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With 'In My Room,' Jazz Phenom Jacob Collier Is Bringing Jubilation Back

By Jason King | NPR
Tuesday, July 12, 2016

2016 has been an unexpectedly gloomy year for musical genius. I've written before that the domino-like deaths of David Bowie, Maurice White, Prince, Bernie Worrell and a host of other beloved musical icons suggests that the high level of creative excellence inaugurated in the late 1960s and '70s by musicians like The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix may be on the wane. But even if old-school mavericks are leaving us quicker than we'd like, you can't easily overlook the rise of a new generation of boundary-pushing musicians with commanding technical chops like Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding. Add to that list 21-year-old YouTube phenom Jacob Collier, whose warmly humanistic debut In My Room securely positions him as this year's wunderkind-to-watch.

A precocious North Londoner and conservatory-trained jazz pianist, Collier seems to have no creative limits. Besides gleefully tinkling the ivories, he plays a cornucopia of instruments like electric bass and double bass, drums and percussion, melodica, guitar and ukulele, and he's also not afraid to go ham on the accordion, mandolin, bouzouki, dulcimer, tabla, autoharp and banjo. He has a lithe tenor, informed by pre-adolescent turns in operatic productions like Turn of the Screw and Wozzeck. He's awfully fond of stacking his own vocals via multi-track technologies like loop pedals and harmonizers (the latter are custom-built in tandem with MIT graduate student Ben Bloomberg); he can also play these technologies live. His much-watched YouTube videos — which he's been posting since age 16, and in which he harmonizes with multiple versions of himself and plays every instrument, like a musical version of Michael Keaton cloning himself in Multiplicity — confirmed that he's an incredibly inventive cover artist. But with In My Room, Collier proves that he can also write, arrange and produce his own original jazz-meets-funk-meets-pop tunes too — in terms of stylistic influence, think Al Jarreau, Bobby McFerrin, Jamie Lidell, Take 6 or maybe Bernhoft. And Collier can do so at deeply self-assured, skyscraper-high levels of harmonic, melodic and rhythmic acuity.

Collier's formidable skill-set has already earned him the support of octogenarian producer-composer Quincy Jones, who got wind of his "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing" YouTube cover and signed the young Brit to his management company, even helping slot him as opening act for Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea at last year's Montreaux Jazz Festival. Jones functions as a godfather-like mentor to Collier but plays no production or musical role on In My Room: Perhaps the music biz vet realized it would be a good idea to get out of Collier's way and let him become a "thriller" on his own terms.

In My Room borrows its title from Collier's pensive cover of The Beach Boys' 1963 classic. It's a savvy song selection given that Brian Wilson helped usher in the self-contained performer-songwriter-arranger-producer template from which Collier now draws. But if Wilson's tune (which he himself co-wrote at 21) was about the bedroom as emotional refuge from the pressures of the outside world, Collier references domestic space in more literal ways.

Collier, who is partly of Chinese extraction, grew up in an intensely musical family: His maternal grandparents, Derek Collier and Leila Wong, were both professional violinists (his grandfather trained at the Royal Academy of Music and eventually was the concertmaster of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra); his mother, Susan, is an accomplished violinist and long-time instructor at the same college. The room in which Jacob Collier wrote and recorded his debut (the same room we've grown accustomed to in Collier's YouTube videos) is located in the London home in which he was raised and still lives. His mother once offered private violin lessons in that room, but she happily forfeited the space once she realized her young son needed to creatively branch out: The room now houses his digital audio workstation set-up, along with his ever-growing collection of musical instruments.

Last month, Collier flew into New York City to perform on a bill with Kamasi Washington at Central Park Summerstage; a few days later, I interviewed him over the phone. Collier talked to me about his early influences: He grew up in a "massive mixing pot" where Bach's Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 was in constant rotation even as his parents also exposed to him a wide range of music, including the funk of Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind & Fire, and the "cascading melodic invention" of Keith Jarrett. After a stint with software program Cubase, Collier got his hands on a copy of Apple's Logic for his eleventh birthday, and soon the young prodigy morphed into an ever-curious sound connoisseur, tapping on surfaces and rolling marbles across the floor to incorporate domestic found sounds into early demo recordings. "That's what makes the homemade bedroom [recording] thing so 'characterful,' that you're feeding off your environment," he explained to me. "That this is your world, you're in the world in which you're creating things and you essentially end up describing the things around you. I think that's a very 'home-ly' and honest way of making music. I can't imagine making music in any other space."

The concept of the "bedroom producer" is not new: Once digital audio workstations like ProTools imperialized analog recording methods in the 1990s, music production became much more democratic, as anybody with skills and access to resources could produce music at home, or in a dorm room, or on the go. But Collier elevates the idea of home recording; he deploys the bedroom as an instrument that informs the making and meaning of his music. "My main instrument is that room," he confesses to me, "in the sense that it's been my playground for the last twenty-one years. The sounds in that room are what I use to create an orchestral one-man-world in which many different styles can pile on top [of] one another." To further hone his chops, Collier enrolled in jazz piano at the Royal Academy of Music, following in his family footsteps; he spent two years there perfecting his craft and grilling teachers in the school canteen about esoteric world music instruments. But Quincy Jones came calling and school got put on ice.

What makes In My Room so deft is the way it foregrounds virtuosity at a time when decades of digital production have noticeably diminished traditional musicianship. Riding high on a breezy lyric ("I woke up today like I wanted"), effervescent album opener "Woke Up Today" goes meta: It's Collier paying tribute to his own happy-go-lucky approach to musical and sonic freedom. His peppy outlook suggests a 21st century update on Al Jarreau's 1983 sun-drenched "Morning," but the song's mix of acoustic instruments and eccentric synths (Collier calls it a "funk blast stinkin' rockin'" track borne out of a "invincible, funky feeling") also recalls the underappreciated A&M dance pop of Chaz Jankel — especially 1981's "Glad to Know You," a Larry Levan favorite, and also "Ai No Corrida," sung by Charles May and Patti Austin for Quincy Jones' classic The Dude.

