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Overdue Ovation: Percy Jones Is Still Reaching for New Challenges

The electric-bass visionary who founded Brand X gets his due

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Percy Jones (photo: Avraham Bank)
(photo: Avraham Bank)

In the mid-1970s, a young musician playing fretless electric bass started a groundbreaking career in jazz fusion as a session musician, solo recording artist, and member of one of the subgenre’s most highly regarded groups. And it wasn’t Jaco Pastorius.

Percy Jones first recorded with guitarist John Goodsall, keyboardist Robin Lumley, and drummer Phil Collins (of progressive rockers Genesis) in 1975 as Brand X, a band name that Jones would be associated with through 2020. The results appeared on the group’s 1976 debut release, Unorthodox Behaviour. Collins had recently become Genesis’ lead vocalist as well as its drummer following the departure of original singer Peter Gabriel, but he sought an outlet for his more complex instrumental talents. And in the Wales-born Jones—with his unique three-finger-and-thumb right-hand technique, impeccable intonation, and pioneering use of harmonics and effects—he found a one-of-a-kind partner.

“Myself, Goodsall and Lumley were initially signed to Island Records,” the 74-year-old Jones says by phone from his home in New York City. “We did a record for them with a vocalist and different drummer that I’d compare a bit to the Average White Band. But we canned it, because we were listening to what Miles Davis and Weather Report were doing and wanted to take a shot at an instrumental album. We knew we’d need a different drummer than John Dillon, who was such a groove-oriented player. Island’s A&R guy, Danny Wilding, suggested Phil. Then Island gave us the boot, but we were fortunate to have Unorthodox Behaviour released on [U.K. imprint] Charisma, probably because that was Genesis’ label at the time.”

For its 1977 album Moroccan Roll, Brand X added percussionist Morris Pert, and its subsequent live album Livestock alternately featured Collins and a young drummer named Kenwood Dennard, who would go on to work with Pastorius and become head of the percussion department at Berklee College of Music. By the 1978 disc Masques, Collins was so busy with Genesis that he was replaced by Chuck Burgi (now with pop star Billy Joel). Each album included an eclectic mix of jazz, rock, funk, classical, and Middle Eastern styles.

But by 1979, Brand X was literally splitting in two. The group had thus far appealed largely to musicians, establishing a sizable following with its instrumental format. Yet the band’s label and management wanted to spur record sales via vocals. On the album Product, Goodsall was the only constant in two separate lineups across its nine tracks: one with Collins (on vocals, drums, and percussion), Lumley, and fretless bassist John Giblin; the other all-instrumental and featuring Jones, Pert, keyboardist Peter Robinson, and drummer Mike Clark, formerly of Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters. The one exception was “Wal to Wal,” a fascinating fretless-bass duet between Jones and Giblin, yet Collins-sung tracks like “Don’t Make Waves” and “Soho” sounded as much like Genesis as Brand X. 

“We were under pressure to pander and achieve a bigger audience,” Jones says, “and I rebelled against the idea. So there was a split in our direction, and the only solution was to have two lineups. Our management even figured out how to get two records for the price of one by having us record in shifts. The other lineup recorded during the day, then we’d go in from around 8 p.m. until 4 a.m.” Such a state of affairs couldn’t continue indefinitely, though, and when the 1982 effort Is There Anything About? was released, Brand X had already started what would be a decade-plus hiatus.

Jones went on to make a handful of solo releases under both his own name and the group moniker Tunnels, and to gather session recording credits with vocalists like Suzanne Vega, Kate Bush, and David Sylvian. In any and all contexts, his self-taught approach to fretless bass—distinguished by fluid double stops; the use of customized flangers, filters, and distortion boxes; and his signature sliding artificial harmonics (first plucked by the right hand, then moved carefully by the left up or down the fretless neck to alter their pitch)—is every bit as original as that of Pastorius. Influenced by Alphonso Johnson, Charles Mingus, Miroslav Vitous, and Scott LaFaro, Jones even played some acoustic upright on Brian Eno recordings and the first Brand X album before concentrating exclusively on fretless four- and five-stringed electric instruments by Fender, Wal, and Ibanez. In so doing, he influenced bassists from Giblin (who’s additionally worked with both Collins and Gabriel on solo projects) to fretted icon Anthony Jackson (Buddy Rich, Al Di Meola, Hiromi). His goal has always been to sound like no one else, and in that he’s been consistently successful. 

