Jazzer who likes to mix his rhythms
The acid jazz vibe may have taken the dancefloors by storm, but the cool stylings of jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan open up wider horizons. Coming from a noble lineage that dates back to Charlie Christian, the new guru of hip hop jazz talks to Roger Brown...
With his breezin' cut of Miles Davis' 'So What', jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan helped bring jazz/hip hop fusion to these shores. Before Acid Jazz or New Jazz Swing, Ronny was quietly laying down a body of work which defined the genre. And like all the best jazz artists, Ronny isn't a man to let the grass grow under his feet. Most recently, he's collaborated with Japanese hip hop artist DJ Krush for the remix album Bad Brothers. It's a fresh infusion of hip hop and dance beats into Ronny's work, and may yet become one of 1994's classic new jazz albums. I met up with Ronny at Opaz Studios in the heart of North London, and asked him just how the slightly off-the-wall pairing came about.
"The thing was, I'm really about hip hop jazz. And this is the most hip hop. I don't mind you calling it hip hop jazz, but I'm not into acid jazz. Our music stands up in its own right."
It must be one of the 90's most unusual pairings, a Japanese self-styled 'Trip Hop' artist and an English exponent of cool jazz guitar licks. Did Ronny see it that way I wondered?
"It looks different. DJ Krush is pretty hot out there, and I was impressed. He's a pretty underground guy. Doesn't speak a word of English. I would say that 'Shit Goes Down' is the best offering of jazz hip hop. For style, it's a landmark track.
"The funny thing is that it's opened me up to the States and is getting airplay. Any jazz musician worth his salt really has to break through in America. I've built up a nice rapport with the people there, from meeting them on my North American tour. There was a convention in San Francisco where I was on the panel board, and they were talking about the potent mix of jazz, hip hop, R&B, funk & soul which is Quiet Revolution" (Ronny's latest full-length album)
Bad Brothers is more of a hip hop album, with DJ Krush taking the tapes back to Tokyo and working on them at his studios there. This may seem a hi-tech approach, yet Ronny's music harks consciously back to an earlier time, to the 50s of Wes Montgomery and early Miles Davis. I asked him what his attitude to the use of technology was, and how it fitted in with his approach to music.
"You have two kinds of studio imperialist: One kind will have nothing to do with computers or any technology, they just go in and do it live to mikes, they don't even plug in. It's all in the mike positions, and so forth. I saw them in Nice at the jazz festival. Then you have bands like Erasure and Pet Shop Boys who do everything on electronics, even down to the voice. It all goes down on the sampler.
"Where I stand is somewhere down the middle. The live thing's important, and you need that, but you also need what the studio has, sounds and things. The brilliant thing about the computer is that you can see the arrangement, play around with it until you're completely satisfied, and then take it from there. That's the beauty of it. I don't believe in overdoing that side of things, because at the end of the day it's your performance that counts. The technology's only there to get things done quickly. You have to move with the times, and people do relate to those sounds."
Ronny works on getting a distinctive guitar sound, and those who accuse him of being a British George Benson are in for a surprise when they hear Bad Brothers. I asked him just how he went about shaping the 'Ronny Jordan sound.'
"My demos. I DI through a desk. I call DIing 'dead input', and I just use it for convenience. Sometimes you get an idea and you can't be bothered to go through an amp to bring up a certain sound, so you just plug in, play, get a few delay repeats on it and go ahead. I feel amps are for live playing. For Quiet Revolution I used quite a small combo which my brother has now. I think it was a Peavey, only 50W.
"I've just recently acquired this rack unit which I have now got down to studio quality. I wanted to use it for a few tracks, but Ray wasn't into it, he much preferred the sound of the smaller combo. So we went back to what worked. The rack unit is great and I've used it for two years now. The thing that went wrong was that it wasn't set right. I had to change the EQ. I had this really cheap EQ, so we replaced it with the best on the market, and now when I'm doing a live show if my engineer wants to eliminate any feedback, he knows where to go.
"We changed a few things on the rack and now it's just a dream. It's the ultimate machine, like a studio but live. There's a Hughes & Kettner pre-amp, a dbx compressor which is great, the best on the market. I did have an Alesis Quadraverb but now I've got a Yamaha SPX900 which is good. Rack mount lights, you pull them out and they light up the whole rack which is ideal if you're in the dark. There is also a rack mount tuner from Akai, which is one of the most accurate I've come across. Just wait for the green light to come on, and you're in tune.
"at the end of the day it's your performance that counts. The technology's only there to get things done quickly"
"My floor unit I like to keep fairly basic. I use a floor cabinet for access, there's a roll-up pedal which I've just got back into using, which is quite nice. Oh, and I have a Zoom 9001. I love the Zoom, it's useful for several things, nice clean guitar effects."
But it's not all racks of effects. Ronny is firmly wedded to semi-acoustic guitars. It's that 50s Wes Montgomery feel again, so I asked him to tell us a little about his collection.
"I use Gibson guitars. Their semi-acoustics are second to none. Actually they earmarked me. I was about to sign with Ibanez and somehow they got wind of it and called me. Otherwise I'd have stayed with Ibanez. The 175 has been a long-time favourite of mine, although my first guitar was a Guild Starfire. With Gibson you just know when you hit it, it's the sound and the tone.
"Gibson are doing this guitar for me that should be ready when I go into the studio. The 155 is a cross between the 555 and the 175, but shaped liked the 175. A little thick, more resonance to it which I like. I used a 155 in LA and it reminded me of my first guitar, the Starfire which was the same thickness. For some reason, on the album it sounds wonderful. Gibson are well represented when it comes to Les Pauls and so on, but the older style jazz guitarists brought the semi acoustics to prominence. My association with that guitar could make it popular again."
