In 1999, on the last day of Randy Napoleon’s last class at the University of Michigan, the phone rang. Jeff Hamilton was on the other end, inviting the young guitarist to do a series of performances at the Hollywood Bowl with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra (CHJ0).
Then that fall, just weeks after Napoleon moved to New York City, Benny Green asked him to join his trio. “Playing with Benny was a learning experience every day,” says Napoleon, who toured with the pianist nationally and internationally for a year. “We would practice one song for hours without stopping, just to internalize a tempo. He opened my ears to how much I didn’t know.”
Napoleon soon had a chance to put what he learned to good use—on a tour with CHJO. This was also a chance to learn from the major artists in the orchestra and the Who’s Who list of luminaries who joined them on occasion—George Benson, Michael Brecker, Frank Foster, Kenny Garrett, Shirley Horn, Al Jarreau, Diana Krall, Joe Lavano, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton, John Pizzarelli, Dianne Reeves, Frank Wess, Nancy Wilson and others. During this tour, CHJO recorded Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra: Live at MCG Jazz.
Currently, Napoleon tours with the legendary singer/pianist, Freddy Cole, and is featured on Cole's 2009 album, Live at Dizzy's Club: The Dreamer in Me. He did most of the arrangements on Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B, an August 2010 release from High Note that features songs from the Billy Eckstine song book.
Napoleon has appeared on television in Tokyo with CHJO, in several European countries and on the Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy Marathon with Cole, and throughout the world with crooner Michael Bublé, with whom he toured for three years. These appearances include Letterman, Leno, The View, Today, Regis and Kelly, Ellen DeGeneres, a PBS special, The Radio Music Awards, and Dancing with the Stars.
He has played with other major jazz bands, including the Bill Charlap Trio, and with top cabaret performers Eric Comstock and Barbara Fasano. He appears on Comstock's 2010 release, Bitter/Sweet.
And he works with some of the finest musicians of his own generation, among them Melissa Morgan, Gerald Clayton, Hilary Gardner, and Sachal Vasandani.
Today, Napoleon is one of the most sought after guitarists in New York, where he is known as a forward-thinking musician with a passion for the jazz guitar tradition. In addition to backing the best, he leads his own bands, an organ trio (with Jared Gold and Quincy Davis), a trombone trio (with Josh Brown and Elias Bailey), and a three-horn sextet that includes organ (Gold), drums (Davis), baritone saxophone (Frank Basile), trumpet (Justin Walter) and trombone (Brown).
Napoleon writes and arranges for his own bands as well as for other performers. His CDs, Enjoy the Moment (organ trio) and Between Friends (organ trio on half the tracks, piano quartet with Benny Green on piano, David Wong on bass on the other half) drew praise from all quarters.
Guitarist George Benson calls Napoleon "sensational." Detroit Free Press critic Mark Stryker says Napoleon "plays with a gentle, purring tone that makes you lean in close to hear its range of color and articulation." Washington Post critic Mike Joyce praises his "exceptionally nimble finger-style technique." And comparing him to Wes Montgomery, music critic Michael G. Nastos says "he displays an even balance of swing, soul, and single-line or chord elements that mark an emerging voice dedicated to tradition and universally accessible jazz values."