The Jazz Tip
Fusing jazz with rap and feel with technology are second nature to Ronny Jordan - whose cover of Miles Davis' 'So What' recently made the pop charts. Simon Trask talks to the man on the "jazz tip".
Ronny Jordan belongs to a fresh breed of technology-conscious musician - a new generation who have grown up with technology and make no distinction between old and new attitudes.
Jazz guitarist Ronny Jordan typifies a new breed of musician, equally at ease playing live on stage with a band and working in the studio with synths, samplers, sequencers and drum machines. His debut album, The Antidote, recorded last summer and released earlier this year on Island Records, is a smooth combination of live playing and programmed drums and basslines. The result is a fusion of the cool, melodic jazz guitar of George Benson and hard-edged dance beats. On a couple of tracks there are also jazz raps from British rapper IG of Dodge City Productions. Mellow, warm and tuneful yet also tight and punchy, The Antidote could be the summer sound of '92.
As well as producing and arranging the album, writing all but one of the tracks, playing guitar and contributing the occasional scat vocal, Jordan is credited with providing synth parts, basslines and additional drum programming, while the main drum programming credits go to co-producer Longsy D. Guest musicians add a further live element to Jordan's guitar playing on some of the tracks.
In its first eight weeks of release, The Antidote notched up sales in excess of 30,000 copies - impressive for an essentially instrumental jazz guitar album. Unusually, while the recorded versions of tracks like 'So What' and 'Get To Grips' have been firing up the clubs, Jordan has been out and about with his band playing the same music live in more traditional music venues.
'So What' (a brisk dance version of Miles Davis' classic jazz tune) was first released as Jordan's debut single, making waves in the clubs at the tail end of last year, when people were paying large sums of money for early white label pressings. On its official release, it crossed over from the clubs into the mainstream and the national charts.
"It was a new cool hip sound, and people were into that", comments Jordan as we sit in his management company's office on a suitably warm, summery day. "What I'm trying to do is update jazz. How I originally met my guys, my musicians, was we all played jazz together in clubs, and we shared this common goal of fusing jazz with modern funky beats. I wouldn't call it jazz funk, or acid jazz; 'jazz tip' is the term I like. What I'm basically trying to do is introduce jazz tip from a guitar angle, mix some of today's sounds with jazz guitar to give it a new identity for the '90s, make it hip again. The way I describe my music, it's music for the mind and the feet. You don't just listen to it, you can groove to it, tap your feet to it. The whole idea is to make jazz appealing to a younger audience, introduce it to them and then they can discover the old masters and say 'Yeah, that's where it came from'."
So why did Jordan opt to use programmed drums and sequencing on the album rather than record with his band?
"I wanted to make the album as crossover as possible but at the same time still have that underground sound, and for me live drums weren't going to get that", he replies. "A lot of rap groups are doing the same thing - they use sample loops on record but live they use real drums, 'cos a lot of them now are turning to live bands to get the sound across."
In fact, Longsy D's drum programming on the album has a fluid, almost live quality to it, with a looser swing feel than the more formularised American swingbeat style, but also a precision you can only get from programmed drums. It turns out that the rhythm tracks were put together using a combination of Roland R8 and TR909 drum machines and sample loops triggered on an S900.
"When I program drums I mainly program them with a drummer in mind, so that if a drummer was playing that live he wouldn't have any problems."
"A lot of people were surprised when I got Longsy to do the co-production and drum beats on the album", says Jordan, "but I've known him from school. What happened was I played 'So What' in a jazz club one night and I suddenly realised it could be a dance track, so the person I immediately thought of was Longsy. He was the kind of person who could listen to me and handle the technology as well. He's really on that tip when it comes to studio technology; he programs, he's an engineer, he knows how to tape op. He was able to take care of the engineering side while I concentrated on the music.
"But what I really liked about Longsy was his programming of drums, and the ingenious way he has of putting different drum loops together. When I had the idea of doing 'So What', I got him on the phone, said 'I need to use your studio for three hours, have you got the time?'. He said 'Yeah, no problem'. So I went down to his place, played him the original record and said 'Look, I want it this way'. So we got onto the computer and we had a tempo going which was around 111bpm, which was right, and I played guitar to it with just the metronome on the computer - nothing was laid yet. I said 'This is about right, let's find the drums for it'. He then went through about ten different loops and I just kept saying 'Nah, nah', and then he came to the one you hear on the record now and I thought 'Yeah', 'cos I was quite hip to the sounds that were around, and I thought 'That's kind of a today sound'. So he laid that down and then he laid a more 'bottomy' loop on top of that. Just that and the guitar you could dance to, it was great. Then we synced the sequencer to tape using SMPTE and I laid down the basslines and the guitar and keyboards, and, that was it.
