The Usual Suspects

Gio Washington-Wright's Top L.A. Studio Musicians Tribute Site

 

 

Flutist and composer Steve Kujala has been one of the most prolific and recognized flute stylists of the last 30 years. Destined to become a flutist, Steve followed in the footsteps of his father, Walfrid Kujala, Professor of flute at Northwestern University and former principal piccoloist of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The younger Kujala was influenced in equal measures by his father (and the classical music he played every day), The Beatles (and the British “Pop Invasion”), Jethro Tull (and the progressive art-rock bands), and by Chick Corea (and the jazz/rock fusion movement). While a student at the famed New Trier West High School (at that time considered the top performing arts high school in the country), Kujala became one of the earliest examples of the “multi-hyphenate/slash artists” by playing principal flute in the orchestra, lead tenor sax in the jazz ensemble, 1st bassoon in the wind ensemble and electric guitar in a rock band. At the age of 17, Steve garnered his first taste of international recognition by winning the “best jazz flute soloist” award – high school division - at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival.

With a professional career beckoning, Kujala received his formal musical training and honed his skills at the venerable Eastman School of Music (his father’s alma mater),in Rochester, N.Y. During his tenure at Eastman, Kujala began his flute studies with Walfrid Kujala’s former teacher, the great Joseph Mariano, and then later with Walfrid Kujala himself after Mariano’s sudden retirement. Steve, however, was already showing the classic signs of a restless musical spirit and took a major step in the opposite direction away from symphonic music by forming the seminal jazz-rock fusion group Auracle with five like-minded Eastman cohorts. With Auracle, Kujala wowed judges at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival, being given the “best jazz flutist” award once again, this time by no less a luminary than Downbeat Magazine critic’s and reader’s poll-winner Hubert Laws. This accolade was followed by the group’s winning the CBS record’s “Battle of the Bands” – the grand prize consisting of a trip to the Big Apple to record and mix a demo album of original material at CBS studios.

With their CBS demo in hand, a few solid contacts and the “lure of the promised land” dancing in their heads, Kujala and Auracle left Eastman behind to pursue their dream of a major-label recording contract. Choosing the entertainment mecca of Los Angeles as their new home base, Auracle rapidly took the local music scene by storm and within a year signed an exclusive contract with Chrysalis Records, the maverick independent label formed by rock flute legend Ian Anderson (front man of Jethro Tull, for whom Steve would be the opening act at Grant Park, Chicago two decades later!)) and his managers. After two critically received albums (co-produced by Miles Davis’s long-time producer Teo Macero and composer James DiPasquale) and a tour of Europe – which included a return for Kujala to the Montreux Jazz Festival – Kujala was discovered by jazz piano great Chick Corea. Kujala already had a natural affinity for Corea and his music, especially Corea’s “hit” song Spain, which Kujala had listened to obsessively in high school. Less than a decade after first hearing that song, Kujala was invited to join Corea’s touring group, replacing the man that had recorded Spain’s infamous flute part, the legendary Joe Farrell. Corea became a mentor to Kujala through four world tours and four records. One of those records, the flute/piano duet album Voyage (on ECM), was nominated for a Grammy and was recorded (in Munich Germany by uber-producer Manfred Eicher) as the culmination of a duet tour of Europe that found the two musicians improvising the majority of their marathon concerts, creating the next chapter in the prolific line of Corea duet collaborations (which included luminaries Gary Burton, Herbie Hancock, and later, Bobby McFerrin and Bela Fleck). 

During this period, Kujala was developing a unique pitch-bending technique for the flute for which he was already receiving rave notices in the press and the esteem of his colleagues and fans alike. Emulating the haunting note-bending sounds associated with simple 6-holed, keyless ethnic flutes like the Shakuhachi, Kujala assimilated and perfected the seemingly impossible feat of applying this technique to the modern western flute (with it’s numerous keys and complicated mechanism) and is now the sole practitioner of what has become known as the “Steve Kujala Fretless-Flute Technique” (in a “tip of the hat” to the new wave of Fretless electric bass players emerging on the scene at that time, like Jaco Pastorious ,et al).

At the same time he was developing his novel approach to the contemporary flute, Kujala was also coming into his own as a composer and songwriter. His self-penned “Fretless Flute Song” featured his patented slide-flute technique, earning Kujala a place in the firmament of flutists with an instantly identifiable original sound and style. This song was merely the first of a collection that also included a ground-breaking approach to multi-track recording techniques with another Kujala original called Tutti Flutti  - utilizing no less than 126 overdubbed flute tracks! Steve performed and recorded all the parts himself, including vocal and key generated percussion sounds made “on, with  or through” the flute, creating a virtual flute orchestra with flute rhythm section! These unique and delightful songs soon led to a co-publishing deal with ATV Music (the Beatles publishing company later purchased by Michael Jackson) and Cherry Lane Music (John Denver’s publishing company), which paved the way to Kujala’s first solo recording contract with CBS Records. His debut recording, Fresh Flute, was an instant critical success and featured the perfect symbiosis of Kujala’s formidable flute technique, improvisational prowess, and compositional flair.

The Fresh Flute success led to four more solo albums, and Kujala’s unique style of flute playing found him highly sought after as one of the busiest Los Angeles studio session musicians. To date, his flute can be heard on thousands of recordings, motion pictures, TV shows and commercials. His songs and compositions (over 200 copyrights) have found their way onto his own album projects, film and TV soundtracks, and national ad campaigns – most notably those of Zoloft and Lexus. His Holiday song “Family and Friends” has been the centerpiece of Lexus’s “December To Remember” campaign (the “surprise” gift of a brand new Lexus with a big red bow on top) every year since 1999, and thus has become a virtual “hit” song heard (at least subliminally) by  millions of people.

Grammy and Juno award winning lyricists have written words to Kujala’s songs, including Shirley Eikhard (who penned Bonnie Raitt’s Grammy-winning Let’s Give Them Something To Talk About), Eddie Schwartz (who penned the classic Hit Me With Your Best Shot for Pat Benatar), Lorraine Feather (emmy-award winning lyricist and daughter of famed jazz critic Leonard Feather) and many others. And Kujala has also pursued a second profession as a voiceover talent, lending his  basso-profundo to movies (as the voice of Robotruck in the late Charlton Heston’s movie Solar Crisis, e.g.), commercials (the voice of Taco Bell’s “Pog,Pog,Pog” e.g.), radio I.D.’s (Radio Tokyo) and others. 

A stalwart of the Hollywood studio scene, Kujala can be heard on nearly 600 movie soundtracks, and has been the featured flutist on 30 of Thomas Newman’s scores since 1993. (see FRETLESS FLICKS).  Kujala has been the principal piccolo player of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra for the last twenty years, having performed over 400 concerts with many of the world’s top performers and acts. He has also been seen on two PBS concerts, with Josh Groban (at the Pasadena Playhouse) and Il Divo (at The Greek Theater). In addition to his studio work, Kujala has also been the featured flutist with the L.A. production of The Lion King (playing 14 different ethnic flutes!) for two years, Wicked, The Producers and Phantom of the Opera, among others. Steve has been a Yamaha Performing Artist since 1980, and plays on a Yamaha 9K gold YFL-991 flute.

 


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