Published: 3D World, January 26, 2011.
Sometimes it’s hard to reconcile the image of Roy Ayers circa the early ‘70s with that of today. Take almost any Ubiquity era album cover and we’re given the picture of a serious young man – bearded and sporting a head full of hair, staring intently back at us. Part soul-jazz mystic and, certainly by 1980 when he released Music of Many Colours with Fela Kuti, part afro-centric political activist. Fast-forward four decades and the scowl is gone; admittedly it wasn’t always there, but today it’s been replaced by something imminently more approachable – the grin of a showman.
In a recording career that’s stretched almost five decades, with reinvention and versatility at its heart, Ayers is one of the true music industry survivors. The Los Angeles native emerged from the West Coast jazz scene of the early ‘60’s, first recording with Curtis Amy on his 1962 album Way Down. Since then he’s gone on to work with everyone from Herbie Hancock and Rick James, to The Roots and Erykah Badu. Its been a long and illustrious career, and the friendly and excitable Ayers is clearly grateful of it. “I’ve just had so much wonderful excitement with so many great artists in different genres of music, it continues to be a very exciting career.”
Despite making a name for himself within West Coast jazz circles alongside the likes of Jack Wilson, Teddy Edwards and Chico Hamilton, it wasn’t until his work with flautist Herbie Mann that he received widespread acclaim. His work on albums such as Mann’s classic 1969 album, Memphis Underground, foreshadowed the synthesis of jazz and r ‘n’ b Ayers would later make his own on early recordings as Roy Ayers Ubiquity. Ayers built his reputation as a vibraphonist, and on Mann’s hugely successful Memphis Underground, he was thrust forward as one of its pre-imminent practitioners.
Even today Ayers still speaks in slightly reverent tones when discussing the appeal of the vibraphone. Since it was first introduced to him by way of his parents collection of Lionel Hampton records, it’s been an instrument of ongoing intrigue.
“The fascination of it,” replies Ayers, when questioned of the instruments appeal. “It’s a fascinating instrument. It mesmerises a person, it’s almost hypnotic. Because I fell in love with the instrument, the sound of the instrument, the way you have to play the instrument. It requires a very practical demand, you have to see the notes to play it – it’s the only instrument that has a melodic melody that you don’t actually touch with your fingers or your hands, you play it through two mallets and you pedal as you play it. So the instrument has always turned me on.”
Although he’s revered for his work as a vibraphonist, Ayers most lasting contributions to music have been his compositions. Tracks like ‘Everybody Loves The Sunshine’ have been etched into popular musical history. And as the ‘70s moved on, Ayers increasing focus on funk and r ‘n’ b eventually bled into an interest in disco, producing proto-disco hits like ‘Brother Green (The Disco Hits)’ and ‘Running Away’. Perhaps most tellingly though, his works been sampled countless times – recycled a reintroduced to generations of hip hop fans. Brand Nubian, A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets and The Beatnuts are just some that have mined Ayers’ albums for breaks. And he couldn’t be happier about it.
“I’ve been sampled more than anybody – I’m the leader. I’m not bragging but it’s a fact. I’m leading in sales by everybody, more samples registered than anyone – and it’s wonderful. I mean from Mary J Blige, to 50 Cent, to A Tribe Called Quest, to Brand Nubian, to all these people I had no knowledge of before. There’s so many – Will Smith – there are so many artists that have sampled my music. They’ve made my publishing company very successful.”
Ayers is 71 this year, and his longevity in a notoriously fickle market is testament to not only raw talent and versatility, but a healthy dose of industry savvy. Our conversation is littered with self-promotion, and indeed the man can, at times, seem a little preoccupied with royalties and sales – but he’s well aware of the realities of the industry. With that has come a recognition of the changing trends among multiple generations of music consumers, and the need to keep apace. His work with Rick James, Masters At Work and Guru’s Jazzmatazz have meant he’s never been far from the frontline of innovation.
“All my life I’ve been able to complete a form of versatility in the construction and delivery of my music. I’ve done jazz, bop, soul, disco – all these different genres of music. So I’ve never been just one area of music. So I’ve been versatile, and I think being versatile is such a unique quality. Being versatile puts me in a category unlike most other artists, most other artists don’t play jazz, don’t play rock, most other artists are not sampled by – I have more sampled hits than anybody by the hip hop artists – I think it’s a wonderful compliment that they’ve sampled me on such a level.”
