Brian Jackson is a key figure in the development of Black American arts. Working with comrade-in-funk Gil Scott Heron, the two constructed a series of incredible albums, melding together improvisational jazz, future rhythms, and a radical political message. Since the two parted company, however, Jackson has largely moved away from the frontline. Indeed, new album ‘JID008’ is his first for decades, and marks the return of a potent voice in free-minded composition.
When Clash is connected to Brian Jackson over Zoom, our first question is simple: what’s taken him so long? “I wouldn’t say I’ve had offers!” he laughs.
Moving away from music to work as a computer programmer, Brian Jackson found that a steady paycheck – then and now, something music isn’t renowned for – kept wolves from the door of his young family. “I was trying to feed my kids, taking care of what needs to be taken care of.”
Early retirement and a trans-coastal move - from Brooklyn to Portland – afforded him the space to approach creativity from a fresh vantage point. “We’re loving it,” he exclaims. “We have so much space, a lot of trees. I’m a tree hugger so this is a good place for me.”
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It’s at this moment that LA based Jazz Is Dead enter the scene. Helmed by Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Adrian Younge, the event series and label has carved out a lane for itself, uniting a hungry new breed of musicians with jazz and funk greats, such as Roy Ayers and Gary Bartz.
“They reached out to me,” he recalls. “The idea started to germinate about doing some collaborations. And they offered me a chance to play at the Highland Lodge in Los Angeles as part of a deal. And I hadn’t been to Los Angeles in a while and I saw it as a great opportunity not only to get together with them but also to work with some of my favourite LA artists.”
When chatting to Clash about the label last year, Adrian used the powerful phrase “freedom music”. When we mention this to Brian Jackson, he immediately nods in agreement.
“I know a little something about that,” he says. “When you get to a certain point in your development - I guess your psychological development - music can really help with that; music can help you express the things that you the ideas that you come up with when you try and get yourself free. It can also assist when you try to get yourself free of the thoughts that hold us back. This is what we - Gil and I - always saw. He used to call them survival kits on wax!”
Looking back on their work together, Brian Jackson visibly beams with pride. It’s ageless – provocative and powerful, they managed to condense a colossal amount of information on to those discs. “We considered ourselves eclectics,” he says.
“When we would sit down and have a listening session we would go from John Coltrane to Al Green to Jimi Hendrix. To Cream to Ritchie Havens. We were all over the place and all of those things affect you as a musician. When you’re a writer, particularly when you’re a songwriter, whatever you listen to you kind of regurgitate it in some form or another, whether you want to or not. We wanted to – so much so that we didn’t want to put a classification on our music. There were always people who wanted to classify our music but we never wanted to do that because we loved so many different forms of music so there was no need for that. And perhaps that is the reason that maybe it’s survived in some form or fashion over the generations.”
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Brian’s glorious catalogue and his current creativity share many different things, including a desire to be open, and to let people explore it on their own terms. “The thing about music to me is that if you’re trying to connect with people it has to be accessible,” he insists. “There are a lot of people who make music for themselves and that’s fine. There’s all types of music, there’s enough music for everybody and whatever their motivation might be. But for us, we considered ourselves trying to follow in the tradition of the griot and I think one of the main devices of the griot to get the attention of the community was to make it danceable, to make it accessible, to make it singable, to make it hummable. And some of these elements we felt that we owed it to the tradition to do the same.”
“Also – when we looked at institutions like what Madison Avenue was doing, taking Black music and popular music and selling burgers with it, we thought: why not use that methodology and sell revolutionary thought?”
Out now, ‘JID008’ contains much of this DNA. It’s loose-limbed and funky, while retaining the openness, the freedom of jazz. “I’ve never been a fan of over-rehearsing,” he says. “When I work with new bands we just generally go for the general shape of the music and move on and then go and perform.”
“The idea is to just keep things as fresh as possible,” Brian adds. “Adrian and Ali are big fans of that so we had a meeting of the minds as far as that was concerned. It was just about getting in there and laying down the first thing that comes to you. That is the keeper and that is what happened.”
The end results are, he insists, essentially a concert experience. “It’s about as close to a live performance as you can get. You’ll hear the interaction between us as it was fresh and new and we were still exploring together. I think that’s part of the process, part of what involves the listener even more, so you feel like you’re a part of it there.”
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Having spent decades doing odd sessions at night, while maintaining an IT career by day, Brian Jackson is now ready to share many of the ideas he’s been working on. With lockdown allowing him to focus his thoughts, he’s launching himself into a plethora of projects. “Over the next two years, I would say, you’re probably gonna hear at least two or three more projects from me. Also I’m working on some film ideas!”
An innate futurist, Brian Jackson’s work is framed both by his experiences, and the Black American culture that surrounds him. He desires something new, but it must also be grounded, and rooted in something secure. “It’s all from the past, man, it’s all about the tradition. Where Gil and I come from, we come from bebop, we come from Langston Hughes, from Amiri Baraka, from the Last Poets; we come from those before us.”
“It’s like a runway almost - when a plane takes off it’s got lights on both sides. They show them where they should go no matter how dark it is. It’s kind of the same with the arts, with music. You have these lights on both sides, they keep you on the runway. We all follow them. Some of us are a little farther up in the air already, maybe some of us are still taxiing down the runway. We’re all seeing those lights and they keep us on track.”
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'JID008' is out now.
Words: Robin Murray
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