Music for Music: Jacob Collier
Music for Music: Jacob Being Jacob
By Dan Ursini ©2018
Last year, two songs from Jacob Collier’s debut album, In My Room, won Grammys. One was with an audacious cover of “The Flintstones” theme.
The other Grammy was for a breathtaking rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “You and I” that is built around a swelling cloud bank of harmonies.
Taken together, they announced the arrival of a 23-year-old English musical thinker with a rare breadth of perspective. On the one hand, Collier is an autodidact who steeped himself in classical music, especially the vocal works of Benjamin Britten. He taught himself several percussion, keyboard, and string instruments. But Collier is also at the cutting edge of music tech development. He helped design a keyboard that samples his voice in real time and produces vocal harmonies. Plus, he helped design a device that matches instrumental loops with live 3D video loops which he uses at solo gigs.
Collier has a number of YouTube live music videos. He performs alone, frenetically leaping from one instrument to another. He looks like a mad scientist, and that is close to the truth. He improvises new arrangements for songs as he goes. That requires considerable talent and courage.
Behind these varied accomplishments is a very particular sense of purpose. He told The Sydney Morning Herald that he is from a musician family. “There was this spirit of music in the house,” he says, “and I always enjoyed just looking and listening, and trying to figure out how I could sort of be Jacob in it all.” The solution he chose is nothing if not direct. On his album, he plays all the instruments and sings all the vocals, and his videos all have moments where the screen is honeycombed with tiny headshots of Collier doing all the parts. His take on “Fascinating Rhythm,” is a good case in point.
The most extraordinary element is a sustained note of humility. There’s no rock star posing. In each, he resembles an earnest sideman. It’s as if he is an actor playing several supporting roles. Why? We all add our own piece to the eternal puzzle of human character.
His arranging style is a huge departure from the usual pop-music-burger-fries-shake menu. It is more like a degustation: a theme, with variations divided into many small sections. Each one is spare, clutter-free. But taken together, they comprise a rollercoastery labyrinth with a powerful cumulative impact.
At the same time, some of his best work on YouTube has just his voice and a single keyboard. His take on Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough “ is superb.
He also collaborates with other performers. The most affecting are duets with singer Becca Stevens. They spent about a year on the video of a song, “Bathtub,” which they wrote together. Both music and video offer a rarefied whimsicality. It further establishes Collier as one of the foremost musical pioneers of this era, operating at the effervescent end of the pop spectrum.
Dan Ursini and his wife Valerie live in Oak Park, Illinois. Over the years he has done many kinds of writing. Ursini served as the first resident playwright for the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago (1978-1983); he worked for ten years as a Contributing Editor for Puerto Del Sol magazine ; he wrote performance art pieces presented at Chicago venues as Club Lower Links and Club Dreamerz. Ursini wrote radio theatre presented on NPR in the early 1990s. Throughout all this, he has worked full-time at the Law Library at DePaul University where for a decade he also wrote articles for Dialogue, the DePaul law school’s alumni publication . In addition, he was active for some years as a bass guitarist in various Chicago blues/gospel/funk/lounge configurations. Currently Ursini is working on his latest novel. A play he wrote with Robert Rothman, A Mensch Among Men, a fictionalized account of real-life Jewish Chicago-area gangsters, recently had two stagedreadings in Chicago. Dan can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org