Driven by his empowering belief that music gives our soul freedom because there are no rules guiding the creative spirit, Kunle Olusesi’s emergence as one of the most prominent and influential saxophonists and composers in his native Nigeria, West Africa earned him the perfect nickname that has stuck with him since: “K-Sax.” Drawing from a wide range of American urban jazz sax influences ranging from the late Grover Washington, Jr. to Kirk Whalum, Kunle has created a soulful, seductive vibe he calls “Afro Smooth” – a blend of African melody, acoustics and smooth jazz with a focus on strong emotional expression that invokes a traditional touch within a fresh contemporary framework.
Now, Kunle is taking a unique, multi-faceted approach to bringing his “Afro Smooth” vibe to the West. Since relocating to the Bay Area in 2014, he’s made exciting inroads into both gospel/jazz and mainstream urban jazz with an exciting array of recording projects. Building on his success back in the Nigerian church community, he has become a popular performer in a multitude of congregations Stateside, while also bringing his Afro Smooth sounds to many secular events and settings. Recent shows he headlined include I AM SOMEBODY in Las Vegas, A Christmas Royal Praise at the Redeemed Christian Church of God in Long Beach, CA and Crossover Night at the Cornerstone Assembly in San Diego.
His growing discography reflects the exciting dual musical approach. For the jazz-gospel market, Kunle has released two exhilarating full length albums, New Beginnings (2015) and Triumph, a new collection of dynamic gospel instrumentals. Kicking off with a dynamic rendition of a classic hymn refashioned as “Agnus Dei (Shofar Blast),” Triumph includes spirit filled renditions of contemporary gospel and worship songs. On the mainstream contemporary jazz side, he is currently gearing up to release 01 + 234 = 415, his first Afro Smooth project in the U.S. The EP, appropriately named for the country code of Nigeria and the area code of his new home of San Francisco, features three grooving, in the pocket studio originals and an explosive live rendition of his song “Magic Rain,” which includes an opening segment featuring a romp through Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Mr. Magic.” A recent graduate of the School of Audio Engineering (SAE) in Emeryville, CA, Kunle drew upon his expansive studio skills to record both Triumph and 01 + 234 = 415.
“I have been playing sax for many years in different styles, and I have always felt that there should be no stylistic limits to the recordings I make and the audiences I play for,” he says. “I have a strong background playing gospel jazz in Africa, and I am excited about creating opportunities to get involved playing music in African and African American church communities stateside. I based the set list for Triumph on my favorite songs that I saw on a Billboard Top 20 Gospel Songs chart and which I felt I could make my own. Gospel jazz is an exciting market that hasn’t been tapped into enough, and I did these songs in a jazzy way that I felt would be appealing to fans of both genres. And with the mainstream Afro Smooth jazz I am creating, my goal is to present a unique style and undeniable vibe that blends my American influences with African melodies and instrumentation reflective of my cultural background.”
Growing up in Nigeria, Kunle’s parents wanted him to be involved in both musical and church activities. He was a member of The Boys’ Brigade, an international Christian youth organization that taught discipline, ambition and character. While learning the bugle as his first instrument, he sang tenor and baritone in his church choir. Later, while studying computer science at Ogun State University, he discovered a passion for saxophone and began dedicating himself to it after receiving an alto as a gift from a fellowship he was part of. He played in churches and in various bands all through school. After finishing at the top of his class, Kunle was able to secure steady work as an IT professional at a bank – but he soon began gigging enough to make music his full time career. Over the years, as he played with different bands and for all of his home country’s major pop artists, he expanded his musical arsenal to include flute, oboe, bass clarinet, EWI, shofar and piano.
“More importantly all of these experiences helped me build my confidence to a level where I took a leap of faith and became an artist and began putting musicians together and forming my own band,” says Kunle, who released his first Afro Smooth oriented mixtape CD in 2013. “From the onset, I loved pop, jazz, easy listening, ambient music and jazz fusion. Listening to favorite American smooth jazz artists like Grover, Kirk, Dave Koz, Paul Taylor and Richard Elliot, I also developed a love for the funky, uptempo R&B/soul side of contemporary jazz. My success as a performer was especially gratifying because in the place where I come from, most parents don’t encourage their children to make music because it isn’t considered a stable enough career. It’s considered taboo.”
While overcoming those obstacles to become one of Nigeria’s top woodwind players, Kunle also began teaching music to people of all ages. Launching his training company Sax Planet in 2005, he began doing “mobile teaching” to everyone from five year old children to 70 year old adults. He also negotiated deals with dealers to help his students, other individuals and local school music departments purchase musical instruments at affordable prices.
Now, he’s ready to take on the American jazz market as both a gospel jazz musician and a mainstream contemporary jazz “Afro Smooth” artist. “It’s all about finding ways to express myself in the language of music, and touch people in different ways,” he says. “It’s a blessing to have the opportunity to use my saxophone and other instruments as an avenue to communicate about the world around us, from personal relationships to what is happening in our nation and to God. I feel fortunate to have played for thousands of people over the years, and it’s always wonderful to be the merrymaker in the room setting the festival atmosphere. But sometimes, it’s the little things that matter most. Like when this one person said, ‘This was the only time in my life that someone played ‘Happy Birthday’ for me, and it meant so much.’ This is why I love what I do and am excited every time I get onstage.”