I put it to Ronny that when it came to technology, guitars and the fusion of hip hop and jazz he came down firmly in the middle, neither a slave to technology nor in awe of it.
"Yeah, again it's all about the past, present and future and combining all those elements together. That's why I disagree with the acid jazz sound, because acid jazz only goes back to the late 60's, and I was into some of that I but my love for jazz goes back much further, to the time when Montgomery started. I mean I'm seriously influenced by those people. Not only that, I sometimes find that acid jazz acts only play stand-up raves. Whereas I can play stand-up or sit-down. They thrive on a rock concert atmosphere, and that's okay. But playing for a jazz audience, especially in the States, they don't move, they sit there and if they really like you, you won't find out until the end, when they'll jump up and give you a standing ovation. That's good."
Britain keeps turning out all these new fusions, from the funky reggae of Soul II Soul to the fashionable posturing of acid jazz, but none of this seems to make a sizeable impact on the public perception. It's still the case that British black artists are accorded more respect abroad and enjoy more mainstream success there than they do here. I asked Ronny if this was the case with his music.
"I can remember going to San Francisco, all stars of world music and African, and all mainstream artists were there. And for the first time, there was a huge conflab over acid jazz and hip hop jazz. They now call it acid jazz, new jazz swing, they had to find a term for it. In Holland they call it jazz dance, and most of Europe and Australasia calls it acid jazz.
"We had good reactions in New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the States it was great. We worked hard promoting ourselves. It proved to my record company and a lot of people out there that I do have a strong album base. Plus I'm quite big in France, my album went gold so I'm pretty much of a celebrity over there."
Aware that Ronny was in the process of laying down tracks for his new album, I asked him if he could give an idea of the direction it was taking. Were there more vocal tracks as strong as 'The Jackal' and 'Love, I Never Had it So Good'?
"This next album will have enough vocal tracks to do it live, we did do a few vocal tracks on promotion, but I didn't think it was enough. There should be enough now to warrant us bringing in vocalists."
Jazz rap seems to be the flavour of the month, and Ronny was one of the earliest exponents of a style which has clear antecedents in The Last Poets and even earlier beatnik flavoured jazz like Oscar Brown Jr. Was this a continuing theme, or did Ronny intend to develop the soulful tip?
"To be quite honest with you. the jazz rap thing, I thought it was overkilled. Everyone's doing it. Galliano were doing it over here, and it was more poetry than rap. That sort of stuff was really popular, and then I came along on the end of it. You won't be hearing it on the new album. It was good, but once everyone starts doing it, it's time to move on."
'Shit Goes Down (But I Phunked Up)' is a brilliant piece of cool jazz guitar improvisation over some truly wonderful breakbeat programming from DJ Krush. It's the perfect example of Ronny's straight-down-the-middle attitude, with its seamless welding of those two elements. I asked Ronny what inspiration had been behind that particular piece.
"In the States they don't move, they sit there and if they really like you, you won't find out until the end"
"Originally 'Come with Me' was going to be the single. I was told to write something original. I had this melody in my mind, and I didn't want to something too close to the single, which was very R&B, hip hop with all the trimmings of jazz. The original 'Shit Goes Down' was the flipside to the Comic Relief single, and after that it was decided to do a remix. Then I suggested 'Shit Goes Down', and when the tapes came back I was floored. I thought 'this will really stand out'.
I'd love to have a jungle mix of 'Love, I Never Had It So Good'. Apparently jungle really took off in the last few weeks, while I was away in Australia. And then 'Incredible' came out with General Levy and I wanted to check it out. So I went to a Friday night rave and it was nasty! There were all these top DJs from London there. They put on this tune, and all hell broke loose, the DJ had to rewind it eight times. If it gets down it's in the lap of the Gods. You can't get away from it. It's a new way of working. The good thing about it is that it unites black and white kids, you get white kids who wouldn't listen to U-Roy for instance, but put it to this beat and they're into it. That's what I like about my audience, it's so mixed."
Ronny always includes a name check for 'the big man upstairs' on the back of all his albums. I asked him what he intended by that dedication.
"I do that because I started playing when I was young, and God gave me this gift and I'm always grateful to the creator. It's from inside. I give thanks all the time. I try never to take things for granted even though in my heathen state I do tend to. I try not to. It's a talent that Ray and I have and we must use it. because there's countless people out there who'd kill for what we're doing.
"Gospel is my first love and I learnt it for my first ever performance in church, I was about 6 or 7 years old and I went upfront and played two rounds of it. Big time stuff. I went to Sunday school and it was one of the songs we had to learn when I was in the choir. It's a lovely melody. Just to remind people where I come from. It's in the family, my sister is the lead singer for Nu Colours."
"If it gets down it's in the lap of the Gods"
I asked Ronny if it was the same inspiration that lay behind the Pentecostal Church's exhortation to 'make a joyful noise unto the lord' which motivated him now?
"I have the same sort of feelings, but with more reality. It's about real life situations, it happens day in and day out, long after you've gone. And hip hop jazz is all about reality and how we have to deal with reality. I'm trying to tread a fine balance.
"As a lead musician in the band I sort of take the place of the vocalist, so other people can understand what I'm playing, trying to communicate to them. They have to understand what I'm trying to say with my instrument. It's so great to go to Japan, Tokyo and Borneo. I don't speak a word of Japanese but they get down, they understand what I'm saying. Music is the universal language."
Interview by Roger Brown
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