Jesse Fischer: Open to the Past

Gigi Brooks interviews the keyboardist about his new album and his affinity for the grooving sounds of the 70s

Jesse Fischer’s new album Retro Future takes us back into the timeless sounds of jazz-funk and soul, while commanding elements of electro, hip-hop and African influences. In this interview, the keyboardist shares his thoughts and goals on the exploration of technology and change in music

On his latest album Fischer has been joined by great artists such as Stefon Harris and Sean Jones on his last album and has performed with legends like Stevie Wonder and has many music television credits which include The Mo’Nique Show, BET’s Rising Icons, Conan O’Brien and many others.

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Isabelle Selby

Jesse Fischer

I learned quite a bit about the elements of blending the past and future in music and I think you will too!

Gigi Brooks: I always like to go back to the beginning of an artist’s career, because that is where all of the creation, molding and the learning and inspiration begin. Tell me about your early life with music. What touched you that made you want to focus on music for the rest of your life?

Jesse Fischer: Well, let’s see…I was surrounded by music from the time I was born. My parents played both played music and they loved dance music and I was exposed to so much live music, classical music, pop, jazz and a whole history of records that my parents owned. So from the time that I was basically one or two I was sitting at the piano banging away at it and although there were no percussions I always trying to bang on things that would help me to play the drums. I taught myself how to play the drums. I was always interested in the piano, because we had one in our home, but my dad also owned a bunch of instruments: guitars, banjos, guitars, recorders, flute, and violins; so I sort of had an opportunity to just try things out in a very unstructured way. I explored different types of instruments and because he and his friends were always getting together to play Bach or folk music from around the world. I was always sort of hanging around trying to imitate them and pretending that I was playing with the big guys.

Music for me it was always a kind of fun past time and that continued through high school and college. It was there that I thought I would become a professional musician, because most of the musicians I knew were semi-pro, they would play on the weekends and then do various things during the week. They were engineers, teachers and various things. I didn’t really dawn on me that this was something I could do as a main career until probably after college when I really settled on piano. I was a computer-science major in college. I thought I would be a computer programmer or software designer or something like that and it just turned out that I really loved music and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else on a daily basis; especially once I realized how much time you have to put into your instrument to get to that level you want to be at.

It was a lot different from my peers who went to music school and they knew that this was their life’s passion, you know? I was passionate about music, but that was one of many things that I was passionate about.

And then of course you started on piano and moved to keyboards and synthesizer. When you go from piano to synthesizer and you move into the early technology of it, because let’s think about the fact that the synthesizer has been around a long time. When you look at the Fender Rhodes, piano and synthesizer textures and the way you can use them in your music to create the sound you want, which one do you feel really expresses who you are as a musician?

That’s a tough question. I think the answer is primarily that I’m a composer and arranger and I think because of that I’m hearing so many different instruments for each composition I’m thinking orchestrally almost. In that sense the fact that I’m playing keys or piano is almost arbitrary, because for me to really express what I want to express I really have to get a bunch of guys in the room; you know…men and women who are playing various instruments depending what the project is, it could be strings, it could be horns, electronic instruments or whatever. In my career I started on piano and then I moved to clarinet and I moved to guitar and drums and then I was only playing bass. I was playing electric bass for four years…that was my professional life and then I moved back to piano and keyboards. I sort of played through a wide range of instruments and because of that, I don’t think I could limit myself to expressing myself on one instrument; it’s kind of like different colors on a palette. Some painters might go though a blue period or whatever it is, but to me on this record I was really interested in the Moog, which is this analog synth…one of the earliest analog synths and it still continues to be used today in various forms. But I was also interested in the acoustic piano, because I hadn’t actually that much acoustic piano. I love playing it and it’s the primary source of inspiration for me. So I think on this record you have a good balance between acoustic stuff and synthesized stuff.

Yes it does. Let’s talk about your new release, Retro Future. This is not your first CD.

No it’s not. This is actually my sixth album which is strange, because most people have never heard the first five! [laughs].

I am just always writing music and even before I knew what I was doing in the industry, so to speak, I was recording albums.

The first track started with a bang! Immediately, you hurl us right back into the funky jazz grooves of the ‘70’s. I really enjoyed it! It smacked me in the face from track one I thought here I am its 1975!

What is it about that period in music that draws you in? Most of the album is geared towards the early contemporary jazz and fusion blended together and kind of funky. From the period of ’69 when we start with Bitches Brew all the way to…maybe through the late 80’s early 90’s. So you went through Donald Byrd and all of that funky, cool groove, hippie stuff. What was it that made you go back to that time? It really attacks the senses as far as music goes, it brings everything up all at once.

I used to be a vinyl junkie, like I used to go to record stores and dig for records and always ’69 to ’74 was my time period. If I saw a record by somebody I never heard of I would just look at the cover, I looked at the text and the graphic design and if it said copyright ’69 to ’74 I knew it was going to be something cool. I don’t think I often thought what it was about that time period, because I wasn’t alive so I don’t really know. But it seems like it happens once and a while where there’s this certain synergy when a lot of different cultures come together. I think what was happening with the hippies trying to rebel against the more conservative generation that came before them. You know there’s also I think a “Back to Africa” movement where African Americans were trying to discover more of their African roots; especially pertaining to music. I think all of that kind of’ combined…it seems like a lot of it took place out on the west coast, especially around the bay area; you had Sly and The Family Stone, Herbie moved out there and mixing it up various funk elements.

