A soulful bass driven track with a tight drum beat, mellow synth string pads, a heartfelt vocal phrase plus some salacious electric piano licks. It is Mellow D by John Bickerton. Read our interview below!
Describe your sound in 3 words.
For this record, I would say chill, jazz, soul
Your latest track Mellow D sounds as smooth as it gets. What is the story behind it?
The song was originally developed some time ago as background music for a TV cooking show. Over time I felt the track could stand by itself – functioning kind of the way LoFi does. It does have something of a soundtrack feel to it as the form doesn’t change that much, It’s an A-B-A-B structure, there are no breakdowns or drops or anything like that.
You mention Creed Taylor’s CTI jazz label as a main influence. If you had to choose only one album from the label, which one would you choose?
CTI produced records mainly through the 1970s. They issued records by established straight-ahead jazz artists like Wes Montgomery, Paul Desmond, and Chet Baker but also artists like George Benson who were beginning to incorporate soul and funk beats into a jazz context. One thing that kind of links both the straight-ahead artists and the jazz-funk artists is the use of electric piano in the recordings. You hear a jazz standard like ‘Autumn Leaves’ performed by Chet Baker but the production is more electronic/modern led by the Fender Rhodes electric piano. That’s a very ‘70s sound to me. Back then there was no radio genre called ‘smooth jazz’, the term hadn’t been invented yet but CTI was big about supporting artists interested in broadening jazz out into a more ‘radio-friendly’ sound. If I had to choose one record that’s most emblematic of CTI it would be ‘Good King Bad’ by George Benson from 1975. The first track is very melodic, very much in what would come to be known as smooth jazz, but there are also tracks where the playing is more intense and more demanding.
Other records to check out would be ‘First Light’ (1972) by Freddie Hubbard, ‘She Was Too Good For Me’ (1974) by Chet Baker, ‘Blues Farm’ (1973) by Ron Carter, and Hubert Laws – ‘Live at Carnegie Hall’ (1973). Another feature of CTI was the use of upcoming, younger jazz musicians. An established artist would be surrounded by a younger generation of performers for the session. The CTI stable included Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, Jack DeJohnette, Herbie Hancock, Bob James, and Grover Washington Jr. The pianist Bob James is featured on several of the albums I mentioned playing Fender Rhodes electric piano. Bob James would go on to become the most sampled jazz artist by Hip Hop producers. I do feel CTI established its own sound and identity and though at the time there were many detractors, that sound can be very much appreciated today.
Balancing between jazz, blues and contemporary classical, what kind of music do you listen to on your own time?
I listen to a lot of different music. I don’t listen to much contemporary pop music – only in passing really. I very much like the labels Firehouse 12 Records, Tompkins Square, Another Timbre, and Edition Wandelweiser Records. Each concentrates on a fairly small slice of their respective genres – they all are primarily instrumental music labels.
If you had a time machine and you were able to travel back to the 70’s, which place would you visit?
Though I was around in the mid-70s, I was too young to take in the nightlife or the live music of that era. If I could travel back I’d revisit New York City as an older person who could participate in what was happening. The 1970s were a difficult time for the city in many ways – but it was very alive musically. The birth of Hip Hop came from the NYC of that era. Rock music was changing and part of that change came out of New York (Ramones, NY Dolls, Television).
What do you enjoy most? Writing music or performing your music live?
That’s hard because there is much to love about both. I guess these days I would say writing music. It’s what I’ve been spending most of my time doing. As a pianist, performing is the ultimate experience though. I don’t know if most people realize how important, or magical the loop between audience and performer is at a club or concert. A concert is a ‘heightened-sense event’, it is a social event where people come to share in what is a miraculous thing – the making of music – essentially sound waves enter us through our bodies and then pull out feelings or an elevated consciousness, however you’d like to describe it. It’s this invisible thing that has a profound effect. You can have that experience through earbuds on your phone but when one is part of that performer-audience live loop, that’s something that can’t be recreated on a recording.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Relax, learn what humility is (you might have to be older for that, have some failure under your belt), but take the pressure off of yourself. It is a very long journey and you miss the mark if you don’t appreciate the day that is now. I still need practice with that.
One last thing we should know about you?
Though I am now an American citizen, I was born in Windsor, Ontario Canada, and had my early school years there. Speaking of the 1970s – that’s when my family moved to the United States when my father’s job changed. Windsor is a border town, separated from Detroit Michigan by the Detroit River. It was a wonderful place to grow up really.
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