Maybe because Collier is an academically trained musician with a fondness for left-curve grooves, he produces music in the methodical, über-synaptic way one might assemble a complex jigsaw puzzle: "'Woke Up Today' is a number of different sections compounded together," he tells me. "There's the melodica solo section which is three divisions; there's the really funky thing in eleven before that, there's the chorus and verse and there's the ending which slows down and speeds up. It's setting up the album in a celebratory fashion — that all these things can be in one space, in one roof and made with one pair of hands."

Debut single "Hideaway" (another track which plays up the album's core theme of interior sanctuary) took Collier six long months to produce: What he calls its "knock snare and big boom and scraping sound" comes wedded to a melody that draws liberally from Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark." "Saviour," on the other hand, boasts a "wonky" loping rhythm and syncopated piano that recalls 1990s J Dilla-inspired D'Angelo, or even early 2000s Donnie (whose album The Colored Section remains one of that decade's under-recognized musical masterworks). Collier includes a cover of Stevie Wonder's tender 1969 "You and I," but he goes all Roy Thomas Baker/Queen on the track by stacking fifty or sixty overdubbed background vocals; he says he produced its dense arrangement in just four days. "Down the Line" rides chromatic changes that recall the best of Bobby McFerrin's vocalese-pop; but I also hear the chugging post-bossa rhythms of Brazilian acts like Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento. (Collier even throws in a Portuguese-sung verse and gives us a New Orleans style piano solo). Collier even includes a cover of "(Meet) The Flintstones," and maybe it's nothing more than a cheeky throwaway, but it serves as a reminder that the 1961 Hanna-Barbera penned theme always contained those latent Beethoven-sonata-meets-Charlie-Parker-rhythm-changes. I wonder if any classically rooted musician has ever had this much fun making a funky pop record before.

As wildly experimental as In My Room might sound on paper, the glue that holds it all together is Collier himself: His eternally merry disposition turns the album into a compelling passion project. I know what you're saying: No musician — except maybe Prince, bless his dearly departed soul — can be a master of all things. Critics will take issue with Collier's instrumentation choices: His noodling on keyboards, as well as his reliance on Logic Pro software sounds, too often makes his music sound "synthy" and reek of conservatory ambition (the latter is an issue that has also plagued Spalding's records). Others will balk at Collier's mono-dimensional singing. His woofy texture and archly British pronunciation turns his voice into an acquired taste, something you will either love or hate, like Marmite.

But naysayers should listen again to Collier's gorgeous vocal on the earnest (and stunningly written) "In the Real Early Morning," where he achieves a soulful stillness and emotional gravitas that belie his youthful years. If you happen to find his experimentation with rhythm and meter too cerebral or mathematical, take a listen to In My Room's delightful standout, "Hajanga." The word was invented by Collier's mother to describe an original work he submitted with his college application, and Collier gravitated to the concept instantly. "Hajanga describes the force of your life," he says, "how everything goes in cycles, everything goes up and down and round and round. It's people coming together, united by this celebratory force and a real sense of self-acceptance. The sense that everybody has this unified song that they sing, this idea of drawing from the whole of the universe around you and then learning how to love the people around, and the things around you and learning how to love yourself in that. You learn to celebrate your self in the context of a universal community of energetic things." Sounding like a seamless, propulsive blend of '90s Victor Wooten, '80s Sting and '70s Stevie Wonder, modulating "Hajanga" is what Collier calls a "tumbling, circular force" that evokes the spirit of "life and bubbles."

Buoyant tunes like "Hajanga" suggest that Collier isn't simply mimicking artists like Stevie or EWF: He's actually managed to capture the ethos of freewheeling jubilation that DNA-stamped and underwrote those legends' output. Almost anybody can copy Stevie Wonder's chord progressions; it's much harder to convey the ebullient feeling of his classic albums. These days, few contemporary millennial musicians have the skills (or the interest) to conjure that exuberance — it runs counter, in many ways, to the irony, sarcasm and pessimism at the heart of contemporary ruminations on failure, ruin and melancholy. We might even think of Collier's optimistic sunniness as a foil to countryman James Blake's eternal tristesse.

I asked Collier if his penchant for happy feeling turns him into an anachronism: "The world of Stevie Wonder — in particular, the kind of overflowing joy that exists in every single thing I've ever heard him do, every note he sings — that is so deeply inspiring to me in every way .... The bottom line is you need to be authentic, you have to be really honest to yourself. I'd say that I'm a really quite a joyful person in general, but I think the idea of joy can be extremely complex, and rich and varied. With this album I tried to explore how many different flavors of joy I could find ... I didn't set out on a mission to promote joy in music, but it's a side effect of having experienced a lot of joy just listening to music. It's inspired by a lot of wonder that I'm feeling right now — it's a tremendously colorful time in my life — and I think joy is really is at the heart of it."

Collier's wide-eyed optimism and planetary humanism might seem corny to some, but I'd venture that these are increasingly essential values in dark times ruled by #brexit xenophobia, Orlando mass shootings and ISIS and Boko Haram insurgency. We all need our own forms of refuge from the omnipresent negativity that threatens to encroach in on and constrain our ability to live freely. Music can sometimes — though not always — be that refuge. In just eleven songs that burst with creative ideas, Jacob Collier has generously opened the door to his room and made it our sanctuary too.

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