"We did that track again when we came to record the album, as we'd advanced from 16-track to 24-track. Longsy did the first half, the programming stage, and I then took it to another stage, starting getting the musicianship into it. It was my idea to have a jazz section on it. He wasn't involved; I programmed the drums myself. Then it was just a question of finding where to put this jazz section. I thought it was fitting to include it out of respect to Miles, and I'm glad that I did record that section, because just as I finished it he died."
Was the recording process for 'So What' typical of the album as a whole?
"'See The New' started off with just bass, and the drums came after", Jordan replies. "Sometimes I can go into a track and have a definite bassline in mind so I'll lay the bassline down and then find a drum pattern for it, and sometimes I hear a loop and it gives me ideas for the other parts. Or I might get the chords and the melody first. But the bass and drums have got to mesh together, otherwise it's not worth going on."
Typically, the acoustic bass parts on the album were actually sequenced, played in from the keyboard by Jordan using a full-bodied double bass sound which is a combination of a Roland D110 patch and an Akai S900 double bass sample.
"I still use the double bass in the jazz sense, more to keep a bit of that old vibe there with the drums and the jazz guitar", he comments. "Any good bassist will be able to play those lines, 'cos of the choice of notes. I wasn't doing anything impossible, just what was needed for each track. It's the same with the drum programming. When I program drums I mainly program them with a drummer in mind, so that if a drummer was playing live he wouldn't have any problems. But a drummer will add to what's there when he's playing live."
"Some players who are studio players but can't hack it live - I want to be on that tip where I can survive both in the studio and live on stage."
The value of spontaneity...
Of his keyboard playing ability, Jordan says, "I can find my way around enough to get the ideas down. I only play to write, really. I'll show a real keyboard player the sort of thing I want and he'll play it but he'll take it further."
Hybrid arts' SMPTETrack was used for the sequencing chores on the album, while instruments included a D50, a Casio FZ sampler, the aforementioned D110, S900, R8 and TR909, the Fairlight, and an M1 and a Matrix 1000. Jordan plans to have his own 24-track studio at some point, and so feels that it's important that he understands the technology which goes with the modern recording studio. In tact, having been in and out of studios for years he's been able to pick up a fair amount of knowledge.
"You do sessions and you're producing, the engineer's by you, you're looking at what he's doing on the desk, after a while you get familiar with the gear and it just becomes second nature", he explains. "I even know how to operate an SSL 'cos I've worked with them so many times."
Jordan is also well versed in the ins and outs of MIDI sequencing - not to mention the ups and downs.
"Years back I used to use program on Pro24, and that crashed on me all the time", he recalls. "I'd go to a friend's and we'd do all this work on the sequencer, then it'd crash and it'd be six o'clock in the evening and I'm thinking 'No, I'm not starting again, we'll leave it until another day.'
"Now I've gotten into programming Cubase - I would say that I'm 75 per cent there. But it's difficult for me to be on that technical tip and still be a musician, because when I'm in the studio I have to have this tunnel vision regarding compositions and arrangements, what's going to go down and what will work on a track. That's why I rate certain musicians I know, who are on that music tip; they play their instruments well, they know all about the arrangements, but they're also up on the studio gear and they're taking full advantage of the technology. It's very important for today's musician, because then you have the best of both worlds, and you can acclimatise in any way You get some players who are strictly studio players but can't seem to hack it live, and vice versa. I want to be on that tip where I can survive both in the studio and live on stage."
For Jordan, playing live is an essential part of his musical life - an experience which gives him something he can't get from working in a studio.
"No matter how someone calls himself a keyboard player, for me if he can't play acoustic piano then he's not a keyboard player at all."
"There's a whole magic about a band playing", he says. "You're feeding off the other musicians, and sometimes you do things you never really expected to do. Live playing is the ultimate because you have that human element there which is often missing in recordings. Also you have to put more movement and energy into playing live, 'cos you're being watched; when you do that, it's something the audience relate to and warm to. So I think you end up giving a little bit more live than on a recording."
Jordan can genuinely claim to have been playing music for almost all his life, having picked up his first acoustic guitar when he was just four years old. At the age of 12 he had his first electric, a Guild Starfire - just one of some 15 or 16 guitars bought for him by a supportive father over the years. A self-taught player, Jordan learnt his craft by playing gospel music every week in his local church.