Aside from his versatility as a recording artist, he’s certainly lost none of his enthusiasm for performing and recording. With re-issues of unreleased material coming out thick and fast, along with a new album out early this year, Ayers is certainly not content to take a step back from the spot-light just yet. There’s still more to learn, and new people to work with. “I find I learn things from different individuals, even though music is different, it’s just exciting to work with people.”
9:27 pm • 22 February 2011
Published: Groove Guide, December 15, 2010.
Having already released the most ambitious record of the year, Flying Lotus quickly followed Cosmogramma with his recently released Pattern + Grid WorldEP. Both works are testament to Steven Ellison’s seemingly boundless creativity – and he’s showing no signs of letting up.
Back in 2006, when Steven Ellison dropped his debut album 1983, there was little to suggest he’d go on to produce the sprawling, complex and celestial Cosmogramma four years later. Reviews were lukewarm, almost uniformly casting him in the shadow of Dabrye, Dilla and Madlib – it was good, but it was also criticised as being a little paint-by-numbers.
Come 2008, after Ellison’s first two releases for Warp (the Reset EP and the Los Angeles full length), everything had changed; now, almost anyone that attempted anything remotely resembling Flying Lotus’ glitchy, IDM influenced hip hop, was cast as a rip-off, taking the template laid down by Ellison and just filling in the gaps themselves. And while both releases may have paved the way for a host of imitators,Cosmogramma, released earlier this year, flipped it all on it’s head – and no one is likely to create anything near it, in sound or scope, for a long time to come.
Ellison himself thinks it’s highly unlikely he’ll ever produce something similar again, but nor does it seem he wants to. “That one was special. The musicians I worked with… it was all special, a super special experience and I don’t really plan on going back there – it was what it was, and it was good.”
Created in the wake of his mothers death and informed by the work of his aunt, free-jazz great, Alice Coltrane, it’s snapshot of Ellison’s headspace at the time, and something he says he’s glad to put behind him. “I feel like, well, I think that finishing the album was actually like, a way for me to close a chapter. You know after that it was like ‘OK, I can move on’, and I don’t think I really felt that good up until then.”
When set beside his newly released Pattern + Grid World EP, it’s easy to conclude Ellison was in a more contemplative state of mind when he recorded Cosmogramma. There’s more depth, and as free roaming as it is in places, it’s more consistent and coherent than his latest EP. Still, according to Ellison, Pattern + Grid World was a chance to show a lighter side and put a full stop at what had been a testing couple of years.
“I think part of it just came from feeling happy again, you know. Just feeling like it was a way to showcase a more playful music, a more playful side of the work. SinceCosmo… was such a crazy experience for me it was like, the laugh at the end of the lap.”
Having put so much effort into his last two releases, it’s no wonder Ellison is involving himself in some projects outside of his own music at the moment. While his Brainfeeder label keeps going from strength to strength, right now glowing with recent releases from Lorn, Teebs and The Gaslamp Killer, it’s another passion of his which is taking up the bulk of his time – directing. Although he’s weary to give away too much detail, he’s happy to say he’s flexing his film school background and working alongside New Zealand’s Special Problems duo, Cambell Hooper and Joe Kefali.
It’s just one creative avenue the Los Angeles native is pursuing at present, and whatever the results, it’s bound to be interesting. As Ellison says, “I really do believe in my work” – and that in itself has set him apart from most of his peers. One things for sure though, it’s certainly not gonna be paint-by numbers.
4:25 pm • 23 December 2010
Published: 3D World, December 15, 2010.
Though currently house music’s man of the moment through his production work as Tensnake, Marco Niemerski lets Harry Pearl know he’s already seeking to change the working methods that have generated so much hype across the globe.
