Fresh off a West Coast tour with Kung Fu, keyboardist Beau Sasser took some time during break to sit down with Live For Live Music. During our conversation, Sasser talked about his past and his future, which includes joining moe. for their comeback show. A wizard on the Hammond, Sasser is involved with several projects, including Kung Fu, The Z3, and Beau Sasser’s Escape Plan. Read on to learn more about this funk-filled, down-and-dirty, soul-rocking keyboardist that tickles the fancy out of the ivories.
Live For Live Music: Let’s go back to your younger days. Who are some of your earliest influences? How did your involvement with the keys begin?
Beau Sasser: My earliest influence was my grandmother. She played piano. She was from Memphis, Tennessee, and she would play classical as well as some ragtime, stride piano, and lots of gospel songs. It was the first time I had heard someone play piano when I was a little kid. I was pretty impressed and wanted to learn. I had some other family members that played piano as well. My dad played guitar growing up. He only knew a handful of chords but would play a lot of Cat Stevens tunes and other artists from the 60’s plus some folk songs as well. He grew up on a farm in Tennessee and had an interesting picking style. I thought it was pretty neat and wanted to learn music.
Musically, I’ve been influenced by a handful of different types of artists. Early on, as a kid studying classical music, I was influenced by Bach and Beethoven. From there, I started to study and learn about other types of music. Pop music led me to discover jazz and the heavy-hitters like John Coltrane and Miles Davis. Through jazz, I discovered organ players who were playing the Hammond organ—guys like Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff and Jack McDuff. As a Hammond organ player, I was really influenced by them. Piano players in the jazz idiom include guys like Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, and Keith Jarrett.
In high school, I discovered Frank Zappa and that kind of changed everything for me. I learned what it takes to really be a musician and hone a craft in through his band. Growing up, I played lots of different types of music, with my teachers having me read music as well as playing classical. I also played the trombone in the middle school band, and they taught us kind of how to improvise. I was figuring all of that out during middle school and high school.
L4LM: You’ve been involved in a lot of different musical projects over the years. What’s the most interesting story behind any of these projects?
BS: Right now, my main projects are Kung Fu and The Z3—a Frank Zappa tribute band—as well as Beau Sasser Escape Plan, which is my own band. I get to play in many of these projects with people that I met over twenty years ago and a lot of people I’ve played with consistently since then.
I met Tim [Palmieri] and Adrian [Tramontano] when they were in Psychedelic Breakfast, while I played with a band called Uncle Sammy, and we had the same booking agent. We were all kids, maybe around twenty years old. When all of us in Uncle Sammy first saw Adrian and Tim play, we thought, “Crap, there’s our competition right there.” I remember standing there watching them soundcheck and thinking, “Those are pretty special cats.” I obviously loved to play with them as much as possible. Now, I feel as if it’s come full circle twenty years later because we get to play together every night.
L4LM: When you were invited to join Kung Fu back in 2015, there was a little bit of controversy surrounding the “changing of the keyboardist guard,” if you will. Were you concerned with how fans may react to you joining the band at that time?
BS: No, I would have to say that I really wasn’t concerned—partly because I felt like I was on the outside looking into a situation that I didn’t know too much about. My only concern was to learn all the material in the two weeks that I had to learn it. I didn’t really think about anything else other than getting the music ready and being able to perform it.
L4LM: On a lighter note, Beau Sasser’s Escape Plan did a video in honor of the Grateful Dead’s 50th anniversary for a project known as Songs of the Dead. The group performed “New Speedway Boogie” .Did you get to check out any of the Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago, and what has the The Grateful Dead meant in your life, musically?
BS: First off, I will say that I did not get to go to any of the shows. I would have liked to because we were there. Kung Fu was playing in Chicago performing as part of the after shows. I did not get to see The Grateful Dead when they came through. I’ve actually never seen The Grateful Dead, though I would have enjoyed it, for sure.
To be perfectly honest, I really just discovered them in the last four or five years. Growing up, I always liked their music and had plenty of friends that listened to them, but I never really latched on. I never really “got it.” Then a couple of years ago, I ended up on a show playing in the John Kadlecik Band. They needed a keyboard player, and John had sent me a list of Jerry Garcia Band songs that contained the Hammond organ. That was really the first time that I had to learn those songs and get familiar with them, even though I had heard them for years.
I really enjoyed it, and it changed my outlook on what that music was and how interesting it can really be. I did a few shows with John, and some of those songs I still play on my own gigs today. Any chance I can get to see Melvin Seals play, I always stand there and watch and learn.
L4LM: Kung Fu will be opening up for moe. in February for their return show coming off hiatus. What are your thoughts on that, since it’s pretty huge since their fans are really looking forward to seeing Rob Derhak get back on stage?
