The last time saxophonist Adrian Crutchfield worked with Prince – on what would be the globally adored artist’s final recordings – Prince asked Crutchfield if he was working on his own music.
He told Prince he’d recorded new material, but wasn’t planning to release it any time soon. In truth, the Charlotte-based musician had put off his own album when he got the gig leading the 11-piece horn section of Prince’s backing band, the New Power Generation.
“What I wanted was to be the signature sideman, like Clarence Clemmons. The Maceo Parker to his James Brown. I was content,” Crutchfield says Monday, fresh from Train’s annual music cruise.
Prince wasn’t pleased with his answer.
“I thought he would be flattered. He was very upset with me for not wanting to release my own music,” Crutchfield recalls. “He said, ‘James was great, but what’s Maceo doing now? James is dead. This isn’t going to be forever. Just like I have music to share, you have a voice and you have artistry.’ ”
“The last thing he said was, ‘You need to take a leap yourself.’ ”
When Prince died unexpectedly in April, Crutchfield went to work making an album he felt would honor his former boss. He titled it “Leap.” He celebrates its release with a hometown concert Friday at Neighborhood Theatre.
“It’s an homage to what I learned from him and Lionel (Richie) and Anthony Hamilton and CeeLo,” explains Crutchfield.
Prince’s influence is most notably on the title track – the weirdly funky “Decepticon” – and “Slow Down,” which Crutchfield wrote in what he calls “primetime, ’80s rock n’ roll Prince” style.
Crutchfield expects “Leap” may be too urban and aggressive for the commercial jazz world, but it’s the album he wanted to make. That in itself honors Prince, who was known for ignoring convention and pushing back against his record label.
It wasn’t easy working with Prince’s erratic schedule. In fact, Crutchfield left the band in 2015 to tour with Bette Midler after NPG went dormant indefinitely as Prince relied on a new backing band, 3rdeyegirl.
But during a break in Midler’s tour, Crutchfield went to D.C., where Prince was performing, “mainly because I missed my band.” He sat in with them.
“He gave me a lot of solos and a lot of love and compliments, which he had never done before,” recalls Crutchfield. When he got home, he immediately got a call beckoning him to Paisley Park. It was there during the Minneapolis winter that he, bassist MonoNeon, and drummer Kirk Johnson recorded “Black Is the New Black” with Prince. Crutchfield calls it phenomenal, but doesn’t know – given the uncertainty surrounding matters of the late star’s estate – if it will ever be released.
He visited Paisley Park in October with the New Power Generation and keeps in touch with his old horn-playing bandmates, who have scattered and are now working for other acts. He teaches at Catawba College, where he put Prince on the syllabus. Students learn “Purple Rain” in its entirety and are schooled in Prince’s history and music.
“That’s one way of keeping him alive,” he says. He’s also adamant about debunking reports about Prince’s character in lieu of his death.
“Most of us in the band don’t like the way he was portrayed in the media. The cause of death? The typical rock star death? None of that really clicks. He wasn’t an avid drug user,” says Crutchfield. “I’m making sure people know that wasn’t who he was, and that wasn’t his style.”
And, of course, he’s making his own music.
“He told me to do it,” he adds. “To have him say that was a big deal.”
When: 8 p.m. Friday.
Where: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.
Details: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com.