In May of 2015, Deon Yates earned his Master’s of Communications and Public Relations from Lasell College and is now a featured lecturer at Macomb Community College – a renowned Michigan based institution – on the history of jazz music in Detroit. A longtime innovative presence on his hometown’s jazz scene and two time Emmy Award nominee, he brings a fresh and unique perspective on the subject. But that’s just the start of the curriculum for the multitalented composer and saxophonist. On his infectious, intensely soulful and hard groovin’ Woodward Avenue debut, Yates opens a spirited, high energy School of Funk, offering a dynamic, 11 track master class on the present and future of contemporary urban jazz. The emotional focus of the collection is on Yates’ unique ability to switch off between tenor, alto and soprano as the lead melodic voice from track to track and create dazzling dual horn harmonies. But like all great teachers, Yates brings in an exciting array of “guest lecturers” and
sonic architects to help him break all funk IQ barriers. Chief among these is fellow Michigander
and Woodward Avenue Records label mate Nate Harasim, School of Funk’s main producer and
co-writer, with Yates, of six of its tracks. In addition to emerging as an eclectic solo artist, Harasim – whose Fender Rhodes and organ vibe provides the perfect complement to Yates’ lead sax action – has brought the radio magic to tracks by Darren Rahn, Julian Vaughn, Michael Lington and others. Yates first met Harasim at a show in Kalamazoo in 2009, and Harasim has participated in a live music series Yates and his wife have produced in Detroit to spotlight up and coming urban jazz performers. Another great Woodward Avenue artist, two time Grammy Award winning guitarist Paul Brown, is on hand as producer of a spirited cover of Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” and adds his trademark string energy to the opening track “Motor City Strut.” Another top genre artist and producer, guitarist Nils, adds his electric string magic throughout and is co-writer and coproducer of the vocal track “Satisfaction.” The guest list also includes keyboardist Brian Simpson, trumpeter Lin Rountree, guitarist Gerey Johnson, bassists Roberto Vally and Takashi Iio and one of the last recorded performances of legendary drummer Ricky Lawson. “Speaking along the lines of the album title, my goal with this music is to educate people about the fact that, even after all these years, Detroit still has the funk and artists like me are committed to forging our own fresh sounds,” says Yates. “When I’m listening to a lot of the young sax players coming up, I find it hard to distinguish them because they just want to replicate their idols. My urban jazz heroes are guys like Richard Elliot, Boney James and Grover Washington Jr, where you know their sound the minute you hear them. The genre can do much better than cookie cutter sounds. Working with Nate, I wanted to have a nice mixture of contemporary and retro sounds, and take it back to the funk…take listeners back to school and keep the classic funkvibe alive. It’s great to work with Nate and some of the best musicians in the genre to help my vision come to life.”
Though his independently released 2012 album Spotlight was self-produced, it also featured an exciting batch of heavy hitters, including Rountree, Nick Colionne and vocalist Maysa. Colionne appeared on the set’s first single “Used To Be,” which hit the Top 50 in all reporting smooth jazz chart, including #7 on Smoothjazz.com and #13 on Groove Jazz. The breakthrough success of the perfectly titled Spotlight built on the momentum of Yates’ participating in the Capital Jazz Challenge at the annual Capital Jazz Fest. Competing against rising musicians from across the country, he was chosen as a finalist and finished runner up in the overall competition. Yates has also been recognized as a top instrumentalist and performer by some of the top music manufacturers in the country, with endorsements from industry leaders Sax Dakota U.S.A., Theo Wanne (Mouthpieces) and AMT Microphones Deon has proven himself to be a world class artist.
Looking at the big picture of his musical career in educational terms, Yates sees School of Funk as his Senior Project and Spotlight as his junior year. Laying the groundwork for those was his first foray into recording, the aptly named Career Move, a “freshman project” which was released locally in Michigan. He followed with In Time, whose focal track “Freeway” was picked up for inclusion on a national compilation project called Jazz and Infusion, Session 1, which opened numerous new opportunities for him.
Through the years, the saxman and his band, collectively known as the Deon Yates Soul Project, have been a popular force in their native Michigan, including a headlining show at the GrandJazzFest in Grand Rapids with Harasim and Brown. With Brown, they have opened for Richard Elliot in Akron, Ohio. Expanding beyond its regional renown, the band has performed at Blues Alley in Washington, DC, Natalie’s Coal Fired Pizza and Entertainment in Columbus, Ohio and both locations of Spaghettini (Seal Beach and Beverly Hills, CA) with Nils andHarasim.
Yates closes School of Funk with the lush soprano ballad “For Hosea.” The song, like the entire album itself, is dedicated to his childhood music teacher Hosea Taylor, who was also his mentor, musical father and friend. In his moving liner notes, he credits Taylor, who took over as music teacher during his junior high band years, for recognizing his gift and encouraging him to continue pursuing music. Yates was proficient on flute, but credits Taylor for putting him on tenor sax when he was 12. He says, “Mr. Taylor took me under his wing and laid the foundation that brought me to where I am musically today.” Taylor remained a confidant and father figure to Yates until his passing in 2014. Another great teacher and mentor to Yates when he was growing up on Detroit’s East Side was Donald Washington, who tapped the teenage saxophonist to play in his popular local jazz band Bird Trane Sco Now! (after Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Roscoe Mitchell). Through Washington, Yates met Leonard King (jazz drummer with the James Carter Organ Trio) and gigged with his group that also featured Regina Carter on violin and his friend Rodney Whitaker on bass. Even as Yates – a graduate of Michigan’s Rochester College – pursued an extra-musical career as a broadcast technician and multi-media specialist, he quickly built a reputation as a versatile sideman and performer.
Years before he performed as a special guest in concerts with contemporary jazz and R&B greats like Rick Braun, Richard Elliot, Comedian Sinbad, Gerald Veasley, Kem and Dwele, he was working with legendary groups like The Floaters, The Contours and various incarnations of The Temptations. Yates also played keyboards for various blues bands, including Danny Blue and has played flute for the Detroit Symphony Civic Orchestra. In addition, Family Circle Productions, the event company he runs with his wife, offers media services for up and coming indie artists and produces concerts whose proceeds go to a variety of charities, including domestic violence, homeless shelters and local food banks.
“I’ve been making music around Detroit for a long time,” says Yates, “but I know that School of Funk is going to be the first impression I make on a lot of people. It’s an exciting opportunity to share my musical passions with many more people – almost like a senior project that’s preparing me for the master’s and doctorate to come. I look forward to a lot more learning and educating in the years to come.”