Eventually Jones and Goodsall reformed Brand X for the albums Xcommunication (1992) and their final studio release, Manifest Destiny (1997), both largely in a trio format with Tunnels drummer Frank Katz. They then went primarily, and separately, back into studio work until reuniting again in 2016, after which they released only the occasional live recording with drummers Dennard or Kenny Grohowski, keyboardist Chris Clark, and percussionist Scott Weinberger. Four years later, Jones had had enough. “I started getting cold feet by 2019,” he explains. “I wanted to play new stuff, and it seemed we got stuck playing mostly material from the first three records. I had a couple new tunes, and remember someone from management saying of one of them, ‘It doesn’t have a melody I can hang my hat on.’ It wasn’t ‘Jingle Bells,’ mind you, but it did have a melody. So I felt like we were becoming almost a cover band of ourselves.”

Jones has since gone in a very different direction, as evidenced by last year’s PAKT, a completely improvised instrumental double-CD on which he’s joined by guitarists Alex Skolnick and Tim Motzer and drummer Grohowski. As if the no-prepared-material setting alone didn’t require enough bravery, the quartet recorded in August of 2020—right in the teeth of the COVID-19 lockdown—at ShapeShifter Lab in Brooklyn, masked and socially distanced with no audience and only minimal recording personnel.

“I’d worked with Kenny in Brand X, but hadn’t even met Alex or Tim before then, let alone played with them,” Jones says. “But as we soundchecked for about a half-hour, things started to take shape and I got confident about it. We then improvised for a couple hours, and it’s all there on the recording.” 

The bassist’s other 21st-century projects have included MJ12, an improvisational collaboration with drummer Stephen Moses that released a self-titled 2016 CD, and Box of Noise, a recent live trio with Grohowski and Alex Machacek, the Austrian guitarist who subbed for Goodsall last year after he’d contracted pneumonia and missed a handful of Brand X shows. (By then, Ric Fierabracci had replaced Jones in Brand X.)

“John had some underlying health problems,” Jones says, “but he died [on November 11, 2021, at the age of 68] while also having complications from COVID-19. I tracked him down at a Mayo Clinic near where he lived in Minnesota, but couldn’t get any further information. So I called his ex-wife in Los Angeles, the mother of his daughter, and she had no idea of his condition. She was able to get more information from them, and contact John’s sister in Canada and his first wife in England. John died shortly thereafter and was cremated, and we were able to have a ceremony in California and spread his ashes from a boat on the Pacific Ocean.”

Goodsall’s and Jones’ names will forever be entwined, of course, along with that of Brand X. “I still feel it was my band, along with Goodsall’s,” Jones says. “I think we created a good legacy.”

For the last word regarding Jones’ own legacy, we turn to Chris Clark, who played with Jones in Brand X from 2016 to 2020. “I don’t think Percy completely gets his due,” the keyboardist says. “He’s first on a very short list of worthy fretless bass players who haven’t been disciples of Jaco. I think any bassist who plays a sliding harmonic phrase should pay a royalty to Percy. He may not have invented that, but he perfected it.”

Recommended Listening

Brand X: Unorthodox Behaviour (Passport, 1976)

Brand X: Livestock (Passport, 1977)

Brand X: Masques (Charisma, 1978)

Brand X: Manifest Destiny (Purple Pyramid, 1997)

Tunnels: Tunnels With Percy Jones (Buckyball, 1999)

Percy Jones/Alex Skolnick/Kenny Grohowski/Tim Motzer: PAKT (MoonJune, 2021)