For Maxwell, this month was “a September like no other.”
He recently wrapped a four-night stint at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the National Symphony Orchestra and while in town, received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus.
On Friday, he will carry his newly rearranged R&B/soul favorites to Cadence Bank Amphitheatre and perform them with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.
It’s understandable, then, when the sweetly soulful artist says — thoroughly convincingly — a couple of weeks before the D.C. shows, “I’m not a little nervous. I’m freaking nervous.”
Maxwell called from his hometown of New York, where that night he would speak at the Mosaic Gala Against Human Slavery, a cause for which he feels deeply.
“My interest in fighting trafficking grew into something bigger because the problem isn’t just one facet; it’s bigger than that. This is about rescuing people who aren’t in a position to help themselves,” he said.
Maxwell, 46, has always been an under-the-radar kind of guy.
He’s only released five studio albums in a 20-plus-year career, but songs such as “Pretty Wings,” “Fistful of Tears” and “Sumthin’ Sumthin’” are bedrocks of recent soul music.
No surprise that one of his favorite stories is the fable of the tortoise and the hare — a slow, steady stroll to the finish line.
The genuine heart of Maxwell radiated through a conversation that explored his intentions with these symphony shows and what lurks in the future.
Q: You’re only doing these shows in Atlanta and D.C. How did we luck out?
A: (Laughs) More like, how did I get so lucky that 25 years after making songs that I thought would be on the radio for a while would then lend themselves to an orchestra? I haven’t been more nervous in my life about what I’m about to do. I just want it to be great and for people to walk away and feel happy, to just bring as much joy to people through the arts and music. It’s the only way we can escape. I’m just truly honored by the fact that we doing four nights at the Kennedy Center [in Washington, D.C.] and then, of course, Atlanta. I’ve been spending most of my days not speaking for six hours and doing what the opera people do (to prepare).
Q: What does Atlanta mean to you, given that we’re a chosen city?
A: I think Atlanta is an incredible place, and when you think of the early ’90s and what emerged out of Atlanta, from Babyface to TLC, it became like the new Detroit a little bit when it came to R&B. I love that area. I think it’s beautiful, and the people are amazing. It’s hot as hell, but I’m from New York, so I know what a hot summer is like with the asphalt. I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Atlanta in many ways.
Q: What prompted the idea to turn your songs symphonic?
A: Someone called and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ I’m so anti-business - everything has some sort of string attached – but this was about five months ago that there was an offer and we’ve been working on the charts since then (for the symphonies). Some of the songs sound like they’re movies. I’ve been working with Derrick Hodge with the National Symphony Orchestra. We worked together during the “Blacksummersnight” days - he was the bass player. With him and the NSO, we’ve been able to merge to make the songs not only symphonic but rhythmic as well. It will have a new feel that I hope will entice people to feel that the orchestra isn’t just black tie, that the tradition of this incredible art form – the symphony – can continue through other forms. I can’t thank the NSO and the ASO enough to do it. In my earlier stages, we had the strings and the harp from the first album (1996’s “Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite”) and now I get to do it with pretty much the whole catalog. There are a few gems in there that didn’t see the light of day that will be represented. People who really know my catalog will be like, “Oh, yes!” and the others will be like, “Oh, no!” I’ve learned that everyone has their opinion and you just have to just do what feels right to you.
Q: That said, how do you think fans will react to symphonic versions of your songs?
A: That’s the age-old question. Before any album is released, I never know. I can only say look, here’s what’s going on; I’m trying to make this thing. My highest hopes are that people will walk away feeling - even though they’ve already seen me in different ways - oh wow, look at how this can sound. I’ve heard a lot of popular hip-hip records – Nas, Common – the orchestra is such a prestigious sound and one of the first forms of music that we know and it’s now open to connecting with the current day. Marrying the two worlds together, I think it will work pretty well. My main concern is getting rest, practicing, staying quiet for about six hours, I’ve been asking all of my friends who are vocalists about maintaining a specific diet. It’s old-fashioned. People ask, “Can you come out?” to this or that event and I’m like you don’t understand, I’ve got five nights with symphonies!
Q: Aside from this, what are you working on? New studio album?
A: Yes, yes (pauses and laughs). That’s the thing about this day and age; you can have so much going on, but you can’t tell people. Thankfully the music has stood the test of time. The number one goal for me was to do something at (age) 23 that I could hopefully do in my 40s and my 50s and 60s, God willing. And thankfully, that’s happening. I always say to artists, “Can you do this in 30 years?” Before you put (new material) out, think about that.
With the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra (conducted by Steven Reineke). 8 p.m. Sept. 27. $45-$85 (this is a non-cooler show). Cadence Bank Amphitheatre at Chastain Park, 4469 Stella Drive NW, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, ticketmaster.com.
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