Remembering Amp Fiddler, A Funk Treasure From Detroit

In this piece originally published to Jaap van der Doelen's Substack, he revisits and reminisces on some of Amp Fiddler's most legendary contributions to Detroit's funk scene.
By    December 21, 2023

Image via Questlove/Instagram

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Jaap van der Doelen spends his Sundays drinking espresso and revisiting Cuban Linx II.

Amp Fiddler has passed away. So this is going to be a bit different from the stories I might usually share in this newsletter, or the one I was planning on penning.

I do hope you stick around for it though. Thanks in advance.

I was enjoying a morning coffee and procrastinating when I scrolled through Instagram and saw The Roots’ drummer Questlove had posted the bad news. It caught me by surprise, not just because I had no idea he was sick, but also because the one time I met him, he came across as far younger than the age simple mathematics insisted he had. I guess that might be a byproduct of having a warm, open soul that has followed his passion for all of his 65 years on this earth.

I’m not going to pretend he and I shared some kind of deep connection, and I’d honestly be surprised if he remembered me at all, but my mind immediately flashed back to the time we spent in an Amsterdam bar in 2017. I was writing a story for Mass Appeal on Detroit band Will Sessions’ Kindred Live, a wonderfully raucous live jazz fusion album he played keys on. I’d spoken to band leader Sam Beaubien through a video call,1 but since Amp Fiddler was performing in the Dutch capital around that same time, I took the opportunity to hop on a train north of my home country and speak with him face to face.

We chatted for about an hour, our conversation pleasantly meandering through a variety of topics, from his varied musical stylings, to living in Detroit, to his mentorship of a young Dilla. He was kind and gracious with his time, and just a great conversationalist in general, his love of music obvious through every story he shared.

Since the part of the Mass Appeal website that used to offer written stories has been shut down for years, I figured I’d try and see if I still had the piece that resulted from it in my personal archive. Thankfully, I did. So in honor of this talented and funky spirit that the world suddenly has to do without, I’m sharing it below.

I’m going to pour another coffee and listen to him hit those keys again. Work can wait. Thanks for reading.

Will Sessions and Amp Fiddler Speak About Bringing the Funk to Fusion Jazz on ‘Kindred Live’

There’s a lot that Will Sessions can do, but one thing that’s impossible for them, is getting boxed in. The Detroit outfit released a funk album called Deluxe earlier this year, knocked out the critically acclaimed live renditions of Nas’ classic Illmatic beats on Elmatic and have started their own label Sessions Sounds earlier this year. Through it, they’ve just released Kindred Live, a live fusion jazz record full of raucous energy, guaranteed to blow the dust off your speakers.

Kindred Live also features fellow Detroit native and equally eclectic musical mastermind Amp Fiddler on keys. He and band leader Sam Beaubien are eager to talk about a record that means a lot to all of them, and forms a historic marker in Will Session’s discography. “They play together as a band, but I’m not always able to play with them as a keyboard player”, Amp explains. “So it was special for us to be able to join forces. We had good rehearsals, and were really anxious to play, because we all love to play jazz.”

“This album was the release party for Kindred”, Sam remembers. The original album was released on Bandcamp in 2010, and in comparison, sounds a lot more restrained compared to its live interpretation. “The first one is a little more tame, there’s a lot of emphasis on the drum break. I kinda wanted a hiphop fan or a funk fan to be able to pick up the record and listen to it, and have it not be too far out, compared to what they were listening to.”

“It was beautiful to just stretch out”, Amp looks back, while he can hardly believe it was recorded seven years ago. “It feels like it was recorded two years ago. Time flies. But I do remember it was an amazing session.” Sam: “There’s a lot more going on musically. When we initially recorded Kindred, it was as a trio. There was myself on keys, our bass player Tim and our drummer Brian. We recorded it as a trio and then we added Wendell Harrison on sax after the fact. He overdubbed his saxophone. With the live version we added Amp Fiddler on keys, the sax solos are live, there’s a longer trumpet solo, when you’re playing live, you can just stretch it out longer.”

“You don’t really know what’s gonna happen with fusion jazz live”

The recording was made with the intent of publishing it, though it wasn’t until now that the band felt the time was right. “We want to showcase all the different styles we play” Sam says. “We’ve put a record out on Funk Night before, but something like a fusion album wouldn’t really fit on Funk Night. Or on Fat Beats, which is like a hiphop label. We thought Sessions Sounds was the place to put that on.”