During this time he discovered jazz and in particular guitarist Wes Montgomery's album West Coast Blues, which opened his mind to a different musical approach. To this day, Montgomery remains his greatest hero; The Antidote is dedicated to Montgomery's "colossal genius", he comments.
It was George Benson's 1976 album Breezin' which showed Jordan the commercial possibilities of jazz guitar. During the '80s, while he played guitar for a range of singers, most of whom shared his gospel background (Paul Johnson, The Escofferys and Lavine Hudson). He also worked on his own funk-inspired demos and nursed a desire to be a jazz musician. As the '80s became the '90s, his own career as an artist began to take shape. Jordan's jazz and funk leanings converged and he began putting together the music for The Antidote.
Jordan's playing - live and on record - reveals his preference for playing within the texture of the music over-indulging in fretboard pyrotechnics.
"People are not really interested in blinding solos any more", he maintains. "They don't give a damn how fast you are. People like a good tune - do what you can do on that, but realise that less is more and you'll always leave them wanting more."
Although he may not aspire to "guitar hero" status, Jordan recognises that when he's playing live he must take on the role of musical frontman.
"I feel that drum machines have brought the best out of drummers - because of the machines a lot of drummers have had to tighten up."
"At the end of the day the band's a unit - I don't want people to hear too much guitar. Of course I'm featured, but it's a band really and it's featuring Ronny Jordan, that's how I look at it."
Jordan gets a warm, mellow guitar sound on the album - "warm as cognac", as he puts it. His is the traditional approach of shaping the sound through the fingers rather than relying on effects. It's an intimate relationship between player and sound which technology can destroy.
"I used a Gibson 175 semi-acoustic for the whole album", he reveals. "Everyone's telling me the guitar sound on the album is good. The sound I go for is not fussy, it tells no lies. And people will know it's guitar -'cos some guitars now sound like synths.
"At one stage I owned about seven or eight effects, and at gigs I would spend all my time trying to get a sound, never mind playing", he recalls. "But that's all changed now. I quite like the use of quality reverbs and delays, but a lot of guitarists tend to hide behind effects. Even rock players rely a lot on sustain, but if you strip all that away and put them on an acoustic... That's where you judge someone, that's their yardstick. Get 'em on an acoustic. Let your fingers do all the work, not the effects.
"It's the same with keyboard players and the piano. No matter how someone calls himself a keyboard player, for me if he can't play acoustic piano then he's not a keyboard player at all. When someone's playing piano on their own, that's when you hear a keyboard player."
Jordan's next step is to start work on the follow-up to The Antidote. He already has a working title for it, Meant To Be, together with some songs for possible inclusion and some ideas about the direction he wants to take with it.
"The next album will still be groove-based, but I'll be using more live musicians", he reveals. "A lot of emphasis will be on live feel. I'm not saying there won't be any technology, 'cos it's got its advantages. We'll just go with the flow, with what's going down. I don't regret how The Antidote was done, but you have to now approach each track according to what it is, according to the feel. For instance, with Tony, my drummer, sometimes I'll get him to play a few bars and I'll sample it and loop it, and it's like he's playing live but it's sequenced. Then sometimes I'll get him to play through the whole track 'cos there's different highs and lows. Both ways it's him, and so it'll be the same sound throughout the album.
"I feel that drum machines have brought the best out of drummers. You listen to a lot of '70s funk, the drums were a bit looser then! But because of the machines a lot of drummers have had to tighten up, they're more on cue now - necessarily so. Now I much prefer to get a drummer in the studio to play all the loops, because with samples there's a lot of complications. A lot of people are using drummers to record loops now so the drummer's come back with an almighty bang. A few years ago it was just drum machines, or you'd find a smart drummer would be a programmer himself so he'd go in and combine the programming and the playing."
Amid the talk of drum programming, it's worth mentioning that it's the songs and arrangements as much as anything else which make The Antidote such a success. Models of clarity, simplicity and restraint, they exemplify Jordan's "less is more" attitude. But wasn't he tempted to indulge in the harmonic sophistication of jazz?
"I've been through that, playing so many chord changes, but at the end of the day no-one wants fo know", he replies. "A lot of that is just musos showing off to other musos; it's all ego. Now I've gone past the days when I've played for musicians 'cos musicians ain't buying your records. A certain jazz musician has just done a jazz record and it's sold 3000-6000 copies. You've got to do music that people can understand. But also you have to try and be as honest as you possibly can with your music and not bullshit. 'Cos once you start doing that...
"Music has a weird way of reflecting you as a person. I can only do music that relates to me 'cos I'm me, no-one else is me."
Interview by SImon Trask
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