A conversation with Laith Al-Saadi
On his hometown of Ann Arbor and the role it played in shaping his music
ANN ARBOR – Laith Al-Saadi is one of Ann Arbor's most well-known musical exports, although the word "export" doesn't really apply because he never left and he doesn't plan to leave anytime soon.
Al-Saadi jumped to national fame as a finalist on NBC's "The Voice" in 2016. An unconventional contestant, he impressed the judges with his grit and authenticity, earning accolades from judges Adam Levine and Blake Shelton, who said his was the best and most unique show of musicianship the competition has ever seen.
Since leaving "The Voice," Al-Saadi has been busy doing what he loves most -- making music in his beloved hometown.
We caught up with him before a show recently, and asked him to tell his story, from the beginning.
Tell me about growing up in Ann Arbor. Can you remember your first experience with music?
“It’s really funny. I used to put on concerts at the end of my driveway and I think my mom knew that I had the bug when I went to my sister’s orchestra concert when I was probably about 2 years old and I stood up and started trying to conduct the orchestra. So I grew up singing in Ann Arbor and I did church choirs and I did a lot of theater growing up. So I knew I was going to perform, probably from the time I was about 4 onward.
"I was a member of the Boychoir of Ann Arbor, I grew up singing at Zion Lutheran Church and doing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas around town and, when I was about 13, I started playing guitar and was writing songs and had a blues band and went to Community High School out here, which was a great jazz program.
"The teacher, Mike Grace, was an incredible teacher. He really taught us how to be professional musicians. We were out -- I don’t know whether or not they would allow it these days with lawsuits and such -- but we were out playing gigs four or five nights a week for the school. And so if the Rotary Club had a function or if there were cocktail parties and things that he contracted, we would have jazz combos out playing.
"It was really cool because I think he instilled the confidence in me, at least, that I could make a living as a jobbing musician. I had a blues band that I actually got credit for in that high school. We had to put on two concerts a year and do a report and treat it as a class, and it was great. During our lunch hour every day, my blues band, Blue Vinyl, would practice and kids would sit outside and eat their lunch outside the window."
Growing up here, and going to University of Michigan to study jazz, is there a specific time or age where you felt was the most formative in your music?
"I think high school, for me, was probably the most formative in terms of music here in Ann Arbor. I think, again, Community High, which is an alternative high school here, provided the kind of atmosphere that encouraged the arts. We didn’t have sports teams; we had bands. And people would come. We’d have concerts at the school and we put on a great outdoor festival every year called Comstock. People were really proud of their music and, in fact, that era fostered a lot of people doing great, musically speaking.
"Mayer Hawthorne was a year younger than me and part of the musical crew we played in. Andrew W.K. also was somebody that I played in jazz band with; he was a year younger than me. And there’s a lot of fantastic musicians that I had the privilege of going to school with. And again, Mike Grace, was just an awesome teacher. The program was small group- and improvisation-based, in terms of the jazz education, and that’s kind of a rarity these days. I think it fostered an extremely creative and professionally astute group of students -- people that were ready to play in studio sessions and play in pit orchestras and just ready to play a bunch of different kinds of music.
"I think he taught us to embrace whatever it was as an opportunity to learn whatever that genre was and not to be judgmental of what kind of music it was because it was always to our benefit to try and enrich our palate. He won the Disney Teacher of the Year Award. I went overseas with him. I played at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland under his tutelage. We still stay in touch. He’s a great guy."
Al-Saadi performs at Live at Tech Trek on June 15, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)
Do you have that 'homecoming buzz' when you get to play in Ann Arbor?
"You know, I never left. And honestly, I don’t know whether it’s a smart idea career-wise that I haven’t gone to LA or New York or Nashville, where I’m ‘supposed’ to go. I love Ann Arbor and I love to represent what it means to be here. And I feel the same way about Detroit. When I stayed here to go to school, I had gotten a gig with this musician out of Detroit named Johnny Trudell, so I was 20 years old and I started playing for him.
"He was a Motown trumpet player. And Johnny played on all the records up until Motown moved to LA and his band actually had a lot of people that played on those records but they were the people kind of behind the scenes. They weren’t the stars and they had families and were working around here. So he had a jazz orchestra that we’d get hired if Don Rickles or Joan Rivers came to town or somebody that had a big band booked and were coming to do a show. And he’d do that stuff and he’d book the theater gigs and he’d do the Detroit Lions games and all that stuff.
"Actually, I was the lead singer of the Detroit Lions pep band for two years. That was just really cool because that was a part of the history of Detroit and I don’t think I could have gone anywhere else and had the experience of playing with people who had been a part of such a rich musical tradition. And then it’s, like, Ann Arbor, this is the home of Iggy Pop and Bob Seger and the MC5. I just feel like this is a place where you can definitely be who you are, and it embraces a lot of diversity and people who want to go in more avant-garde or provocative directions with their art, too. I really appreciate that about it.”
Which guitarist inspires you the most?
"You know, the thing about me is I really get inspired by everything I love and so I am all across the board musically, and that goes for guitar, too. A quick lowdown is the rock guitar greats. I love Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page and David Gilmour from Pink Floyd. In jazz, I’m a fan of Pat Metheny and John Scofield and I also love Wes Montgomery. I’m a big fan of the Fender Telecaster, which is used a lot in country music, so, by nature, I actually really love guitar players like Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton and James Burton.
"In blues, I love Albert Collins. He’s one of my favorite blues guitar players. He was from Houston, known as the ‘Master of the Telecaster.’ And, of course, I love Albert King, B.B. King, Buddy Guy. I guess I’m just all over the map. At the end of the day, we are the sum of our parts and I try to not really be genre-specific and I guess that’s made me be less marketable in some ways because people want you to fit neatly in a box. But the fact is, Duke Ellington had this adage, 'There are two kinds of music: good music and the other stuff.' I believe that’s true and I try to gravitate towards what I like."
What are your favorite things to do in town?
"I’m a huge foodie and I think that we have fantastic food. I think that we’re really privileged to have things like Zingerman’s in town, which, of course, is everything from a great Bakehouse to the Deli to the Roadhouse. Their coffee Roastery and Creamery -- it’s just wonderful to have that standard in town. And then we have places that are more the local hangs that I think are fantastic, like Casey’s Tavern, like Jerusalem Garden. I think that there’s good food in almost every style right around this area, whether it’s Ann Arbor or Ypsilanti. I think it’s pretty adventurous palate-wise and it tends to encourage the more local and farm-to-table places."
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