title track of the album and it's a vibraphone featured album. And then I thought now we should jump out of that key, drop in another one and then let's get Christian blowing on this as well, so we can really encapsulate that Rhodes sound, which I love with that punchy [clavinet] underneath and it's a block formation of what the whole record sounds about really. Hard hitting horns, heavy duty groove. 

You'll be touring in Europe and Japan in 2024 with this group?

Yeah, I'm going to go out and we'll do London. And then Japan also, because the record is out there and it's done quite well, which is amazing. I love Japan, man.

I love touring in Japan. I was there with Jamiroquai with Incognito. Brand New Heavies in the early nineties, and it's just a magical place. So I look forward to sharing the music with anybody live. It's such a privilege to be able to get on stage and just give something to someone that it's not Nirvana. It is an hour and a half hopefully where they can forget about the pain, conundrums, everything of life and just enjoy themselves and that is a service. And that's why I love doing it.

Max Beesley's High Vibes’ ZEUS out now on Légère Recordings, Max, thank you so much for talking with us today. And I'm hoping to see you on the east coast with the group one of these days. 

NOTE: This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity. 

Trevor has been listening to WBGO for nearly half of his life. The station has remained near and dear from the first time he tuned in via a portable radio on a bus from his home city of Hartford to New York.