The Funk

Ironically, it’s exactly the frenetic funk injection found on the live recording, that might make the album appeal to funk and hiphop fans as much as it does to jazz crowds. Listening to the crowd get worked up in the title track’s finale, it’s hard not holler along with them. “You don’t really know what’s gonna happen with fusion jazz live, soloists can do their own thing with it” Sam reflects on the recording. “When people go to a jazz show, they’re listening, they’re not dancing. They’re not yelling or doing any of that type of stuff. Usually people are sitting there, enjoying a cocktail and talking to people. The music is just ‘there’. Unless you’re someone like Wayne Shorter, you know, a huge, popular musician.”

“But for us, our fans were funk fans. They were used to coming and dancing at our shows and getting into it. So when we played that show, they kinda kept that energy there. That played a big part in how we played. When you go back and listen to the recording, there’s guys in the band that were playing better than they normally would, ‘cause they were getting so much energy from the crowd. I hear certain things I played and think ‘wow, I did that?’ The energy from the crowd really helps you take chances and makes you play better.”

Amp Fiddler wilds out

Listening to Amp Fiddler wild out on the keys in his solo on ‘River People’, it’s clear he’s the perfect addition for the night’s aesthetic of jazz through a funk lens. “We all love the same music”, he says. “Miles Davis, all of that avant garde, electronic jazz. ‘Cause when you buy synthesizers, you wanna play. You wanna know how to play fast and get sweet sounds. That’s what drew me to fusion jazz. Really, Herbie Hancock more than anybody else.”

“I was attracted to hearing a Clavinet with a wah-wah pedal. Which at the same time, I’m hearing Bernie Worrell play the same way. This is how funky Herbie Hancock is.”

“I was attracted to hearing a Clavinet with a wah-wah pedal. Which at the same time, I’m hearing Bernie Worrell play the same way. This is how funky Herbie Hancock is.” Amp scrunches his face, imitating a sound somewhere halfway between a roar and a snarl, which he reminds us, is something both musicians managed to wrench from their Clavinets: “Serious similarities.”

And just like Herbie Hancock, the guys playing on Kindred Live never were the type of musicians to contain themselves to a single genre. “We were in school studying music”, Sam says about the band’s earliest days. “When I would go home and listen to J Dilla, or to James Brown, I found myself studying their music the same way I was studying Miles Davis or Beethoven. I started analyzing it, and thinking about it and hearing all the moving parts and how things were coming together. That inspired me to play that music. ‘Cause I would understand what they were doing. We all were like that.”

Detroit mentors

Their unwillingness to give in to music snobbery, and keeping an open mind to a wide variety of styles, grew to become Will Sessions’ defining characteristic. But the importance of Detroit as their stomping grounds is hard to overstate as well. “Detroit has this thing where, in a lot of different genres, there’s a mentor passing down information to the next generation. In jazz you have someone like Marcus Belgrave, who was a big mentor, a big educator. In hiphop you had someone Proof, he was big on connecting people in different scenes and teaching younger people.”

“Most people couldn’t make a bowl of soup if you paid them. But Dilla had already made the bomb gumbo before he came. With his cassettes!”

When it comes to beatmaking, Amp Fiddler was once such a mentor as well. A fifteen year old kid from down the street brought some cassettes of his to his house, and Amp then taught young James Yancey how to use the MPC60. “I thought that anybody who could bring me samples, and know how to chop them to make them work in a song, each place, had a great ear. Most people couldn’t make a bowl of soup if you paid them. But Dilla had already made the bomb gumbo before he came. With his cassettes!”

“When he gave me his samples, I showed him how to put them into the sampler. So when I put ‘em together for him, and he told me how he wanted the song molded, I already knew he was a genius. He knew every start and end of the sample, where he wanted the sample, where they worked together. And once he started making the beats himself, it was amazing.”

Amp Fiddler also benefited greatly from the musical hub Detroit has been for over half a century now. “George Clinton and all his merry men where my mentors. ‘The University of the P’ was my school of funk. All the musicians, Bernie Worrell, Eddie Hazel, Michael Hampton, Dennis Chambers, Rodney ‘Skeet’ Curtis, all those musicians were my mentors. I learned from them all. So I think, that is what helped me develop what my character is musically.”


“My teachers, and for a lot of guys in the band, were teachers who played on Motown records”, Sam says. “My writing teacher was David Van De Pitte, who was the orchestrator for Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album. The trumpet teachers, were the guys in the horn section on Motown albums. Our teachers were the guys making those records. When you’re younger you don’t even realize it. You kinda knew who they were, but we never realized how important they were. And then as time goes by, it dawns on you: it’s part of who you are as a musician now.”

All that history and musical baggage was taken to the night Kindred Live was recorded, and came spilling out in a rambunctious torrent of tunes, like a Pandora’s box overflowing with furiously funky jazz had just been opened up. “That is our sound,” Sam now realizes, “the fact that we can cover all those bases. There are challenges, but those challenges are what keeps pushing us forward, what inspires us.”

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