Having built his underground rep with a steady flow of 12-inch releases that spliced disco, house and boogie, it was Marco Niemerski’s steel drum-led anthem, ‘Coma Cat’, that really propelled the Tensnake moniker into mainstream consciousness earlier this year. Picked up by house giants Defected, the label threw their full weight behind the track, commissioning a couple of tawdry, super-club-ready remixes and pushing its crossover appeal to the hilt. And while Tensnake’s relatively restrained discography isn’t short on substance, ‘Coma Cat’ was the shot in the arm Niemerski’s fledging career needed.
It’s been a fairly rapid ascent for the Hamburg, Germany resident, and it seems now, well on his way to mainstream acceptance (Ibiza! NME! The Guardian!) he’s got a foot in both worlds – plotting a course somewhere between catchy, easily-accessible house, and a slightly more obscure take on disco. “I’ve had a good reaction from both worlds and I really appreciate that,” says Niemerski, down the line from Hamburg. “And for me that is also important, because where I come from, that’s the club scene – and I like both worlds. I try to keep that up, that in between vibe in a way.”
It’s a combination that doesn’t always sit comfortably amongst discerning clubbers and DJs around the world, but Niemerski seems more bemused than worried by any ill-will from critics. “In the beginning of course the more underground people discovered my music and now when tracks are becoming more popular – especially ‘Coma Cat’ – you realise that some people turn away from it just because it’s more popular. I don’t understand this because if I like music it’s good, or its bad – I just like it no matter how many people are listening to it. But I think it’s just a dogmatic thing for some people, maybe they all say that they are not cool anymore if they listen to popular stuff – I have no idea.”
With even a cursory listen through Niemerski’s back-catalogue it’s evident his influences run much deeper than the picture presented by his latest dance-floor smash. ‘Congolal’, off his 2008 EP Keep Believin’taps into the same cosmic musical vein as Norwegian space-disco producers Lindstom and Prins Thomas. While his three-track EP In The End (I Want You To Cry), released through Running Back last year, is a potent rendering of vintage house and disco. Niemerski’s sound reflects an affection with everyone from Lary Levan through to Floating Points, the more timeless influences though, accredited to his brother.
“My older brother, he had a huge record collection, and I think the first contact with music, really, when I felt like ‘Whoa, what’s out there?’, that was when I was listening to stuff from my older brother which was a lot of boogie and disco sounds from the ‘80s. And I think that, combined with the club sounds when I went out later, that really socialised me in a musical way.”
Although he cites Hamburg’s legendary Front club as introducing him to rave culture, as he moved into his 20’s he felt increasingly disenchanted by Hamburg’s electronic scene. The pervasiveness of minimal techno in the city forced him to look elsewhere for the warmer, more melodic sound he was craving. “I think I was more influenced by listening to DJ sets, to mixtapes, or podcasts from all over the world, than by the Hamburg music scene,” Niemerski reflects.
Despite his first forays into the world of production being close to fifteen years ago, his first release wasn’t until 2005 – the Restless EP, through his own Mirau Musik label. By his own admission, it took a long time until he felt comfortable enough to release his music for public consumption, a mindset that has carried through to this day.
“I think I’m pretty strict, if I don’t feel 100 per cent satisfied with a track, or lets say at least 95 per cent, I don’t feel like I need to release it because I don’t see a reason to have music out there that you’re not happy with. And yeah I’m trying to stick to that, even if there’s more pressure now of course – and people are asking for new releases – but yeah, I think everybody should have quite a high quality control.”
As a result, a Tensnake album is still a little way off. Niemerski has already restarted his anticipated debut once, and concedes he’s still unsure what form it’s going to take. At least part of that is due to his evolving tastes, but also a hesitancy as to which direction to move next.
“When I released my first record, that was in 2005, on my own label called Mirau Musik, I was really inspired by the new kind of disco sound – which wasn’t new – but I realised people out there felt the same. I listened to the Scandinavian guys like Prins Thomas and Lindstrom, and I also am still a huge fan of the Tim Sweeney’s radio show ‘Beats In Space’ – that inspired me a lot. I was really excited because I felt there was something new going on which was old at the same time, which was really different to the huge minimal club sound that was going on five years ago here in Europe. Now over the last three, four years, I dunno’ – I don’t say I’ve lost the excitement, but all this disco thing is so huge now and I feel like I want something new just to excite myself.”
4:07 pm • 23 December 2010