Absolutely! Also, George Duke.

Yeah, sure! I don’t know what it was, but I think it was an open mindedness…I think it was the willingness of musicians to actually study together and that music was a very social activity at that time. It wasn’t just one guy writing out charts and everyone else played in a sort of hierarchy. It was almost like a communal…almost like a meditation. I know they did various types of religious meditation, but it just seemed like there was this atmosphere of expanding and being open-minded to things. I grew up in the 80’s and I wasn’t really around for that, but I feel that my parents in some sense were hippies and they taught me to be open-minded and be very accepting to different types of ideas and not to be afraid to mix and match ideas. So I think I got that through them.

Now we’ve got all this other music, we’ve got hip-hop, electronic dance music and all of these things that we’ve grown up with and all I’m trying to do is get the music that I hear in my head out and the music that I hear in my head is a combination of all that. What I like to do with the musicians that I work with is… instead of just dictating the parts, I really try to build the music around them and have everyone sort of build the group together as a communal work of art. Maybe it’s more subtle, but I think that’s a key thing that makes music sound like the 70’s in a way.

Now the 70’s was an excellent period for music. It really is and it is my favorite period for jazz. That’s when things were really rolling and progressing. We can talk about the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s, when jazz was at its best. When I heard the first track on your CD, “Tanqueray and Tonic” which is amazing, because how many of us drank Tanqueray and tonic during that period? If you want to go back to something really cool for a drink back in the 70’s and 80’s, Tanqueray and tonic is what everybody was drinking back then.

[laughs] That’s interesting, isn’t it? I did it because that’s my drink and that’s what that song makes me think. Even if someone doesn’t drink or doesn’t have that particular drink to me it represents a cool summer’s day and just kind of hanging out in the back yard or in the park in the afternoon.

How were you able to find such great musicians to join you on this project, because the truth is there are not that many musicians on hand if you will…not to say there are not that many out there, but I’m saying in your grasp all the time you know? If you’re looking to put a band together who can actually pull this type of sound off…how did you pull these guys together? You guys are blending the music all the way through.

I think the biggest challenge of the band leader goes way beyond music and it’s finding personalities that work well together and finding people that are committed to expanding their idea of musicality. I’ve been extremely fortunate with all of the groups I’ve put together. For each record I put together a different group, because I like to challenge myself and just have a little bit of variety. The key thing that I find is that the better the musician is, the more humble they are and the less interested in proving themselves. Especially since jazz is one of the few genres now where people record the old-fashioned way, which is to literally have a bunch of musicians in a room and record it. As opposed to recording one layer at a time and layering on top of each other, which is the way most other types of music, is recorded now. So, the more musicians you have in the room, the more people you have in a conversation, the less opportunity you have to speak and it’s more important that you are able to listen. That’s one of the key things I look for in a musician is how long do they listen, it’s not so important how well they play, but do they know when not to play, do they know how to accompany

With the Retro Future group I was really lucky, these guys are all rock stars, they are all touring internationally with various pop stars and they play arenas usually. I’m very humble and honored that they wanted to be a part of this music, because I think it gives them something they’re not getting in other pop music.

The tracks on this album are quite explorative such as Jimi Hendrix’s “Electric Ladyland,” Stevie Nicks’ “Landslide” and the 1960’s hit, “Aquarius.” Tell l me how those selections came about for the album. I don’t recall a jazz artist doing these songs in a long time…if ever!

I was really trying to think about how life has changed and what’s gone on with our society. When I was a kid there was an internet, but I never heard of it and most people had not. There was no such thing as the web and now I just pull out my phone and I have instant access to buy any music I want to buy. I was thinking of how technology has really changed our culture and I was thinking of songs that were lyrically or schematically fit with those themes. A lot of time it would have a theme that was pretty subtle or abstract. So I tried to find songs that had words that somehow spoke those themes and both “Electric Ladyland” talks about a futuristic society where it’s kind of’ utopian. At that time people were having these really positive, optimistic thoughts about a world of love and harmony and sort of the same theme as in “Aquarius”; understanding different cultures. Obviously, there’s a lot of that promise, we’re still working on it. [laughs].

[laughs] Oh, yes! We still are!

I feel so positive that the next generation, people younger than me are even more accepting of differences and more exposed to different cultures than I was when I was growing up. The lyrical element of technology, change and the future; also I just really love those songs. “Electric Ladyland,” when I discovered Jimi Hendrix, I would listen to that album over and over and it would put me in that meditative, peaceful mood thinking of it again. “Aquarius,” I heard it growing up, but I don’t think I ever listened to The Fifth Dimension that much, but recently I had to learn it again, because somebody wanted it at a wedding I was performing at and I was thinking of this song…this is really cool. It had all of these interesting musical elements to it that I sort of covered up by the hippie treatment of it, so I pulled these musical elements out of it and turn it into something much more current. I like a challenge, its fun and a way to do something creative with an existing piece of art.

What do you want people to know about you as an artist?

That’s a tough one. I think it’s not for me to say. I just hope that people check out the music with an open mind and hope to feel something from it, because everything I do has feeling in it.

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