Brian Jackson is a humble cat. Despite being responsible for the blueprints that modern hip-hop and soul music have followed for the past three decades, he downplays his own credit for any of it. "I pretty much say, 'I play a little bit.' Usually people who say that, give 'em a little room. You know what I mean?" states Jackson. "Me, I'm just a student of music, and in order to study it, I sometimes actually have to sit down and try to figure out what's been done. Once I do that, it becomes a part of me instantly. I don't even have to think about it anymore. And through that kind of osmosis I become more of who I am."
From the early '70s up through the beginning of the '80s, Jackson was the primary creative foil for the legendary Gil Scott-Heron, playing on and composing such landmark works as "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and "Johannesburg." Since then, he's collaborated with and produced artists such as Kool and the Gang, George Benson, Roy Ayers, and UK hit maker Will Downing. Everything he does emerges from what he calls "The Tradition", which finds its roots in Africa.
Brian Jackson by Gary Price
"It goes back to the heartbeat, to the rhythm that was taught and passed down through generations by the original keepers of knowledge and culture. They were called the griots," explains Jackson. "A griot was a person who was appointed within the village to maintain the history of the people and to make sure everyone knew what was going on - basically the embodiment of society in musical form or artistic form, and dance often accompanied it as well. When I look back on it, that was the most efficient way of encapsulating the feelings and the emotions and the mood of a particular community, no matter how large or small."
He continues, "We move to America, and a lot of our language is taken away from us. The ability to exchange information is jumbled because we're from all different places now. We're from all over, and we don't speak the same language, and the only common element is rhythm and music. From that we build. For instance, in the field when slaves would talk about revolting, the common denominator in terms of planning and communication was music. These messages have always been carried forth through music. So, the Tradition I'm talking about is the tradition of informing and preserving the culture and the ideas and the concepts and the feelings of community. We're talking much broader now. We're talking the community of Man. We're talking about the entire world. If you ever want to bring people together, our best hope is music. That's the Tradition we're speaking about."
Jackson's own music with Scott-Heron on incredible albums like Pieces Of A Man and The First Minute Of A New Day still makes us go "Aaahh" with increased understanding. It is redolent with truth and understanding, often absent from modern music. Jackson plays percussion and the flute but is primarily known as a keyboard player, especially for his stunning, oft-sampled Fender Rhodes electric piano work.
"People come to me and say, 'That Rhodes sound! That was your thing!' The first record I heard with that Rhodes on it was Miles In The Sky, with Herbie [Hancock], and I thought that was one of the coolest instruments I'd ever heard, and I had to have one. Playing it was still me, but it was an electronic instrument and the electronic instrument colored what I did, and I colored its sound as well. It had as much influence on me as I had on it, so I can't really take credit."
"I'm a student of progression," he states. "When I listen to what folks are doing now, I hear what I was trying to do. I hear my influences. I was somebody who was just trying to copy and emulate and study and learn from my heroes. I hear it more as a continuum. I don't hear any music as a point in time. That's probably the most entertaining thing I used to do as a younger musician, and I still do it, is to listen to a musician and try to trace who he listened to. If I listen to Herbie, sometimes I can hear Oscar Peterson or Wynton Kelly."
One of his current projects is a planned late summer tour with reggae greats U-Roy and Scientist. Brian comments, "I know a lot of people would be really surprised that I'm doing something like this, but the truth is I'm a student of all music. If it has a rhythm to it, if it has a beat to it, then I'm studying. I've studied reggae since the '70s. The roots of reggae are in Africa and in America, and those are the two musics I've been attempting to combine in my own way. It's a different take on it, so naturally I was very curious about it."
"What I'll be doing with U-Roy is adding total spaced-out effects, which may not even be recognizable as the Fender Rhodes, but it will be," adds Jackson. "Sometimes that's what happens - you go for the texture. One of the things I've learned from working with electronic instruments is you have a much wider palette. Instead of just having red, blue, green, and yellow, now you have all these in-between colors. You have so many more things you can paint with and textures you can work with."