Dan Carrier talks Gorillaz and ‘Closet Jazz’ with musician Jesse Hackett
30 June, 2017 — By Dan Carrier
Jesse Hackett with his new album
FROM working with global-selling stars to jamming with West African folk musicians, keyboard player Jesse Hackett’s talent does not recognise borders or boundaries.
The former Acland Burghley pupil, who lives in Dartmouth Park, has just returned from a European tour appearing in front of thousands of people with Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz band – and at the same time has released a new album of his own, made in collaboration with one of Uganda’s most celebrated artists.
It means he has to be able to switch from the Gorillaz’s brand of dub’d up, hip-hoppy funk to working on music that has a very different tonal and rhythmic approach.
But for Jesse, mixing up genres is part of the exploration his music has taken him on. His influences are wide – from music lessons at the Tufnell Park school famous for producing artists, to listening to his guitarist dad play rock and roll.
“I have always been a jazz enthusiast,” he says.
“I have always been inspired to be a jazz pianist, play with improvisation – I play what I call Closet Jazz – it is my own special genre. But my taste is eclectic. I love everything from punk and post punk, industrial, electronica, experimental stuff, pop, 80s music, contemporary African sounds – it really is a mix.”
This is his second tour with Gorillaz, being a key member of the group back in 2010 and also involved in Albarn’s Africa Express project since 2006, which recorded a host of leading African musicians.
“I went to Mali with Damon and from there I went on to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Lagos. I got to know more about West African music and had some incredible adventures,” he recalls.
“From this, I was invited to join the Gorillaz and our musical friendship grew during our trips to Africa.”
As well as collaborating with Albarn, Jesse works with another former Burghley pupil Hetty Hughes, his brother Louis, and William Ellis alumnus Chris Morphitis. They travelled to Kenya and from there they formed the Owiny Sigoma band. It included two celebrated Kenyan musicians, Joseph Nyumungu and Charles Okowo, who are virtuosos in traditional Kenyan music.
Jesse with Albert Bisaso Ssempeke
“They played beautiful instruments, including an eight-stringed harp and traditional drums,” he recalls.
A recording they made was picked up by Gilles Peterson, who signed the project to his label and was also taken up by Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, who asked the band to join him on tour. The collaboration bore fruit in the form of three critically acclaimed albums in five years.
And playing with accomplished African musicians has given Jesse a fresh take on the music he makes.
“The tunings of the instruments used where not tuned to a Western scales, and I wanted to adjust to their way of thinking, not the other way round,” he recalls.
“I wanted to get a sense of the scales used, the call and response vocals and rhythms – and I wanted to find something original to add to this. Musically, it is a big challenge – I wasn’t used to this – but our creative relationship built up. We wanted suggest things, try out things, I was trying to find a way to complement what they do.”
His latest collaboration is with renowned Ugandan musician Albert Bisaso Ssempeke. Albert is a multi-instrumentalist, specialising in a type of harp called a banju, and is from a family who played at the Ugandan royal court. Jesse travelled to where Albert grew up to hear music being created.
“Albert took me to parties where there were guys who can play for 10 hours, non-stop – it is like trance music, like an endurance test,” he says.
“They have two groups playing all night and at the same time – it is a competition to see who can play the longest. They drink the local moonshine and really go through pain thresholds at fierce tempos. It was amazing – to them, 12 minutes is like a really short song.”
From this sprung his latest album, Ennanga Vision, which is a beautiful, haunting, and thoroughly original offering.
“The biggest challenge was to do it so it crossed cultures,” says Jesse.
He also was asked to compose songs with English words to Ugandan tunes.
“That was a real challenge – but it worked,” he adds.
Recording work with Albert is a wholly different undertaking to going on a huge tour with Gorillaz.
Having just returned from the band’s European dates, he is set to go to America and Japan next.
“It is like one enormous travelling freak show,” he jokes.
“You meet plenty of interesting characters and it is terrific to play in front of thousands of people, to hear the sound coming from your fingers, and then out through a massive system.”
The band consists of two keyboards, two drummers, Albarn on lead vocals, six backing vocalists and a bassist.
He says the new Gorillaz work is very different from the music Albarn produced under the name a decade ago.
“It has a great cast of guests – it includes Grace Jones and Noel Gallagher, Los Angeles hip hop producer Vince Staples, Chicago House legends Jamie Principle and Carl Craig, and De La Soul,” he adds.
And alongside these illustrious names is the Dartmouth Park piano player whose career started at Burghley and whose virtuoso talent is taking him all over the world.