Beau Sasser: Yeah, we are looking forward to it, too. Those guys in moe. have always been so incredibly supportive and kind—not only to Kung Fu but also Uncle Sammy and other bands that I’ve been in. We played moe.down this past summer. Out of the many festivals we played, moe.down was definitely one of the most memorable, if not the most. Our show there was awesome. It truly was magical. We played in a tent on one of the second stages, and there was this huge kind of fieldhouse-type of vibe in the there with a lot of people. Everyone goes crazy at those moe.down festivals too, so it was a rowdy crowd and was packed to the gills.
moe. asked us to sit in later that night for their set. We sat in—myself, Tim and Rob [Somerville]—on “San Ber’dino,” which is a Frank Zappa tune that we all love very much. It made it even more special to play at that event and hang out with those guys. Vinnie [Amico] has played with Z3. Like I said, they’re so supportive, just awesome to hang out with, and incredible musicians, too.
We were very sad to see that happen to Rob, but at the same time, we are so excited that we get to do this at The Capitol Theatre for moe.’s comeback. It’s going to be a very special night. We look forward to seeing those guys and spending time with them. Of course, we have a lot of similar fans. Our fan base has a lot of moe. fans that also like Kung Fu. If you like guitar rock, you’re going to like moe. and you’re going to like Kung Fu. It always makes for a good time. I hope we get to join in during the moe. set. That would be a lot of fun.
L4LM: Do you have anything on deck for the new year with Kung Fu? What is in the works for your projects?
Beau Sasser: Kung Fu just got off of tour. I’ve been home for about a week. We did a run in Colorado, New Mexico, and the West Coast with The New Mastersounds. That was a great tour. It was a lot of fun. Those guys are incredible musicians and great friends, really. We worked really hard.
We’ve been off for about a week and will have another week off or so and then in December, we will gear back up again. We will be in Greenfield, Massachusetts, which will be my hometown show, on December 2nd at The Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center, and then, we play Boston a few weekends after.
That’s followed by our annual Toys for Tots show on December 16th at Toads Place in New Haven, Connecticut. As always, we collect toys for the underprivileged children around Christmas time. People bring toys that are collected in boxes and we then bring them to hospitals the next day. As always, it’s a really neat experience that we enjoy. It’s a big deal for us.
For the Toys for Tots show, it’s going to be with Pink Talking Fish, and we are going to do the Prince and Bowie set—Pink Talking Fu Plays David Bowie And Prince—that we did at the Wanee and Catskill Chill festivals this year. It’s a really awesome set that we’ve honed. We are uniquely trained and highly qualified to play it at this point. We’ve had some experience, especially at the Wanee Festival, which was really awesome. It was the closing performance of that fest. I’ve heard that there were ten-thousand people in attendance. It was definitely one of the biggest crowds I’ve played in front of and it was amazing. One of the highlights for Kung Fu for this year, for sure.
L4LM: Is there anyone that you would love to perform with but have not yet had the chance?
BS: I have had the pleasure of performing with a lot of artists that I never thought that I would. I grew up being heavily influenced by Medeski, Martin and Wood. I didn’t mention John [Medeski] earlier when I talked about influences, but he was one of the organ players that definitely changed everything for me. I was a 15-year-old kid when I first saw him play.
I’ve met those guys a couple of times and hung out with them as well, but I’ve never actually jammed or been on stage with any of them—I think that would be a lot of fun. Maybe it will happen, but I don’t know. Even today, I still listen to them all the time. Between them and Soulive, those are two of my biggest influences as far as Hammond organ music goes and bands I got to see when I was in high school and in my twenties. It’s pretty amazing to me because I’ve played in Alan Evans Trio and Playonbrother.
Alan [Evans] and I have done a lot of work together. It’s been very special to me to hang around Al and to learn from him, as well as to hang around Soulive and watch them soundcheck and get to know Neal [Evans]. When I was twenty years old, Neal was one of my biggest influences, and still is. As far as playing the organ and left-handed bass lines, which I do quite a bit of, all that music is pretty heavily influenced by Neal. To circle back around to your question, Medeski, Martin and Wood was in that same era of my life for listening to music. It would be pretty fun to jam with those guys.
L4LM: To wrap this up, is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
BS: Stay cool. Stay in school. Listen to Kung Fu.
To learn more about Beau Sasser’s many projects, including tour dates, please head over to the websites for Kung Fu, The Z3, and Beau Sasser’s Escape Plan. Also, make sure to catch Kung Fu in New York City for New Year’s Eve, when they’ll be playing a very special post-Phish afterparty at American Beauty on 12/31 (technically, early morning 1/1) from 1 am to past 4 am! You can grab tickets for Kung Fu’s New Year’s Eve throwdown here!
[Words: Sarah Bourque; Cover Photo: Sonsini Media]