Ask top-flight saxophonist Tony Exum Jr. what he's been up to since winning this category last year, and one of the last things you'd expect to hear is that he's taken up the bass.
"I wanted to play bass in high school but decided to stick with sax," says Exum. "But I love bass guitar, absolutely love it. It's such an integral part of American music, yet it still gets overlooked."
Like most fans of the instrument, Exum reveres Bootsy Collins, Larry Graham, Marcus Miller and Stanley Clarke. But there are also a few lesser-known bassists he admires, including Mark L. Adams from the funk group Slave. "Their album Show Time was given to me as a kid, and that's when I fell in love with the bass."
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Which is not to suggest that Exum has abandoned the instrument that brought him here, or the smooth jazz stylings at which he's already excelled. But he continues to bring R&B and rap elements into a number of his projects, which is why you find the late hip-hop genius J Dilla right next to George Duke in the "artists he admires" list above.
"His ears were nothing short of amazing," says Exum, who recently recorded a Dilla tribute track with another sax player. "To me, he personified the organic side of hip-hop by how musical and intricate his samples were."
Meanwhile, Exum has continued to rack up accomplishments of his own. Among the past year's highlights, he cites a concert he played in October at Washington, D.C.'s Corcoran Gallery in honor of UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba. He's also got a full plate of projects, including recording a new album, touring, collaborating with other contemporary jazz artists like L.A. vocalist Aysha, and continuing to work with kids who are interested in developing their musical skills.
A word of advice for fellow musicians? "Recognize that your talent comes from Jehovah our God, and stay humble," he says. "Great things can happen."
2nd place: Barbara Ernst
3rd place: Bob Tudor