Laptop DJing and mixing MP3s with the help of a sync button have become the norm in live electronic music. And it's tragic, given the next-level sonic possibilities offered by instrumentalist virtuosos like Detroit's Jeremy Ellis.
His live performances are the one-man electronic equivalent to seeing a bebop jazz ensemble. And it's no surprise, given the fact that Ellis started out as a jazz player before embarking on his "electronic freestyle" adventures, fusing jazz, funk, hip-hop, techno, and more via the MPC and other assorted gadgetry.
You'll have to see it to believe it when Mr. Ellis throws down with long-time collaborator John Arnold and Reset at The Garret at Grand Central on Saturday. To quote the man himself: "You may think you've seen people play live electronic music, but you need to come see people play live electronic music."
Crossfade: Detroit is a major musical hotbed -- the birthplace of Motown, punk rock, and techno. How did growing up there shape you musically?
Jeremy Ellis: How didn't it shape me might be a better question! The music community there oozes with the hope and sounds of real desire, or more desperation, that can only come from places that have risen and fallen that far. The music being created when Rome fell must have been pretty kick-ass too.
How did you make the transition from jazz player to electronic producer? What are the advantages of working as an electronic soloist versus a band?
The progression was pretty natural, as I started on piano, later evolved to classic synths and electronic pianos, and eventually to 8-track recorders and drum machines. Of course, it's much easier just to bring my laptop and some drum machines these days! The greatest advantage of being a solo artist is the flexibility to change ideas quickly without having to convince anyone else to come along with me. It's still really fantastic to feel the energy of playing with phenomonal musicians and the kind of kismet that can occur when talented minds join forces.
What's your creative process in the studio and how does it compare to your "electronic freestyle" live M.O.? How much do improvisation and jamming play a role?
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The process is generally the same. I go about finding the drums and other instruments I want to use first, and find the best way to assign them to pads so I can perform and produce in an improvisational way. I tend to view it the same way a jazz musician would view a piece with a set idea that you always want to use in a performance, with sections you know you want to improvise. Ideally, through improvisation you find new things that you and the audience want to hear, that will then become part of the song forever.
You're an undisputed master of the MPC. When did you first start working with that piece of gear?
Thanks! I got started by borrowing my roommate John Arnold's MPC in 1999. I spoke earlier about my evolution a bit. But I should add that I grew up playing piano and drums. The piano and drum line explain my dexterity. This made the transition from keyboards to drum machines to live drum machine performance a fairly obvious one.
You dabble in jazz, hip-hop, breakbeat, techno and more. Clearly, you have eclectic musical tastes and influences. Which artists or records have most informed your own work?
This is a tough question. In high school, I realized that the punk and alternative bands I liked had their roots in funk. So I got really interested in James Brown and Funkadelic. Of course, you can't be from Detroit without loving Stevie Wonder and all things Motown. More than any album, experience has influenced me. Dancing for three hours in a warehouse with one light bulb to Theo Parrish can be better than any single album.
What prompted you to work on your second album The Lotus Blooms in Puerto Rico? Are you generally drawn to Latin music?
The reason I fell in love with Puerto Rico, in addition to the beautiful weather, is the dance floors there understood me and my sometimes angular beats in a way that no one else had until that point. I was already drawn to Latin music and infusing traditional Latin rhythms. And Detroit is cold as fuck. So why not go record an album in Puerto Rico over the winter? To be totally honest, that album was lost on the way home when my laptop was stolen and I had to recreate much of it when I got back to Detroit. So it ended up being a more natural reflection of a Detroiter in Puerto Rico, rather than someone trying to be a Puerto Rican and make Puerto Rican music.
What can you tell us about your Ayro side project, and how does it differ from your eponymous work?
Ayro, for me, is my vocal, storytelling side where I get to concentrate more on love songs or verse-chorus-verse songwriting, rather than having to keep the dancer in mind or creating to show off my keyboard and drum machine skills. The Ayro project started when my now-wife started sending me love letters and I responded through the lyrics of my songs.
Did singing come naturally? Or did you have to develop that skill?
My father was not only the school band director and church organist, he was also the choir director. So you can imagine that singing and other instruments came quite naturally. I've been concentrating more on my drum machine skills these last couple years. But you can still catch me singing a few songs when you come see me play.
You've collaborated with numerous artists over the years, from jazz virtuoso John Arnold to techno legend Carl Craig. Which of these collaboration projects have been the most meaningful?
I'm going to dodge that question because, of course, all of them were important and influential in their own way. I would definitely say, though, that evolving as an artist with John Arnold is an honor and a privilege. It's crazy to think that we were just playing in a jazz/funk group together and now we can travel the world to rock the parties.
What do you have in store for 2012? Any forthcoming projects or releases?
I can't even describe how awesome it's getting. I'm literally getting mind-blowing and life-changing offers every day right now. So 2012 is gonna be my year. But don't wait to see what's next. Come see me now ... Saturday!
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So what can Miami expect on Saturday?
Pure auditory and visual destruction. You may think you've seen people play live electronic music. But you need to come see people play live electronic music. John and I are going to each have our time to shine and have plenty of jaw-dropping musical moments. But when we tag-team, it's always some original, inspired shit that will never happen again. Just don't miss it!
Jeremy Ellis with John Arnold. Saturday, January 28. The Garret at Grand Central, 697 N. Miami Ave., Miami. The party starts at 11 p.m. Call 305-377-2277 and visit grandcentralmiami.com.